Van Halen – “Van Halen” (1978)

I’ve been to the edge,
And there I stood and looked down,
You know I lost a lot of friends there, baby,
Ain’t got no time to mess around.
— “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”

I think Van Halen was my first favorite band. (♠)  When 1984 came out they were about the biggest rock band on the planet and I was a 12-year-old living in Columbia, South Carolina who was addicted to a new thing called MTV.  I had the Van Halen painter’s hat and I wore it all over town.  I had Van Halen buttons.  I saved Van Halen pictures from Hit Parader.  They were the first band who’s back catalog I not only explored, but actually purchased – within a year I had all six Van Halen albums on vinyl or cassette.

But it was tricky.  Because I fell in love with synthesizer Van Halen… and that was only 1984.  I wasn’t fully capable of appreciating blues-rock Van Halen.  But even then there were songs that stuck out.  “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, and the insane instrumental guitar solo that is “Eruption”, these were the parts of the band’s 1978 debut that I couldn’t get enough of.  Those and, of course, “You Really Got Me”, a song I didn’t realize was a cover until a year later when I bought a Kinks greatest hits tape specifically so I could could listen to “Lola” on repeat.  Remember kids, there was no internet then, and I had no way to understand what the credit to Ray Davies meant on Van Halen.

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I haven’t owned a copy of Van Halen in a very, very long time – best guess is 20+ years.  And holy shit, this is a great record.  As in truly great.  Side A ranks up there with the best sides of rock (or any other) music all-time.  Sure, I remembered the combustable combo of Eddie’s guitar and David Lee Roth’s lyrical style that sort of loosely flows around the song structures.  But even on this, their first record, Alex’s drums are phenomenal (see “Atomic Punk”), and Michael Anthony’s harmonizing is both average and perfect at the same time – it’s the ideal accompaniment to Roth’s vocals.  And what other rock band in 1978 could throw a “bop badda, shooby do wah” into a song and make it not sound ironic? (♥)

I know two things after giving Van Halen a couple of spins this week.  (1)  I will be playing this a LOT more, and (2) I’ll be buying the four other David Lee Roth era Van Halen records as I come across them.

(♠)  I certainly my have written this about another band as well… but at this moment, I think it’s true.

(♥)  In fact it sounds amazing.

Van Halen – “1984” (1984)

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.

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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.

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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.

“Masters of Metal” Compilation (1984)

If you’re a burgeoning codger like me, you remember this decade we had back in the day referred to as “The Eighties”.  Women wore lots of make-up and used lots of hairspray, and they wore outfits that involved massive shoulder pads and often ankle boots with heels.  Dudes used colorful bandanas as fashion accessories, doing so unironically, and the one-earring look seemed highly rebellious and edgy. (♥)  MTV was changing the game, and in the early part of the decade we were still buying our music on vinyl and cassette because CDs were still trying to get a piece of the market and Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet.  If you wanted music you could either hear it on the radio, see it on MTV, or had to go down to the store and actually buy it.

Of course, buying music was also a challenge when you were a young teen living out in the sticks a 20 minute drive from anything in a place that didn’t even have a bus stop you could reasonably walk to.  You had to wait for those opportunities when you could tag along with your mom or dad when they went into town or, very rarely, to the mall.  Those were not to be passed up, especially if you wanted to buy something on your own, and music wasn’t one of those things you could trust your parents to get for you.  Given the cover art, I don’t think my mom would have bought me a Dio or Mötley Crüe album even if I’d begged; shoot, I was lucky I once convinced her to pick me up a copy of Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith – “Judas Priest?  What the hell kind of name is that?”  At that point there were still albums I had to sort of hide to make sure they didn’t meet an untimely demise at the hands of a room-cleaning mom.

Which leads me to how I came to own a copy of Masters of Metal when it came out in 1984.  It was one of those tag-along trips with one or both of my parents and I’m pretty sure we ended up at a Pay ‘n’ Save store.  If you grew up in the Seattle area, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, think of a huge drugstore version of K-Mart.  They carried a bit of everything, so at the very least you had stuff to look at while your parents shopped.  And what they also had in a locked rotating case up by the cash register were cassettes.  Cassettes!  This was an unexpected opportunity!  Unfortunately they were all locked away behind pexiglass, so while I could read the artist and album names there was no way to check out the cover art or see the names of the songs.  And since you had to have a manager come over and unlock it for you, it’s not like you could just stand around and look at one after another while he stood around and waited, especially if you were just some punk kid.  So I convinced my parents to let me by Masters of Metal based entirely on the title.  It was probably the first time I did a musical roll of the dice.

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Masters of Metal was put out by K-Tel, a brand that, if you’re of a certain age, you remember for putting out all kinds of music compilations, as well as all kinds of other “As Seen on TV” type products back before “As Seen on TV” was an actual thing and brand of it’s own.  You can check out some of their old commercials on YouTube, including for some of their later metal comps – and they’re absolutely stunning, so perfectly 80s that it hurts.  But anyway… Masters of Metal‘s 13 tracks were a combination of bands I knew (Van Halen, KISS, Twisted Sister) plus a bunch more I hadn’t heard of (Y&T, Zebra, Krokus), and it became sort of my primer into the world of heavy metal, expanding my horizons with classic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. (♠)  Of course, it lead me down a couple of dead ends too, for example making me think that the post-Ozzy / post-Ronnie James Dio “Trashed” was in some way representative of Black Sabbath’s style.  But hey, I still like “Trashed” even if Born Again is a pretty widely despised album.  Regardless, this was the closest thing to a heavy metal encyclopedia that I could put my hands on.

I’ve been looking for a copy of this for the last two or three years, always checking the rock and metal compilations sections no matter where I find myself.  And every time I got shut out.  So the other night after a couple of cocktails I said “screw it”, found a nice copy on Discogs and ordered it.  Turns out it came to me from some guy just down the highway in Federal Way, Washington.  I wonder if he bought this copy at a Pay ‘n’ Save too…

Master of Metal has an interesting roster of bands, and possibly an even more interesting selection of songs.  The tracks were all contemporary, with 10 dating from 1983 and the others (♣) from either 1981 or 1982.  Black Sabbath was hardly relevant at the time but their inclusion can be excused as giving the comp some sort of old-school cred, even though it did come off a much-maligned album.  KISS had arguably been in decline during the period until they took off the make-up and scored a big hit with “Lick It Up,” so that one makes some sense.  Twisted Sister was still on the verge of their mega-breakout album Stay Hungry, so I can’t fault the selection of “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll.”  Y&T, Zebra, and Rainbow were bands I’d never even heard of up to that point, which may say more about my tenuous connection to the early 80s metal scene as it does about those individual bands.  Which brings us to the last song on side B, Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Streets.”  First of all, I never understood how anyone ever thought, even for one second, that Van Halen was metal.  I get it – lots of people did.  But outside of the intricate technical guitar work of Eddie Van Halen there is nothing even remotely metal about the band, and that goes double for their sound on “Dancing in the Street,” a cover of the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas hit that had already been covered previous by the The Mammas & The Pappas, The Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Black Oak Arkansas (and was covered again in 1985 by David Bowie & Mick Jagger).  Sorry kids, but there’s nothing metal about any of that.

Did I mention, however, how absolutely awesome this comp is?  It was so pivotal in my life that I quite literally wore out my copy I played it so many times.  To this day I can’t hear “Run to the Hills” or “Who’s Behind the Door?” during an all-80s weekend on the radio without belting out my best falsetto.  I love this record.  I used to trace the cover art into my school notebooks.  Lasers.  Bad-ass font (before I even knew what a font was).  Killer metal.  Songs about drunk driving, women who treat you like crap, the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of the US cavalry… uh… huh… not sure I actually recognized those themes at the time… a bit darker lyrically than I remember… But that’s metal, baby.  Throw the horns!

There are so many high points on Masters of Metal.  The guitar riffs on “Mean Streak” and “Breaking the Chains”; the vocal power of “Rainbow in the Dark”; the folk-ish “Who’s Behind the Door?”; the synths on “Street of Dreams”.  Look, I get it, this isn’t what metal sounds like today.  But it IS what metal sounded like in 1984 or so.  The first wave of thrash was only just starting to bubble under the surface, but that was considered extreme at the time and not getting any mainstream attention.  And I could buy it at the local Pay ‘n’ Save, which was about the best I could do in 1984, until I finally got to high school and there was a shopping mall across the street that had not one but two actual music stores in it.

Thank you, whoever at K-Tel who put this thing together.  It meant something to a lot of us.

(♥)  The decade came to an end with both genders primarily wearing flannel shirts and hiking boots.

(♠)  K-Tel put out a Canadian version of Masters of Metal the same year and with the same cover, though with a few changes to the roster.  Triumph and Van Halen were replaced by Mötley Crüe and the Canadian metal band Helix, while Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” was ditched in favor of “The Trooper”.  They released similar metal comps in the UK and New Zealand in 1986. 

(♣)  The other three were Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (1981), Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” (1982), and Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Street” (1982).