Van Halen, 1984, 1984
My buddy Ben was in town last weekend. If you don't know Ben, he's the Ben who regularly fillets these blog entries like a Fugu chef in the comment sections. Over the course of our usual banter, the conversation finally took some focus, and we ended up centering around my general mistreatment of, to my surprise, Van Halen.
I don't know about you, but my relationship with Van Halen is similar to the relationship I have with soft drinks, or sitcoms. I don't need them all the time, but when I do, I like them ice cold, 23 minutes long, and instantly forgettable. Happily, the original lineup of Van Halen was happy to oblige. Their first six albums (Van Halen, Van Halen II, Women And Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, 1984) all offer basically the same formula in 28 to 34 minute bursts. While they were ridiculous, they were wonderfully ridiculous. Never has a band had such a serious pack of followers while being so eminently silly (except, of course, for Phish, but that's another story). After that initial burst of energy, the band lost David Lee Roth, (their sense of humor) picked up Sammy Hagar (their irony-free belter), decided they had something to say, and became a fairly insufferable arena rock act. I actually have friends who prefer Van Hagar, but they tend to be in their twenties, Pepsi drinkers, and closet Creed fans.
So-- I like Van Halen, but I do not love Van Halen. Ben's concern was that I love Van Halen albums in entirely the wrong order; he was particularly cheesed that I had 1984 ranked first among them all. "That is a TERRIBLE album! What's even ON that album! "Jump"? TERRIBLE song. TERRIBLE. The first album is their best. By FAR. It sold 10 million copies! It's their great achievement!! 1984? How do you live with yourself?!! Why am I standing on the kitchen table??!!," he said. Or something like that.
I'll admit. I was surprised too. I assumed that Diver Down would be #1, and then Fair Warning. In fact, those are the Van Halen records I listen to the most. Neither one breaks the thirty minute mark. (Van Halen knew how to stretch their material. Fair Warning is really a 20 minute record padded by a few two minute instrumentals. That same year, The Clash put out a mini-LP called Black Market Clash that was a 10" record that sold for three bucks. It was ten minutes longer than Fair Warning.)
Gotta love Ben, because his defense of the first album helped me crystallize why I've never been able to love it. I understand why it's fundamentally better than the albums I actually like, but something has always held me back, and writing this blog, I realize that the first album takes itself too seriously-- the only record in the catalog to do that until 5150. (It's true that Fair Warning is a dark, weird record, but it doesn't have the gravitas, the "we're an important band" of the first one.) There's none of the humor and tongue-in-cheek quality that makes them forgivable on that first one. Instead, they're a stoopid hard rock band. Confession: I find "Eruption" a little silly, not breathtaking. It's like watching guys spin plates on sticks on the Ed Sullivan show-- I'm impressed that they can do it, but then what do I do with it?
Here's the perfect way to explain the difference I'm talking about. Listen to the band's cover of "You Really Got Me" by The Kinks on the debut. (Three minute pause). Now, listen to their cover of The Kinks' "Where Have All The Good Times Gone?" on Diver Down. (Another three minute pause). Can you hear the difference? The shift in tone, attitude and performance from 1978 to 1982 is summed up in those two Kinks covers. Which one did you like better? If it's the first one, you and Ben can go get a coffee and the latest copy of Granta. If it's the second one, you and I can go get a soda and a cheesesteak.
Existential artistes Van Halen, ladies and gentlemen...
Another problem with a record as iconic as 1984 is that you have heard the songs a LOT. If you were a teenager in the 80s, you heard "Jump" and "Panama" and "Hot For Teacher" at least 100 times each. As a result, it's hard to hear them as anything other than exercises in nostalgia. "Jump" in particular is hampered by the 80s synth sound (also-- you HAVE to rewatch the video. While Eddie's playing the keyboard solo, he has a look on his face that says, "Hey! Look at me! I'm playing a keyboard! Wow!" It looks like he's surprised every time he looks down at his hands and it's not a guitar. It makes me laugh every time).
However, if this 20K songs exercise taught me anything, it's that really listening to the records you've collected over the years can put you back in touch with some amazing stuff, and that's the case here with "Girl Gone Bad," a forgotten track off 1984 that helps to explain why, if you listen to it, 1984 is in fact Van Halen's crowning moment, the synergy of their combination of pop metal, Eddie's virtuoso reinvention of the guitar, brother Alex's super-specific drumming, and Roth's campy vaudeville huckster routine. And Michael Anthony? He must have been a really nice fella. Plus his high harmonies are awesome.
"Girl Gone Bad" is in some ways the template for about 100 pop metal songs to follow in the next ten years. Because it's a Van Halen song, its lyrics don't exactly flesh out the plot, but how many metal videos in the late 80s were about midwestern girls moving to LA to "make it," only to discover that there was a seedy underbelly to the city of dreams? We were forced to face the tension and dramatic irony as we watched those deacon's daughters come to grips with that moment when a sleaze with glasses and a desk asked them to sell their soul and bodies for a walk-on part in a "B" movie.
Ah, lazy eyes in the summer heat
Fresh from out of town
Now she's working on the street
Shake them poor boys down
That image of a fresh-faced (though with metal hair) gal getting off the bus and gawking at the sunset strip was in a ton of those videos. It makes me wonder how many of the pretty boy lead singers of those bands have a similar story to tell. Did the lead singers of Cinderella and White Lion* have earn their record contracts the hard way also? Maybe that's why they were so sympathetic to their fellow escapees from Kansas and Oklahoma trying to live their glamour dreams, and why they also imbued those stories with such cynicism.
Having said that, who cares at all what Roth is saying here? The band sure doesn't. I'll bet Eddie found out what the songs were about when he played back the record. "Jump? That is NOT what I thought we were yelling." This song is about the interplay between the brothers. The song starts with Eddie building up to the intro riff with some beautiful arpeggios. He then teases us with a second intro based around chords. Alex picks up on it, offering counterpoint on the ride cymbal, and then at 37 seconds, Eddie rips off one of my favorite throwaway solos of all time. All he's playing there is an Am scale. But he plays it at lightning speed, and Alex doubles them on the drums. There's a tiny pause, and we are off to the races. The groove established 45 seconds in is metal rock 101. I think it's such an exciting start to the song. That first minute is as good as anything in their catalog.
Roth then has his moment for the next minute. Never a great singer, he still has a ton of personality. In most of the VH hits, he's preening and flirty, but in this song, he's after something a litter more sinister, and it works me. He sounds like a sneering, judgmental voice here, offering a sour counterpoint to all the super-sweet hits on the record.
At the bridge, Eddie and Alex take over again, and never let up. Eddie's solo in the middle of the song is one of his most furious. The band knows this song's not a single, so there's no attempt here at melody or sweetening. They just put their heads down and play. Remarkably, they then pull it back again to revisit the beginning of the song, give us that incredible riff again, and close it out with every part of the song at full throttle-- Anthony's high "Girrrrrl!" backgrounds, Alex and Eddie firing away, and Roth trying to keep up.
And the ending? Hilarious. After four breakneck minutes, they just stop? They couldn't have played the ending one more time for the master take? Boy were these guys in a hurry to be elsewhere.
So there you go-- mid-80s Van Halen that you don't remember. Didn't that make your Memorial Day a little brighter?
I'm going to try to write ten blogs in the next twenty days to celebrate the end of a looooooong month and the beginning of summer. If I can pull it off, hope you'll join me.
* Ben loves White Lion. I just have to throw that in there. The same voice ripping me for not being hip enough and not being able to connect with "the kids" and pretending to like the Major Lazer record LOVES White Lion. White freaking Lion. Just saying.