When it comes to Eddie Van Halen, we are talking about an artist everyone would agree was — through the typical combination of hard work, good fortune and inexplicable gifts — a once-in-a-generation type of talent.
And no one is going to deny that Van Halen set a new standard in terms of its influence (and not only on every other band going forward, but Van Halen itself).
Whether he squandered subsequent decades and a great amount of his gifts is debatable (hint: he did), but what he did for that first string of albums, from ’78 to ’84, is unassailable, inhuman. The world kept spinning after he put his guitar down, but everything after is in his shadow, in his debt.
Van Halen’s debut album remains a landmark release, a one-of-a-kind-masterpiece, and an unparalleled influence on the musicians who followed.
How to describe what Eddie Van Halen achieved and what it sounded (still sounds) like?
Take your pick:
This was an alien transmission, our own language spoken by a superior being trying to communicate using our fundamentals (because we couldn’t otherwise comprehend what was being expressed) to convey, in unimaginable ways, what we need to hear to understand.
Or, this is electric guitar on the continuum of the 20th Century that began with Robert Johnson (Moses) and peaked with Jimi Hendrix, as bridge between guitar’s Book of Genesis and B.C.; Eddie Van Halen is rock music’s Book of Revelation — the new messiah who rewrote everything and rewired rock and roll reality. Everything that came after was A.E.: Anno Eddie.
On John Coltrane’s seminal statement of purpose, Giant Steps (which was nothing so much as a declaration: this is the way saxophone shall henceforth sound), there’s a tune called “Countdown,” which is both apotheosis of Trane’s patented sheets of sound and point of departure to the other galaxies he’d soon be orbiting.
On Van Halen’s debut there is, of course, “Eruption,” which achieves a similar sort of sacred ground for electric guitar.
Those first five songs (the whole album, really) are the clarion call for a battle that was over before it began. They are at once prediction and fulfillment. That’s it, end of story. After the introductory “Runnin’ with the Devil” and the spirited cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” (“Eruption,” of course, is sandwiched in between — and no, that track should not have kicked off the proceedings; it would have been too much, too soon; starting their first album with “Eruption” would have been like a cherry bomb exploding before the fuse was lit), we get the one-two punch of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and “I’m the One.”
In addition to being one of the great bursts of testosterone in rock history, brilliantly combining banal sexual bravado and genuine ebullience, these two corkers showcase the band at the height of their powers as a collective: Alex Van Halen’s powerful and propulsive drumming, Michael Anthony’s supple bass support (and glorious, oft-overlooked backing vocals, adding just the right tonic to Diamond Dave’s rail vodka vocal histrionics). And then there’s Eddie. Playing lead and rhythm at the same time like no one not named Hendrix, multi-tracking with the perfect distillation of aggression and refinement: he swings, he smokes, he ascends. And those sounds; what on earth is going on during the outro of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”? Nothing of this earth, naturally. “I’m the One” lights off like the Concorde and leaves a smoke trail across the sky, sonic fire with the band going for broke, leaving everything on the field and having a blast. For this fan’s money, everything glorious about Eddie Van Halen is contained, in miniature (maxiture?) in this miniature masterpiece: it has the dexterity, speed, and technique of all the best imitators (before; after) but — also like Hendrix at his most otherworldly — it also has soul.
Let’s look at one track from their next five albums:
D.O.A. “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls” got the radio play (understandably); the cover of “You’re No Good” is no slouch, and “Spanish Fly” is a tour de force, albeit tapas-sized. The closest they get to that sui generis all-in euphoria of the first album is “D.O.A.,” wherein Eddie shreds like a T-Rex shedding its sandpaper skin. And extra props for Mr. Roth, the world’s most famous carnival barker. Van Halen was the circus, and for a time — about 7 years to be exact — the carnival never left town.
Everybody Wants Some!! This still sounds hot — touch it and you’re going to get blisters. Eddie’s tone and attack here is like Godzilla emerging from the depths with a Frankenstrat and amp the size of Tokyo. Full of life, confidence, and the right kind of aggression. This is Halen as the quarterback with a letter jacket at a keg party, all the prettiest girls lined up for a dance or a kiss, all confidence, arrogance, and genius.
Mean Street. Absolute tour de force from the finger tapping to the effulgent fade-out. The intro is like a mini “Eruption,” a lifetime of guitar lessons and obsessive practice made perfect in less than sixty seconds. This is Eddie as super hero: complete mastery and next-level execution. Indescribable glory, with everyone locked and loaded, conveying an air of danger and desperation, but complete release in the choruses and the extended outro.
Pretty Woman. Yes, a cover, and one that got way overplayed (but for the best reasons) back in the day, it’s like Dorothy through the door to Oz, turning Roy Orbison’s black and white original into technicolor rainbowed brilliance (and not for nothing, the introductory “Intruder” was written solely to extend the track to fit the pre-shot video: Eddie to the rescue!). And for all the locker room braggadocio and over-the-top lyrical hijinx, few bands before or since have provided a soundtrack for happiness as well as Van Halen in their prime.
Panama. Inanity or utter genius? Lyrically, this one makes you guess (eat ’em and smile). Make ’em guess (eat ’em and smile): is it about a car, a girl, a drug, or where David Lee Roth thought he was while they were recording the album? This might be the most complete and satisfying distillation of Eddie’s virtuosity since the first album. Not for nothing, I thought the song was called “Animal” the first several times I heard it. That still seems just about right, and for all the right reasons.
What would we think of Eddie Van Halen if he had stopped making music in 1985? Imagine, instead of David Lee Roth’s semi-forced departure, the band just ended?
Thanks to Roth’s ego and ambition, we got Van Hagar, and it seems like most fans abruptly split into two camps: for it and against it.
This is a topic for another conversation, and is entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand: it’s sad to see this guitar hero go, but boy was it good to have him amongst us mere mortals for a short, irreplaceable span of time. Go easy, Eddie.