For the uninitiated, Six-Packs are not me saying “this is the artist’s six best,” just six I dug at time of writing. The inevitable Spotify list will have the six tunes. And then some. Play these tunes loud or don’t play ’em at all.
The year 1978 was a particularly interesting one in the music world. Rock was far from dead. But punk had been in full swing for a couple of years, New Wave was in full swing (Elvis Costello’s 2nd album, The Police’ first) and there was a new crop of guitar heroes such as Mark Knopfler and Mike Campbell.
And Eddie Van Halen. As good as guys like Knopfler and Campbell were, Eddie probably did more to re-ignite and reinvent flash guitar than anyone else. (And I say this somewhat as a detached observer because I actually prefer those guys to VH’s sometimes histrionic playing.)
I’ll let Wikipedia have its say here: “Van Halen’s approach to the guitar involves several distinctive components. His use of two-handed tapping, natural and artificial harmonics, vibrato, and tremolo picking, combined with his rhythmic sensibility and melodic approach, have influenced an entire generation of guitarists.” (Not to mention his blazing speed. Like Hendrix with blues and R&B, Eddie took what was before him and invented a whole new vocabulary. )
Interestingly, Eddie learned all of Clapton’s Cream solos and to this day can play both his “Crossroads” solos note-for-note. But for all that, he is not and never has been a blues or blues-influenced player. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to tell who did influence him, his sound and style are so unique. (That said, he nods towards Clapton, Hendrix, and Allan Holdsworth.) VH famously built his own guitar, the so-called “Frankenstrat.”
Some background from Wikipedia: “Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Edward Lodewijk van Halen (along with drummer brother Alex) is the son of Dutch father, Jan Van Halen, a clarinetist, saxophonist, and pianist, and East Indies-born Indo (Eurasian) mother Eugenia van Halen (née van Beers).
Van Halen’s middle name, “Lodewijk”, is after composer Ludwig van Beethoven, “Lodewijk” being the Dutch equivalent of “Ludwig.” He continued this tradition by naming his (and actress Valerie Bertinelli’s) son Wolfgang after composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In February 1962, the family moved to the United States, settling in Pasadena, California. The brothers learned to play the piano as children starting at the age of six.”
The lads kicked around various bands eventually settling on the name The Trojan Rubber Co. (Cute – ME.) They rented a sound system from David Lee Roth, made him their lead singer, added Michael Anthony on bass and backup vocals. (VH’s harmony vocals really separate them from other hard rock bands.) They went through different band names from Genesis to Mammoth (on realizing some wankers had used Genesis) finally landing on Van Halen. Roth says this was his idea as it had “power” like Santana.
Their ferocious hard rock sound made its way to the usual LA clubs such as Whisky a Go Go where they were seen by none other than Gene Simmons. Simmons helped them get a demo tape together and took the demo to Kiss’ management. He was informed that “they had no chance of making it” and they passed on them. (Why? Because they wouldn’t paint their faces up in some fucking Kabuki makeup? VH are a better band by a factor of about 15,000 – ME.)
Warner Brothers decided to give the band a shot and released their eponymous debut album in early 1978. And the world of guitars was never the same. Interestingly, one of the tunes on the first album was the Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me.” Eddie and Alex said they weren’t so much Kinks fans as they just dug the song. (And later did “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?”) Ray and Dave Davies dismissed it as they thought it sucked but to me, that’s them just being their usual loveable asshole selves. This thing rocks:
This album took off like a shot and suddenly we had a hot new guitarist and a, well, great if totally narcissistic lead singer. (When asked how his life had changed with fame, one of the things I recall Eddie saying – somewhat casually – was “your sex life improves.” Hell, I’d be wearing a T-shirt that said that. I seem to remember that Roth had paternity insurance. Ah, rock and roll.)
AllMusic said, “The still-amazing thing about Van Halen is how it sounds like it has no fathers … Like all great originals, Van Halen doesn’t seem to belong to the past and it still sounds like little else, despite generations of copycats. The album” set the template for how rock and roll sounded for the next decade or more.” (For good or for ill – ME.)*
I won’t go entirely chronologically here since these Six-Packs are a mash-up of history and some of my faves. In the glorious year of 1984 by which time we all thought we’d be living under an autocratic regime, Van Halen released the album 1984.** This album included “Jump,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “Panama.” Roth says “Panama” was about a car but I always thought it was about pot. Whatever. Great tune:
Let’s spare ourselves the entire story of the inevitable “everybody in the band starts to hate everybody else” thing and state that tensions between the Van Halen Bros. and Roth came to a “fever pitch” during the 1984 tour. Drug abuse, outside projects, the band’s image – take your pick.
In any event, Roth departed the band in 1985. Interestingly, Eddie reached out to Patty Smyth who declined. (What would Van Halen have sounded like with a ballsy woman up front?) Eddie found out about Sammy Hagar who then joined the band through 1996, an endeavor that everyone and his brother referred to as Van Hagar. (And which many people accepted as readily as if Geddy Lee had replaced Paul McCartney in the Beatles.)
Anyway, I personally didn’t give a fuck as long as they kept cranking it out. From the 1986 album 5150 here is Van Hagar doing “Why Can’t This Be Love.”
Let’s swing back to the original band. I did a three-song piece a while back and of “Hot for Teacher” I said this: Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is, I think, one of the most kick-ass rock ‘n roll songs I have ever heard. It jacks in with a smokin’ hot drum solo by Alex Van Halen who is joined 20 or so seconds in by brother Eddie. David Lee Roth joins in with his patented rap and the whole song just takes off. Great solo, great drumming, great lyrics, every schoolkids’ beautiful dark twisted fantasy.
Right about now you’re probably saying to yourself – didn’t VH do any ballads? Any blues? Well, as to the former, I want to hear Van Halen do ballads about as much as I want to hear AC/DC spout poetry.
But as to blues, well, yeah. Sort of. As mentioned, Eddie is not a blues player. He has a great feel for rock guitar, very little I think for blues. (So sayeth Eric Clapton. And yours truly. )
But you know it’s fun to hear them do a blues pumped-up style. Somehow the band found their way to a fairly obscure Chicago blues guy named John Brim and on their first album covered his “Ice Cream Man.”
All right, kids, let’s end this brain meltdown with a deeper track, “Sinner’s Swing” from 1981’s Fair Warning. (No worries. All your other favorites are on the Spotify list.)
Coda: Singers came and went, the band got older, Eddie had hip surgery and developed tongue cancer. (Since recovered.) The band unceremoniously threw Michael Anthony overboard and replaced him with Eddie’s son Wolfgang. Roth did a radio show for a while and came back.
Their last studio album was 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, their last tour in 2015. That year is the same year they last updated their web site. So, what are they up to? Beats me.
Oh, speaking of tours you all know this one but it’s always a good story re contracts: “Their now-infamous rider specified that a bowl of M&M’s, with all of the brown M&M’s removed, was to be placed in their dressing room.
According to David Lee Roth, this was listed in the technical portion of the contract not because the band wanted to make capricious demands of the venue, but rather as a test of whether or not the contract had actually been thoroughly read and honored, as it contained other requirements involving legitimate safety concerns. If the bowl was present, then the band members could safely assume the other, legitimate, items in the technical rider were being fulfilled to their satisfaction.”
*The debut album also features Eddie’s instrumental “Eruption,” which made many guitarists consider becoming dentists or something. It’s on the Spotify list.
**Turns out it took till January 20, 2017, for that to happen here in America.