On February 7, Van Halen will release their first album since 1984’s appropriately titled “1984” with original lead singer David Lee Roth, entitled “A Different Kind of Truth.” Considering that the band is often given the title of America’s best hard rock band, this is no small news. While I would rank a handful of American hard rock bands higher, the title isn’t unwarranted. And, while the new album’s presence is the impetus for this article, the Van Halen I’m writing about is the Van Halen that shook the music world with their 1978 debut and continued for five more albums before singer David Lee Roth left and was replaced by Sammy Hagar. With Hagar at the helm, Van Halen generally took a path toward bland power ballads and generic rockers and lost most of their edge and the fun spirit that made them so special. But once upon a time this David Lee Roth-led incarnation of Van Halen was a great band, and I’m here not to drum up interest in the new album, which I am curious about but less than excited for, but to look back at the old ones.
But first, a little detail about the band members themselves, the components that make up their classic sound. Certainly, no one will call into question Eddie Van Halen’s status as a guitar God. He of the bluesy but metallic riff and monstrous solo staked a claim as one of the greatest guitarists of all time on Van Halen’s eponymous first album, “Van Halen,” and there has been little reason to question him since.
But Van Halen was a great band first and foremost, and it’s easy to forget the contributions of singer David Lee Roth, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony. Roth, despite Eddie Van Halen’s star status, was the face of the band for most audiences. In addition to serving as the band’s resident sex symbol, he had a playful voice that combined the power of heavy metal and attitude and energy of punk. Drummer Alex Van Halen, the most underrated member of the band, is simply one of the greatest drummers of all time. Few drummers could match him for sheer power and intensity, and oftentimes it was the tribal beat he could work up that provided the base with which the other members could shine off of. And of course, the other base of a band’s sound is, well, the bass, and for his part Michael Anthony brought a melodic yet strutting energy that was essential to the band’s sound.
Together they managed to conjure up a sound that would serve as the template of numerous lesser bands throughout the decade following their classic late 70s debut. Most of those other bands took with them Van Halen’s penchant for having a good time, but too often they forgot that in order to be a great band, you have to put in real time and effort. And that Van Halen did. Despite their seemingly silly attitude and Roth’s often over-the-top on-stage antics, the band always delivered both on stage and in the studio. They put craft first and foremost, and in 1978, when corporate rock bands like Boston and the Eagles were all the rage, they brought a dose of raw potency not seen in the rock universe for the better part of a decade.
You can’t talk about Van Halen without discussing their quintessential album, 1978’s “Van Halen.” Well known for classic rock staples “Runnin’ with the Devil,” which sports an evocative opening, a classic chug and a powerful chorus, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” which contains an unstoppable riff and is arguably the band’s greatest song and their possibly more-famous- than –the-original cover of the Kinks’ classic garage rocker “You Really Got Me,” it’s easily one of the best debuts in music history. Also containing criminally underrated songs such as the dark, metallic “Atomic Punk,” and the fast, catchy, playful “I’m the One” as well the bluesy “Little Dreamer,” it’s an unqualified classic that will likely always remain their best album.
Their sophomore album, uncreatively titled “Van Halen II,” feels like an album of also-rans compared to the original, but considering the strengths of the original album, this isn’t a bad thing. In addition to hits “Dance the Night Away” and the too poppy “Beautiful Girls,” it features such highlights as the fun, undeniably silly-but-in-a-good-way ‘Bottoms Up” and the metallic “Light Up the Sky,” for my money, the album’s best song.
On their underrated third album, “Women and Children First,” the band finally changed things up a little, introducing a sound that was more complex and flat out heavier, while still retaining their melodicism and humor. The hits are much better than on the previous album, with “And the Cradle Will Rock” sporting a classic descending riff and “Everybody Wants Some!!” being funny, powerful and uniquely tribal. In addition, songs such as the surprisingly long “Fools,” “Romeo Delight” and the atypical speed-rocker “Loss of Control” are all hard-rocking highlights, and several attempts at variety, such as “Take Your Whiskey Home,” work surprisingly well.
Next up was “Fair Warning,” which was overlooked at the time because, quite simply, it’s far too dark to have made as much money as their previous three albums. Aside from the single “Unchained” which approximates the band’s classic sound and succeeds thanks to its brilliant riff, there’s little that could be considered “fun” about this album. The undeniable highlight, in addition to the aforementioned single, is the awesome album opener “Mean Streets,” which is more representative of the rest of the album.
After this, the band released “Diver Down,” which is probably the weakest album released by the original band and largely consists of amusing but inessential cover songs. However, they pale in comparison to many of the songs featured on “1984,” the last of their original albums. Introducing synthesizers and being their poppiest release, it’s undeniably of its time, but the results work surprisingly well on the classic pop of “Jump,” the ethereal power ballad “I’ll Wait” and the brilliant riff rockers “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher.” Although those were the hit singles (especially “Panama” and “Jump,” which were massively popular), other personal favorites include “Drop Dead Legs,” which by virtue of its overt eighties-ness I should hate but really like anyway and “Girl Gone Bad,” which is still poppy but more rocking. This is a consistently memorable album which closes out a consistently memorable career. What’s more, it’s fitting that they would go out on an album that did right (the cheesy eighties sound) what later Van Halen under Hagar often did wrong.
The new album is anything but a known quantity. While it’s nice to have David Lee Roth back, the presence of Eddie’s 20 year old son Wolfgang on bass (Michael Anthony split in 2006) is a constant reminder of the passage of time. And 28 years is a substantial passage. It’s hard to say what the end result will sound like, especially considering most of the songs, including first single “Tattoo,” are apparently re-workings of older songs. That being said, an album of rewrites is both a positive and a negative. All things considered, I would probably rather hear unreleased songs from their heyday than new ones, which would inevitably succumb to temptations to modernize and would likely see the band past their prime. On the other hand, this does mean that these songs were at one point considered not worthy, for whatever reason, of being released properly. Then again, considering how strong most of their old songs were, it’s possible that these ones aren’t too shabby anyway, and, at the very least, my ears could use a few quality guitar solos circa 1978. However it turns out, we’ll know on February 7, and however, it turns out, Van Halen will still remain a band that at one point in time was important, and, above all else, great.