Time Capsule: Van Halen, Van Halen

Every Saturday, Paste will be revisiting albums that came out before the magazine was founded in July 2002 and assessing its current cultural relevance. This week, we’re looking at Van Halen’s generational debut, which would define the decade of rock ‘n’ roll that arrived after its release in 1978 and turn the Pasadena four-piece into living legends long before they became commercial slam-dunks.

Music Reviews Van Halen
Time Capsule: Van Halen, Van Halen

Before 1978, producer Ted Templeman had worked with artists like the Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Little Feat and Carly Simon. He’d never really done anything heavy, largely existing in the then-buoyant soft-rock world, lapping up the effervescence of singer-songwriter’s golden age. But soon came a Pasadena four-piece led by two brothers, an energetic madman and a cover band bassist, who’d formed four years prior out of the ashes of a band called Mammoth. Eddie and Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony made a 29-track demo tape with Gene Simmons (who was introduced to the band by radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer) and, after years of making noise in the West Hollywood club scene, signed with Warner Bros. in 1977 and went to work on their eventual debut album. Cue the oversight of Templeman, who worked for Warner and was a major catalyst in Van Halen’s signing—having seen the band’s performance at the Starwood on Santa Monica Boulevard in February of that year.

While KISS’s manager, Bill Aucoin, had no interest in working with Van Halen, the joke’s on him—as Van Halen’s debut album came out better than every KISS record, even their most beloved projects, like Destroyer and Love Gun. While KISS had turned the shock rock world into a mainstream, fire-breathing, blood-spitting wonder of pyrotechnics, glam makeup and brash, melodic, thunderous hooks, Van Halen transformed hard rock with just 11 songs. Marshall Berle would become Van Halen’s manager, having discovered the band after seeing their sold-out hometown show in Pasadena and (with Kim Fowley) later putting them on a bill with Venus and the Razorblades at the Whiskey a Go Go. Simmons had left Van Halen in the dust for a KISS tour after the demo sessions at Village Recorders and Electric Lady Studios.

Recording for Van Halen began on August 29th and lasted until October 4th (though most of the song trackings were completed by September 8th, save for some overdubs that happened later that autumn), taking place at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood. Anthony claimed that, despite those demo sessions with Simmons, Van Halen had very little material to work with and wound up recreating their usual live sets in the studio. Templeman was keen on straying from the path of his own softer dependencies, wanting to make a big, colorful, heady guitar record packed to the brim with riffs and ear-candy hooks that cut all the way to the bone. With the one-in-a-million good looks of David Lee Roth and the lead guitar maestro antics of Eddie Van Halen (and his custom Frankenstrat built from replacement parts) in tow, Templeman got his wish and a little extra.

Van Halen very well endures as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll debuts of all time—a puzzling truth now, given how maligned the initial critical reception was. Charles M. Young was especially critical in his review for Rolling Stone, writing that “in three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and digusting,” signaling that the band would become irrelevant in the same vein as Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin in due time. “In the meantime, they are likely to be a big deal,” Young continued. For the record, three years after the release of their debut, Van Halen put out Fair Warning, which went to #5 on the Billboard 200 and is certified 2x Platinum by the RIAA. Fair Warning wasn’t the band’s best work, but they were by no means any less popular in 1981 than they were in 1978—and Van Halen would become even bigger just three years after that, capitalizing on the release of their pop mainstream crossover album 1984 (a smash success built off the back of #1 hit single “Jump”).

But Van Halen does everything right. It’s hormone-soaked masculine rock that doesn’t feel unavoidably toxic, and it outpaces everything bands like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Bad Company, Blue Oyster Cult and UFO ever did during that same era. I like what Robert Christgau said about the album, that “Warners wants us to know that [Van Halen] is the biggest bar band in the San Fernando Valley… The term becomes honorific when the music belongs in a bar. This music belongs on an aircraft carrier.” Van Halen were local heroes in SoCal before any contract ink dried; it’s hard to imagine them playing any venues smaller than a sardine-packed stadium. The lyrics on Van Halen don’t require any decoding; the four-piece lets their own showmanship do all of the heavy lifting—and it’s one of the last instances that such a dynamic ever worked so well.

First impressions are crucial in all walks of life, and a debut rock album ought to get off on the right foot. In the previous 11 years alone, some of the greatest opening tracks came out—including the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis,” Boston’s “More Than a Feeling,” the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “Purple Haze” and the Doors’ “Break On Through (To the Other Side).” Van Halen would join the party with “Runnin’ with the Devil” (the title inspired by the Ohio Players’ “Runnin’ from the Devil”), a blistering welcome fit with a mirage of car horns sounding. Templeman pitched the horns down, something the band had done in their demos with Simmons, too.

While Roth compares playing gigs across the country to getting in bed with Satan (“I found the simple life ain’t so simple / When I jumped out, on that road, I got no love, no love you’d call real / Ain’t got nobody waitin’ at home”), Eddie played four-measure guitar solos after the second and third choruses. There’s a sensuality to “Runnin’ with the Devil”—an energy alive and beating in much of Van Halen’s catalog—but as a kickstarter to a career, few opening tracks can ease in slowly and then erupt into one of the greatest hard rock songs of all time. A grand entrance, indeed. (Guns N’ Roses would learn a thing or two from Van Halen by slotting “Welcome to the Jungle” in as their debut album’s opener, and Appetite For Destruction would be the next man up for ubiquitous, bulletproof rock introductions just nine years later.)

What happens next on Van Halen very well might be the record’s most recognizable chapter, as Eddie Van Halen steps into the spotlight and plays a song-length guitar solo for one minute and 42 seconds. It’s on “Eruption” that we get a glimpse of Eddie’s trademark two-handed “tapping,” a playing style where he’d tap the strings and make machine-gun arpeggios and legato notes—which he claimed to have hawked from Jimmy Page, who’d done a pull-off on an open string during his “Heartbreaker” solo seven years prior. “Eruption” on the album, on the radio and everywhere in-between segues into a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”—just one of numerous instances where Van Halen’s cover of a famous song is as good (or better) than the source material (“(Oh) Pretty Woman,” “Dancing in the Street” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” stick out first).

Van Halen’s rendition of “You Really Got Me” hit the Top 40 on the Hot 100 and landed the band on radio stations across the United States—a catalytic jumpstart that, 14 years earlier, helped get the Kinks’ own career off the ground during the British Invasion. Eddie gives Dave Davies’ guitar parts a distorted upgrade, and Roth adds a slick of braggadocio to the track that Ray Davies just couldn’t fathom. Not all perfect rock songs require a makeover, but “You Really Got Me” is the kind of track that can exist in every generation. Ray’s songwriting is malleable enough for anyone to take a piece, and Van Halen bit off far more than anyone could have expected. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” anchors side one with a ferocity that blurs the lines between glam and punk rock, and it was initially meant to serve as a punk rock parody that would transcend the two-chord mudanity the Californians aimed to make fun of. Eddie overdubbed his own guitar solo with an electric sitar, and you can hear just how informative “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” would wind up being to the incoming wave of hair metal bands that would overrun the ‘80s’ rock ‘n’ roll soul, and the bombastic chords and percussion of “I’m the One” drive the nail even further into the woodwork (and the “bop bada, shoo-be doo-wah” non-sequitur during the song’s breakdown is an all-time sonic aside in rock ‘n’ roll history).

Side two begins with “Jamie’s Cryin’,” the album’s third single (which did not chart) that was written after those original Van Halen demos. The song germinated from some tinkering while the band was at Sunset Sound Recorders, where the band “heard Edward fooling around with his guitar between takes, and we yelled, ‘Hey man, that’s just what we need on the album,’” according to Roth. After hearing one of Eddie’s two-note licks, which sounded like somebody was crying, Roth penned the song’s lyrics around a story of a failed teen romance after a regretful one-night stand (“Jamie’s been in love before, and she knows what love is for”). Side two isn’t stacked with hits like side one, and that’s the point—the six songs that make up the record’s second-half are all around the same length (about three minutes and 20 seconds, give or take) and roar through bouts of metal, shock rock and blues.

The three-song sequence of “Atomic Punk,” “Feel Your Love Tonight” and “Little Dreamer” features riotous brushstrokes of shredding from Eddie, who singlehandedly carries the fury of “Atomic Punk”’s bone-cracking, circuit-breaking unorthodoxy in his fingers. “Feel Your Love Tonight” is one of the most melodic tracks on the entire album, implementing the harmonies that would become an unmissable element in Van Halen’s signature sound (and a technique you can hear tower over the choruses of “Jamie’s Cryin’”)—and “Feel Your Love Tonight” foreshadows where Van Halen would vocally go on later songs, like “Dance the Night Away.” For being such a classic holy grail of rock swagger, “Feel Your Love Tonight” cascades into the back-to-basics, rode hard and put away wet-style blues metal of “Little Dreamer”—which saunters achingly through Roth’s piercing, hulking croon (“Yeah, they talk about you cold when you were headed for the skies, but you were young and bold”).

Though the first 29 minutes of Van Halen are laced with heavy-hitting, colossal rock songs bedecked in precision and off-kilter talents, the album is a speeding bullet headed straight for its penultimate and closing tracks: “Ice Cream Man” and “On Fire.” “Ice Cream Man,” originally written by Chicago bluesman John Brim in 1953 (who used his royalties from Van Halen’s cover to open a nightclub in his hometown), is sex on a stick. “Summertime’s here, babe, need somethin’ to keep you cool,” Roth purrs, beckoning us to step into his colorful, tasty body—I mean, truck—of melting, sticky-sweet goodness. When he’s not listing off his inventory (puddin’ pie bananas, dixie cups, push-ups and every flavor, apparently), he’s guaranteeing satisfaction with the confidence that few frontmen could sell without their delivery being ravaged by cumbersome clichés. It helps that Roth (who plays that lead acoustic guitar that jaunts through the track’s beginning measures, by the way) is like a bulging cock animated on a hazy Sunset Strip stage. Cut to Eddie’s best non-“Eruption” solo on the album, and “Ice Cream Man” is a second-to-last that’s built to last.

Van Halen culminates in “On Fire,” a merciless closer that could be 10 minutes longer than it actually is. No three-minute song has ever been so short; all engines are firing from the starting gun, as Eddie and Anthony blaze through the glories of thick, head-splitting riffs and rhythms, while Alex pounds his kit like lives will be lost if he holds back even one decibel. Roth decrees his own sex and power (“Lay your bodies down / I’m in your beds, your beds / Throw your headphones on / I’m in your heads”) and we surrender to his good fortune, which he’s been kind enough to transpose into 35 minutes of head-banging bravado for the rest of us. “I’m on fire,” Roth and the boys shout nine times in a row to zip up their first-ever album, and it’s an on-the-nose finale.

The music world in 1978 was defined by disco, punk and prog-rock and, yet, Van Halen came out of the gates saying “To Hell with all of the above.” Between Eddie Van Halen becoming a guitar god before our very eyes and David Lee Roth’s frontman charisma running circles around that of most of his peers and those who laid bricks before him, the band changed the entire DNA of rock ‘n’ roll with 11 seismic ball-busters. It’s a good thing Gene Simmons left for that KISS tour right when Van Halen was on the precipice of something big; Van Halen is not just one of the greatest debut records ever, it’s a generational piece of wizardry only replicated once or twice in the 46 years since—and it arrived unlike anything rock music had ever witnessed, only to become a template for four decades of shredders whose hair weighed more than their own bodies. It’s a movement vacuum-sealed into less than 40 minutes; it’s bigger than KISS and it’s bigger than much of the loud-mouthed, dirty, sexy rock ‘n’ roll that existed before it.

Van Halen have produced many sonic offspring, and their later albums would become more commercially palatable (though a Diamond certification in the United States for a debut LP, a 5x Platinum certification everywhere else and gigs opening for Journey and Black Sabbath ain’t half bad) and make waves on the charts. But Van Halen opened the floodgates and changed the way everyone thinks about riffs, shaking hips and stone-cold, face-melting passion. 10 million copies later, and the party still hasn’t quit.

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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