Van Halen’s Debut Album Turns 40 Years Old

Born from the Hollywood glam scene in the 1970s, the best classic rock musicianship in history, and a nod to punk rock independence, Van Halen burst on the scene and changed the face of music overnight. It may have been a foregone conclusion to those that saw them at the time that they would “make it”. However, once the album became a runaway hit, it was the template for the band’s entire career, and the impetus for the next few generations of rock and metal bands as well.

It seemed like Van Halen were on a collision course for stardom. As a local L.A. Band, they were already drawing attention for their sold out shows and guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s growing prowess as a nascent shredder. He was redefining guitar for the masses show after show, even though he would play with his back to the crowd so no one could copy him. The story of how Gene Simmons of KISS recorded demos with the band has been re-told many times, but the band ended up getting signed by Warner Brothers on their own by Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman. The single of their cover of the Kinks; ‘You Really Got Me’ set radio on fire, which preceded the album release a few short weeks later in February of 1978. Heard just by itself as a great cover that was really from the last decade, you might have missed just what set the band apart.

From the ominous opening intro of guitars, pulsing bright bass notes and tight drums of ‘Running With The Devil’, there was something about this album that signaled a change in music. A gargantuan one. Announced on to vinyl with his now classic high-pitched scream, David Lee Roth was different than other lead signers, an explosive singer with an uncontainable charm. His vocals on this track and the entire album we much like his live performances in his career, emotional, in the moment, and real. All that swagger and sexiness,  backed up by great, simple riffs.

Van Halen traded mostly on some standard boogie based rock and roll, pretty standard for the time. The catch was by wrting such accessabile music already done by Aerosmith, Grand Funk, and ZZ Top, their instrumental talents could flourish thorugh out the songs, not just as soloists. This method also allowed Eddie Van Halen to live in the zone between rhthym nd lead guitar at all times, not just in defined sections or breaks. You can’t understand how threesome of Eddie, Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony arrived on the scene as upper echelon players in the world, making the simplie riff or beat exqusiite. There we also fine back-up singers to DLR, harmonizing greatness to flesh out the songs.

‘Eruption’, of course, is the track most guitarists talk about first. The “oh my god” moment. The 1:42 track of solo lead guitar and a little bit of drum flourishes changed music  forever. At the time Eddie set the dial forward on soloing and songwriting that we are still seeing and hearing today with guitarists from the late Dimebag Darrell of Pantera, Zakk Wylde, John 5, every 80s metal guitarist and more still paying tribute live nightly.

 

After ‘You Really Got Me’ , the album really steps up. ‘Aint Talking About Love’ with its arpeggio led main lick and call and response chorus would go on to be the bands’ show opener of choice for years. Deeper cut ‘I’m The One’ had the urgency of punk, with a rock tempo on steroids. In the original vinyl era, this had to be one of the most played album sides ever.

Jamie’s Cryin kicked off side-two and is another hit single to come the band had up their sleeve. The song has been copied and sampled for ages. Even later album deep cuts like Feel Your Love Tonight and Little Dreamer seem fresh and killer today. They are two of the more fully realized and well-written tracks here.

 

The John Brum cover of ‘Ice Cream Man’ is a fan favorite that was brought in by Roth and is still performed by the band to this day late in shows. ‘On Fire’ tied everything up in a tight bow, and even was a forerunner of things to come for Van Halen II in some ways.

Of course the band would burn brightly with roth for another 7 yeatrs, before he split and the band contiuned on with Sammy Hagar. But this was the orginal spark that list the fuse for so much that came after it. It’s time VH got their due as the best American classic rock band ever, and this album is part of it.

KEITH CHACHKES