There was a time in the early 90s where if you admitted to being a fan of Van Halen you were ostracized by everyone around you; family, friends, neighbors, that nice senior couple that lived down the street and even the clergy. There were camps set up across the US where admitted Van Halen fans were taken to and put through de-programming. These poor souls were strapped to chairs in darkened rooms. Their eyes were forced open and they were forced to watch the music videos for “Panama”, “Hot For Teacher”, and “Unchained” on repeat for hours. A David Lee Roth impersonator(his stage name is David Lei Roth) would do roundhouse kicks mere inches from the Van Halen fan’s head all the while repeating the line “Reach down, between my legs and…ease the seat back” until the soiled, whimpering, and spiritually broken fan would cry out for mercy. David Lei would disappear in a cloud of dry ice smoke and the poor soul would be comforted by someone resembling Mark Arm of Mudhoney(it actually was Mark Arm at certain Pacific Northwest VH Internment camps.) He would wrap the tortured soul in a warm flannel, offer them a cup of Starbucks, and put on Tad’s God’s Balls and the healing(re-programming) would begin. Most of these former Van Halen fans left newly minted music fans, receiving good paying jobs at various Starbucks in the Seattle area, as Sub Pop interns, and roadies for various grunge bands.
The de-Van Halenization was complete.
Now that a good 20 years has passed since the last time David Lei Roth kicked and howled like a horny banshee I’ve gone back and reflected on the much maligned Van Halen, and I’m here to say that for the most part I think the naysayers got them all wrong. Sure there was the gluttonous aspect to these California party boys. The girls, the booze, the gesticulating on stage, the karate kicks and assless spandex(not sure if that’s real, but it sounds good.) But come on, what band wasn’t doing all that crap in 1981? I’m sure Survivor, Journey, Scorpions, and Night Ranger were doing pretty much the same Roman Sexorium debauchery backstage that those Van Halen guys were doing. I think their overall popularity just put them in the spotlight and an easy target for the next great conceited musical movement. It just so happens that the next great musical movement hated show-y artists, guitar solos, and anything that had colors beyond black, gray, and brown(or so some marketing office in Manhatten led us to believe.) I’m not knocking Seattle and the “grunge” movement. Hell, I bought Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love in 1989. I helped Seattle sweep through our fine Midwestern city in 1990 like a sea breeze of flannel and indifference. I was a proponent of the movement and followed closely. I still kept my musical options open. I didn’t start wearing Seattle Seahawks jerseys and shooting heroin, but I dug the music.
Having a couple decades in-between myself and albums like Fair Warning, Diver Down, Women And Children First, and Van Halen II I can say without an ounce of irony or snarkiness that Van Halen were always just a great pop band. They Fosse’d it up a bit with flash, roundhouse kicks, and of course Eddie’s guitar virtuosity, but these guys were always a great pop band disguised as sex, drugs, and rock and roll heathens(though they reveled in the debauchery I’m sure.) Nearly every album had a cover song; “You Really Got Me”, “You’re No Good”, “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, “(Oh)Pretty Woman”, and “Dancing In The Streets” were scattered over three of their six studio albums with Roth. Not only a sign of a band that came up in bars playing covers, but a sign that these guys were fans as much as they were stars. And these weren’t cheeky renditions, but very respectable, earnest covers. They seemed to try a little too hard to break into the heavier aspects of rock(“Atomic Punk”, “Loss Of Control”, “DOA”, and “Hang Em High” come to mind), but their pop instincts were always there. “Jamie’s Cryin'”, “Dance The Night Away”, “In A Simple Rhyme”, “Here About It Later”, “So This Is Love”, “Little Guitars”, “Jump”, and “I’ll Wait” were all great pop songs. They even had some old timey numbers like “Take Your Whiskey Home” and “Big Bad Bill-Is Sweet William Now”, with the Van Halen brother’s dad jumping in on some tasty jazz clarinet for kicks. Van Halen were a hard working, hard rocking pop rock band that happened to have in their personnel one of the most influential guitarists of the last 40 years and one of the most audacious, self-absorbed, and brash frontmen to boot.
I got thinking about Van Halen just the other night at my son’s school musical. One of the songs the kids sang was “Dancing In The Street”, which got me thinking about Van Halen’s cover of said song on Diver Down. That song, as well as that album as a whole was pretty damn good. I remember buying the cassette when I was in the 5th grade and being enamored with the heavier bits as well as the quieter ones. “Little Guitars(Intro)” and “Little Guitars” especially got my brain humming. A precursor to me wanting to learn to play the guitar I suppose.
It also got me thinking about how forward thinking Eddie Van Halen was. Unlike so many guitarists of the decade, Eddie Van Halen embraced the use of synthesizers on their albums, starting with the moody “Sunday Afternoon In The Park” off Fair Warning. Van Halen had some minor hit in 1984 called “Jump”. Maybe you’ve heard it. It sold a few records. You never saw that disclaimer on a Van Halen record that said “No Synthesizers Were Used On This Album” that so many guitarists and bands slapped on the back of the record sleeve like a point of pride. “Hey man, that’s great that you didn’t use synths on this record. It still really sucks, though.”
So I leave you with this: never say never. You don’t have to feel the Van Halen shame anymore. It’s okay to like them. Really. Well, up to 1984 at least. This reprieve from shame doesn’t cover the Hagar years. Not judging either way, folks. I’m just saying this is only pertaining to the Roth years.
We’ll deal with Hagar another day.