The 1980s was a truly golden age for rock music. As a lot of the successful bands from 1970 transitioned to new era of music competing with heavier styles of rock, New Wave, Punk, Post-Punk and Pop music, many acts had to step up their game to stay alive. While some adapted to new sounds to stay a float and reach for ears and hits, others fell by the wayside. One band that managed to changed while keeping true to what made them great was Van Halen. As proved by their definitive work on 1984 (Warner Bros.), released thirty-five years ago on January 9th, 1984, the album would not only mark the final chapter (at the time) for the David Lee Roth led period of the group, but set a new bench mark for them at the same time.
Much was made at the time of the prevalence of keyboards on 1984, but the instrument was Eddie Van Halen’s first love before guitar. There are keyboard parts, albeit disguised as guitar sounds and special effects all over every Van Halen album. This was a possible nod to Eddie’s idol Jimmy Page. Like Pagey, Eddie was going for layers upon layers of sound to create a sonic palate so thick, you might not be able to tell what instrument played was lick or note at times. Still, Eddie asserting his dominance over the writing and recording of 1984 after the so so Diver Down in 1982, meant that band was not only slightly changing their signature sound, they were making an album rooted a bit in the modernity of the time, a first for the band.
After the solo etude synth piece title track, ‘Jump’ comes in with a blast. This track is most people’s “late-comer” introduction to Van Halen in a pop music sense. It remains the biggest hit of their career, most popular video, and the instantly identifiable by its blazing opening keyboard lick. It’s almost a touch of prog with that riff, but otherwise the song is just a killer typical, four on the floor VH monster. Everything about the track is hot: Roth’s delivery of the super hooky, sunny major key song, thumping bass, the phase on Alex Van Halen’s drums creating a perfect sounding track for radio. Eddie even brings it back to basics with a bananas guitar solo, as if to say “don’t forget that I can still shred”. It’s mind-blowing to think that Eddie was on the chats with a number two single in the world as the same time as he did the solo of the global smash ‘Beat It’ with Michael Jackson at number 1. Producer Ted Templeman worked on both 1984 and Thriller and would go on to produce some of DLR’s solo work.
Second track ‘Panama’ is another stunner, and more atypical cut from the VH repertoire . Dominating beats and “brown sound” riffs and licks just go nuts. It still holds up today, even though I have no idea wtf this song is about. A car? Extreme male horniness? No idea and it doesn’t matter at all. Sick song.
Although many die-hard fans will say they have nothing but flawless albums, this isn’t true. All of their albums are at least above average, but they really only have three 10 / 10 releases in their catalogue. The reason 1984 falls into this category is top to bottom, it has great songs, period. ‘Top Jimmy’, ‘Drop Dead Legs’, ‘Girl Gone Bad’ (check the almost Iron Maiden part at one point), and ‘House of Pain’ would have been ace songs for any other band. Laden with hooks, great guitar playing and vocals from not just Roth, but the classic sound of backing vocals from Michael Anthony and Eddie really fill out the tracks. If you were a 1980s kid, you still remember the insane outro solo of’ ‘Drop Dead Legs’ as side one of your cassette tape or vinyl stopped, and you were sad because it was over. Also notable is ‘I’ll Wait’,one of the other synth-led tracks on the album (with a writing credit from Michael McDonald of Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan). It is one of the most underrated tracks of their career. Go back and listen it. It should have been a huge hit song because it is flat-out amazing.
Of course the other bomb hit of the album is ‘Hot For Teacher’. Consider that nearly the first minute of this song is a mind-exploding drum and a guitar solo, unheard of still to this day. Never a band to be told what was possible or to be held back by anything, they wrote their own rules. After you pick your jaw up from the floor, the song settles into a typical boogie the band was known for. It just rips from beginning to end. It’s impossible to hear this song and not rock out!
As the band began to really embrace video and MTV was just coming into its own, the group took the humours approach many bands did at the time. The videos for ‘Jump’, ‘Panama’ and ‘Hot For Teacher’ (with Phil Hartman as the voice of Waldo, RIP) especially got burned into the brain of every hard rock fan. Huge at the time for rock music fans of MTV, if you consider the waves upon waves of emerging mega pop stars, skinny tie wearing pop stars, and a lot of novelty songs. Of course dance moves, sliding down fire poles and dancing with machete’s is a lot of schtick that got stuck on DLR personally, but really at the time it worked.
Along with their debut, 1984 is the largest selling album of their career to this day. It’s no wonder why. The band permeated pop culture with style without sacrificing what made them beloved in the first place. Arguably, this is the best hard rock of the entire 1980s, go ahead and and change my mind. Much like their debut, bands of all walks started copying the band the second this album dropped. You can skip your coffee today, and just bump this album!