I get up,
And nothing gets me down.
You got it tough?
I’ve seen the toughest around.
It’s hard to understand today just how huge Van Halen was when 1984 came out. They were arguably the biggest arena rock band going, having built a reputation on their five prior studio albums and carrying the image of the hardest partiers out there in an age of excess. For some reason a lot of people then labeled them as a heavy metal band, which seemed absurd to me. But it didn’t take away from how completely awesome they were.
I had just gotten into music as a pre-teen the year prior and was starting to move quickly from new wave pop to rock and hair metal, so Van Halen was the perfect band at the perfect time for someone like me. The video for “Jump” was all over MTV, they were getting play across multiple radio formats, and you couldn’t open a copy of Hit Parader or Circus or Rolling Stone without seeing photos of them with their feathered hair and trendy outfits. Eddie Van Halen was widely regarded as the best guitarist on the planet and Michael Anthony introduced me to Jack Daniels before I even understood what Jack Daniels was with his whiskey-bottle-shaped bass guitar. Van Halen was the first band who’s entire back catalog I tracked down and purchased – I’m pretty sure I bought all six albums in the first half of 1984, though at the time I was probably a bit disappointed by the fact that the first five lacked the synthesizers that so clearly defined the sound of 1984. It was also, of course, the last album by the band’s original line-up, so they also gave me my first musical heartbreak when David Lee Roth split from the group the following year.
Given how massive Van Halen was in 1984 when the album was released it’s surprising that it never reached #1 on the US charts. “Jump” made it to #1 as a single, and certainly their music videos were being played seemingly ever 15 minutes, and every third car that drove by with the window rolled down was blaring “Jump” or “Panama” whether it was driven by a 16 year old dude or a 30 year old woman. It was truly inescapable. But it only made it so far as #2 because Van Halen had the misfortune of releasing 1984 the same year the Billboard album chart reached the final stage of an evolution that had been slowing progressing for years, as every year fewer and fewer records held down the top spot and those that did held it for prolonged periods of time. In 1980 a dozen albums made it to #1… then 11 made it in 1981… 10 in 1982… only six in 1983… and finally by 1984 only five albums got to the top spot. Consider – so far in 2017 there have already been 20 #1 albums, more than half of which were only in that spot for a single week. But in 1984 it was almost impossible to break the stranglehold of just a few releases. Here are the total weeks each spent at #1, all of which were consecutive – no album dropped a few spots and then bounced back to the top, which was common in previous years:
- Thriller – 15 weeks
- Footloose Soundtrack – 10 weeks
- Sports – 1 week
- Born in the U.S.A. – 4 weeks
- Purple Rain Soundtrack – 22 weeks
That’s right – from January 1 to mid-April it was Thriller, and from August until the end of the year Purple Rain, with everyone else fighting for scraps in the middle of the summer. The trend reversed itself in 1985, with 14 albums going to #1 and we’ve never seen such a vice grip on the charts since. There are probably a combination of factors that contributed to this, most notably the introduction of SoundScan in the early 1990s which made it more difficult for labels to pad their sales figures and in recent years by the complete change in the music economy and the ways we buy music. I don’t think we’ll ever see another year like 1984 again. Too bad for Van Halen though.
I haven’t listened to 1984 all the way through in years… best guess 30+ of them. So dropping the needle on this for the first time since Reagan was president… man, I’d totally forgotten about the short synthesizer introductory title track “1984”! And damn in sounds great. I would conservatively say that I probably listened to “Jump” and “Panama” back to back at least a hundred times the year the album came out, ignoring the rest of the album and just drilling those two tracks into my brain. That simply synth line in “Jump” is so distinctive… but let’s not forget this is still Van Halen album, so we get a guitar solo, even if it is immediately followed by a much longer and intricate synth solo. (♠) But “Panama” was always my favorite, and probably my all-time favorite Van Halen track, one that sidelined the synths for a while and got back to what Van Halen were built for – rock (Model citizen / Zero discipline). Eddie’s Lamborghini makes it’s album debut and we’re treated to an iconic David Lee Roth spoken segue (Reach down… between my legs and… eeaasssee the seat back…). It’s everything a middle schooler could dream of. And I loved it.
But there’s more. “Top Jimmy” is an overlooked classic, a high tempo blues rocker about the super cool Top Jimmy (He’s the king). And “Drop Dead Legs”? It’s a perfect exemplar of the Van Halen sound – the workman-like and straight forward rhythm section, Eddie’s guitar giving the song musical character and some flourishes, and David Lee Roth doing whatever the hell he wants vocally, sometimes staying true to the jam and other times striking out on his own (and doing karate)… but always coming back to the group in the end. And the solo… don’t forget the solo, done more in a jazz style with the drum and bass remaining in the background while Eddie just shreds.
And that’s just side A.
Because the B side comes out strong with Alex’s double bass drum intro to what is, today, probably the most popular song on 1984, the completely ridiculous “Hot For Teacher”. (♣) Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad, I’m hot for teacher. Roth is at his most juvenilely awesome, and to me this is Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony at their best, a song that lets them contribute to not just the pace and structure, but also the aesthetic of the track. Oh man, I think the clock is slow. I don’t feel tardy. If there’s one song that best sums up the essence of the original Van Halen, it’s “Hot For Teacher” (or maybe “Everybody Wants Some”…). It’s not their best song, but it’s their most Van Halen-esque song.
I’d forgotten that “I’ll Wait” was on 1984, though that synth intro should have been a dead giveaway. The drumming here is very Phil Collins-like, and in fact the whole thing could just as easily have been on No Jacket Required and made it’s way into an episode of Miami Vice. It’s the one time on the record that Roth seems to play it straight, following the music and being completely un-ironic. I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of “Girl Gone Bad”; it’s like discovering some long-lost unreleased Van Halen track, and it’s a solid rocker. The whole thing wraps up with the somewhat uneven but still driving “House of Pain”.
You know, for an album that is “defined” by the use of synthesizers, there sure aren’t a lot of synthesizers on 1984. Yes, the entire intro is all about the synth. But otherwise it’s really just “Jump” and “I’ll Wait”, with everything else falling into the traditional Van Halen mode that had made them the most popular rock band in the world at the time.
After listening to 1984 again, I’m that much more surprised it never got to #1 – it was the ultimate distillation of the sound and look and attitude that permeated rock at that moment in time.
(♠) The best rock guitarist in the world at the time, doing a “synth solo”. Let that sink in for a minute.
(♣) Nobody did ridiculous as well as Van Halen. Nobody.