From Guitar World.com. Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, April 2008
Thirty Years ago, Van Halen burst out of the Sunset Strip and set the music world on fire with their debut album. This is the story behind the group’s rise to success and the making of Van Halen, the record that changed guitar playing – and rock – forever.
Thirty years ago, Van Halen arrived when music was in desperate need of them. Belching fire and brimstone and fighting for their right to party while the Beastie Boys were still in middle school, their timing was impeccable. When Van Halen, the Pasadena, California–based group’s debut album, was released on February 10, 1978, there were hardly any stars in American music. The album not only made celebrities of the groups four members—it also gave new life to guitar-oriented rock and made virtuosity a criterion for any guitarist who hoped to follow in the group’s footsteps.
From the start, everything about Van Halen seemed to suggest grandness of scale: Their name, which, somewhat surprisingly, singer David Lee Roth had to convince Eddie Van Halen into using in place of the more directly sizecentric Mammoth (Eddie later admitted that his surname was the perfect choice: “It sounds huge, like an atomic bomb.”). Their outsized stage show, perfected at backyard keggers and wet T-shirt contests, and eventually at Sunset Strip clubs like the Whisky a Go-Go and Gazzari’s.
And, of course, their energy. Van Halen had swagger, good looks and smiles—that magical show-biz triumvirate introduced and perfected by the Beatles that had somehow become lost over the years. What’s more, they and their music were fun. By the early Seventies, music was beginning to feel like work: the prog-rock movement brought staggering feats of virtuosic musicianship, but the music was full of torturous 20-minute opuses about space travel and Knights of the Round Table. Van Halen seemed to understand that music could be the antidote to cynicism, that it could make you feel alive again. “I think the thing that separated me and the rest of the band from everybody else was the fact that we just loved to play,” Eddie recalled. “That’s the thing: you don’t work music, you play music.”
There was also that sound, a ground shaker that matched the audacity of the band’s ambitions. It was based on booming drums and gushers of distorted guitar, jacked up by Eddie’s personally modified guitars and amplifiers (the guitarist famously used Variacs to lower the line voltage of his amps, thereby reducing headroom and causing the power tubes to compress and distort more). Rarely in the annals of rock did a sound serve a band so beautifully: the higher the volume, the larger the canvas, the more inspired the music making. Most important, there was
Eddie’s singular approach to the guitar, honed at first by years of obsessively studying the styles of Hendrix, Beck and, in particular, Eric Clapton. Slowing down Cream records to copy the solos to songs such as “Spoonful” brought the young guitarist only so far. By his mid-teens, out of frustration and sheer force of will, he flipped the bird to convention and become a recluse, shutting himself in his bedroom for 12 hours at a time to devote himself to the instrument and the strange and wondrous noises he heard in his head. “I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Mall talls,” he said. “My brother [Alex] would go out at 7 p.m. to party and get laid, and when he’d come back at 3 a.m., I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years.”
When he finally emerged from his room and hit the Hollywood stages with Van Halen (which included Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and Roth), his breathtaking abilities were nearly fully formed, as was his unorthodox hammer-on-and-pull-off technique. Eddie readily admits that he wasn’t the first guitarist to employ this approach, but the manner in which he brought it to the fore, with a commitment and finesse that transcended mere gimmickry, was seen as shocking, revolutionary and, above all, baffling. “I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his ‘Heartbreaker’ solo back in 1971,” he recalled. “He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought, Wait a minute, open string…pull off. I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around? I just kind of took it and ran with it.”
Still precocious enough to be considered an enfant terrible, Eddie Van Halen incited strong reactions and drew legions of fascinated (and no doubt envious) guitarists to his band’s shows. When performing live in those early years, he played with his back to the audience. While this might have been seen as an act of supreme humility, as if some part of him rebelled against canonization, it was in fact an act of self-preservation. His brother Alex, demonstrating uncanny prescience, had warned him that other guitarists would “rob him blind” if his tricks were exposed before the band could cut a record. It was only after the release of Van Halen that Eddie, secure in the knowledge that his feats of fretboard wizardry had been sufficiently documented, felt comfortable playing facing a crowd.
But even before he tracked his first note in a professional recording studio, he was putting serious distance between himself and his peers—and his heroes. Many guitarists have a talent, but to be successful it is not enough to have talent; one must have a certain kind of talent. Hendrix was a shape-shifter of sound in a psychedelic, blues-based idiom. Page was a master of moods, production and arrangement. Beck was a flash stylist. Clapton had tone, taste and knew his way around pop composition. With Eddie Van Halen, all of the above applied. His thing was, he could do it all. And, along with David Lee Roth, he was penning songs that were tight and tuneful—the stuff that hits are made of.
Their reputation for drawing audiences was built quickly. Soon the band was opening for the likes of Santana, UFO, Nils Lofgren and Sparks. When scenester and show promoter Rodney Bingenheimer booked Van Halen into the Starwood club, Kiss’ Gene Simmons caught their act and was floored. Taking the Pasadena upstarts under his leathery wing, Simmons financed the band’s first professional demo tape. Basics for the songs “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “House of Pain” (the latter of which would appear on the album 1984) were cut at Village Recorder Studios in Los Angeles. Later, Simmons, who was trying to persuade the band into calling themselves Daddy Longlegs (an idea they rejected out of hand), flew the group to New York to finish recording at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York.
It was there that Eddie had his first exposure with the practice of overdubbing; the guitarist was anything but comfortable with the process. “I tried to [do it], but I just didn’t know how,” he said. “You have to play to yourself. I was like, ‘How the hell do I do this?’ I hadn’t even played with another guitarist.’ While in New York, Simmons arranged for the band to perform a showcase for Kiss’ manager Bill Aucoin. Aucoin agreed with Simmons that Van Halen had spirit, but he felt their commercial prospects were limited; instead, the manager set his sights on signing a band called Piper, whose commercial prospects proved to be even less than limited. With their demo tape in hand, Van Halen headed back to California, buoyed by their brush with success but uncertain when their real break would come.
Although they were stars on the Sunset Strip, the band wasn’t seeing much money; some gigs paid no more than $75. “Not even enough to buy equipment,” Eddie recalled. “Alex and I used to go around and paint house numbers on curbs to make extra money.” All of that changed during another Starwood performance when the band was introduced to Marshall Berle, nephew of comedian and TV icon Milton Berle, who became the group’s manager. Berle had a flair for hype, but something about the way he talked up Van Halen and their ability to draw crowds led Warner Bros. head Mo Ostin to believe that maybe this was more than just talk—perhaps there was something to this band from Pasadena after all. And so, on a night that saw heavy rain flood the Hollywood streets, Van Halen played to a nearly empty Starwood.
Mo Ostin was there, along with Warner Bros. in-house producer Ted Templeman. Despite the nonexistent crowd, Van Halen played with unbridled brio. Ostin and Templeman looked at each other and smiled: They would sign the band, as in right away. “It was right out of the movies,” Eddie said. “Just like that, we finally had a record deal.”
Templeman, who had produced albums for Van Morrison, Carly Simon and Captain Beefheart, among others, and who enjoyed a long and fruitful association with the Doobie Brothers, was astounded by Van Halen’s surfeit of strong material, and he wasted little time in hustling them into Sunset Sound Studios. Once in the studio, even less time was wasted: In only 18 days, the band raced through their entire repertoire, 40 songs in all, originals as well as covers such as the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and John Brim’s blues standard “Ice Cream Man.” On the songs that didn’t require a vibrato bar (“You Really Got Me,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” the rhythm track for Jamie’s Cryin’ ”), Eddie employed his main live guitar, an Ibanez “Shark” Destroyer. On other songs, he used a black-andwhite striped Strat that he outfitted with a Gibson Fifties PAF humbucker.
Much to Eddie’s relief, Templeman wasn’t the punctilious sort; the producer was in thrall of the band’s live performance qualities and insisted on keeping instrumental overdubs to a minimum. “It was a party,” Eddie said of the sessions. “We played the way we played onstage, and it was great. It didn’t feel like we were making a record. We just went in, poured back a few beers and played.”
The tracks for the album had almost all been cut when, one day, Templeman walked into the studio and heard Eddie and Alex warming up for a show the band was to play that night at the Whisky. According to Eddie, the two were just “dickin’ around,” but Templeman sensed something else was happening, a breakthrough of some sort. He watched and listened in hypnotic excitement as the guitarist’s fingers danced along the fretboard. These weren’t the normal scales and patterns Eddie had traditionally practiced to limber up; these were strange and exciting song fragments, a voluptuous feast of ideas, operatic in scope but performed with a savage, erotic force. Templeman had already been telling friends and associates about this marvelous new guitarist he’d been working with, going so far as to compare him to the likes of Django Reinhardt and Andrés Segovia, but now he was convinced of Eddie Van Halen’s genius. He asked Eddie what it was he was playing. “Oh, that’s a little solo thing I do live,” he responded. Templeman didn’t recall Van Halen playing it at the Starwood show he attended, but he insisted that the instrumental be fleshed out and cut for the album.
In one breathless take, after a short, bombastic intro with Alex and Michael Anthony, Eddie released an unbroken ribbon of scales, bends, dive bombs and hammer-on classical-sounding arpeggios. As he did in all of the band’s songs, Eddie tuned down a half step (this was done both to accommodate Roth’s vocal style and to give the guitar sound more teeth). The only effects that were used were an MXR Phase 90 and a Univox EC-80 echo box (the latter of which was housed in an old WWII bomb shell that Eddie found in a junkyard). One minute and forty-two seconds after the tape started rolling, Eddie pulled his vibrato bar up after a long, descending growl and “Eruption,” as it was now called, was complete. Templeman and the band were elated, but Eddie was chastened. “I didn’t even play it right,” he later remarked. “There’s a mistake at the top end of it. To this day, whenever I hear it I always think, Man, I could’ve played it better.”
Eddie would soon make one more screw up, only this wouldn’t go down so well. With the album still months away from release, he went to the Rainbow Bar & Grill and hung out with members of a fellow Sunset Strip band called Angel. As alcohol flowed, drummer Barry Brandt began to brag about the forthcoming Angel record. Eddie, flush with pride over the album he had just cut, responded in kind. When the party moved to Brandt’s house, Eddie, hell bent on blowing everybody’s mind, put on a tape of Van Halen—and jaws were dropped. Eddie thought nothing of it—for weeks he had been playing the tape for his friends—but when he got a call from a furious Ted Templeman, informing him that Angel were in a studio frantically recording their own version of “You Really Got Me” with the intention of beating Van Halen to the punch, he realized the magnitude of his mistake. As a consequence, Warner Bros. had no choice but to rush-release Van Halen’s version of the song. (It should be noted that Angel would soon join Piper in the Oblivion bins at record shops.)
There were no riots in the streets, nobody threw anything (except guitars out of windows), but it’s safe to say that from the moment people dropped the needle on Van Halen and heard what seemed to be some sort of air-raid alarm (actually, it was the band members’ car horns synced together and slowed down to ominous effect) they were in a state of shock. A new movement was taking place, and Van Halen, with a bratty authority and a rapacious sense of purpose not heard since the debut of Led Zeppelin, were leading the charge. A nearly flawless piece of pop art, Van Halen is one of those great rarities in music, at once simple and sophisticated, distilling the band’s prodigious chops and party-hearty aesthetic into hummable melodies that took hold of one’s senses and didn’t let go. “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin,’ ” “Runnin with the Devil,” “I’m on Fire”— there isn’t a bum track to be found. As both singer and carnival barker of sorts, David Lee Roth made all the right noises: surprised whoops, leering come-ons, testicle-gripping screams, hollers of “whoa now” and the like—the full panoply of orchestrated letme- entertain-you shtick. Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony more than held up their respective ends, providing a prizefighter’s punch and, in the case of Anthony, background vocals that sailed in the air and served as the perfect counterpoint to Roth’s gruff voice.
Of course, there was Eddie. Of all the young guitarists who ever issued a debut record, he’s the one who delivered on promises he never had to make. Dispensing with the usual wobbly preamble of a flawed but ambitious first record, he burst through the gate as a musician who valued substance and emotional contact over mere technical flash. With poetry in his heart and a panoramic vision of where he was headed, he never had to develop into something special, for he was already there. Being thrust into the pantheon of greats at such a tender age (he was 22 at the time) and so early in his career can be ruinous to most musicians, but Eddie’s extraordinary energy and thirst for innovation proved to be invaluable strengths. Guitarists the world over saw the rashness and speed of his gifts and emulated him in a way that no musician has ever had to endure. “Eruption” was and continues to be a litmus test for budding axslingers—what Frank Zappa’s “The Black Page” is to drummers, so, too, Eddie’s tour de force is to guitarists. But it’s also a cul-de-sac, for no matter how hard everyone tried to catch up to Eddie Van Halen, he was burning up the ground as fast as he could run.
Thirty years on, it continues unabated.