The classic Fresno bootleg gets a huge upgrade!
Posted by Scott Gilbert, one of the VHND’s bootleg connoisseurs, 4/9/10
“Oh my God! This is outstanding!” Those were the first words that came out of my mouth when I first saw this amazing, rare footage in such clarity. As avid collectors of live Van Halen performances have learned, the early years from 1978 to 1981 were rarely captured on video by amateur filmers. The inability to conceal the equipment and get it past the watchful eyes of the security guards made it almost impossible to get into the arena…ALMOST! The sparse amount of footage that does exist today is mostly a collection of 10th generation VHS copies of 8mm film, most of which are accompanied by poorly synched, highly generated audience recordings that are difficult to listen to, let alone view. The videos are nothing more than washed out, glowing, ghost-like figures, moving about the screen between tracking errors and crumpled tape rolls set to a muffled, almost unrecognizable soundtrack. These are the rare treasures that are listed on most collectors’ bootleg lists as “FOR SERIOUS COLLECTORS ONLY.”
Most avid Van Halen bootleg collectors are familiar with the amateur-shot video of the 1978 and 1979 Van Halen shows at the Selland Arena in Fresno, California. The subject matter couldn’t be better – Van Halen at the absolute top of their game during their young and hungry years – but the quality of everyone’s VHS tapes or DVDs are ridiculously poor. Everyone’s copies are so many generations away from the master tape that the blurry footage is nearly unwatchable. During the entire 25 years of it’s circulation, no clean version of this video has ever surfaced. No fan has ever got to see the footage in more pristine form…that is, until now!
Van Halen, September 22nd, 1978 – Selland Arena – Fresno, CA
Note: It plays just a little bit slow, so Roth’s voice sounds deep. And the film reels were only 3.5 minutes long, so no songs are complete.
Part 1: I’m the One / Atomic Punk / Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
Thanks to the original guy who filmed the Fresno Van Halen footage, D. L. Johnson, the lowest generation copies of the 1978 and 1979 Van Halen shows at the Selland Arena in Fresno, California have been converted from analog to digital and then uploaded to Youtube for the world to share and enjoy. Amazingly, the original 8mm film reels were destroyed in a house fire some 30 years ago! Luckily, Johnson had the foresight to make some backup tapes. The original VHS backup transfers are all that remain of this historic footage and, given its age and the story behind the transfer process, this footage is truly amazing!
Being old enough to remember using 8mm film cameras and how bulky and cumbersome they were to carry and shoot with, I often pondered how filmers in the 70’s managed to not only get their equipment into the show and then actually be able to shoot the footage without being detected, but also to pull off the “Trifecta” – Actually getting the footage and equipment OUT of the building undetected. I would imagine how difficult it would have been to be in a crowd of people, trying to transfer film reels and cartridges in low light situations, trying not to expose the film while carefully tucking it away in its case and fumbling another reel as quickly and gingerly as possible, trying to avoid detection from security while still getting your shot. Johnson recalled how he handled the old film cartridges while pulling off this feat. “…They were left in the green Fuji boxes and wrapped in aluminum foil inside the box until they were used at the show. In the dark, with just a small flashlight, it got a little hectic at moments, dodging security and such. A lot was missed.”
As it turns out, Johnson had several years of experience recording audio at multiple shows and he had a brilliant method of achieving his goal. His trick? He rigged up a wheelchair with his equipment and was allowed early access to the arena! “The nice thing about Selland Arena,” he recounts, “was that if you went through the handicapped entrance we always were allowed in early enough to see the soundchecks. And most of the time, with the arena completely empty!” His roommate had the idea of rigging up the wheelchair with a film camera and asked if Johnson could rig it up if he bought the camera, to which Johnson replied, “Sure!”
The 23-year-old Johnson tricked out his wheelchair with a Fuji Super-8 camera and a Sony TC158SD Portable Stereo Cassette recorder equipped with 2 AKG D-1000E microphones to record the shows. Knowing the propensity of other concert goers to over indulge in alcohol and various quantities of illegal substances, which often resulted in an explosion of testosterone induced chanting, yelling and fist pumping (which would surely ruin any chance of getting a descent recording), Johnson cleverly purchased multiple tickets for friends. These chosen few were invited to go to the shows and sit around him and his roommate with the understanding that they would sit and be quiet to assure the best possible recording. Smart thinking, dude!
Part 2: Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love (cont.) / Eruption / You Really Got Me:
Transferring the footage was equally as challenging. This was an era before home video and audio editing software and digitizing equipment was abundant and affordable for the average “Joe Filmer” to mix and master his treasures. This was no deterrent for our savvy bootlegger. Utilizing his craftiness once again, he set out to make his own transfers using nothing but a projection screen, his projector, and his master tape recorder. “I spliced the dozen or so films together and loaded them on a 7 inch reel.” Johnson says. “Then I set up the projector screen in my living room and projected it on the screen (you can see the ripples on the video) while I [simultaneously] taped it on my Panasonic camcorder [and] ran the audio portion from my cassette into the audio input of the camcorder.” Trying to sync up audio and film footage on the fly proved to be a time consuming challenge, but it was a challenge he passionately accepted. “It took MANY attempts to get it as close as it is. I remember “On Fire 79” was the first one I attempted and it took me like 4 hours to come up with one that I liked enough to save.”
The end result of Johnson’s self described, “Labor of Love” is what we see here some 32 years later!
The footage from 1978 shows Van Halen in their unabashed glory as they’re intentionally taking over the world! Opening for Black Sabbath in what would be legend Ozzy Osbourne’s final tour with the band, Van Halen danced and strutted their way into Rock Gods status. For the first time, the world was not only hearing, but SEEING Van Halen live and slamming them with the “In Your Face” style that epitomized what Van Halen was. “I’m the One”, “Atomic Punk”, Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, “Eruption” and their cover of the Kinks classic hit, “You Really Got Me” were all new to the world and you can see the energy, enthusiasm and hysteria that followed wherever Van Halen landed. For fans who were indoctrinated to Van Halen with Sammy Hagar at the helm, this is a rare look at the genesis of what Classic Van Halen truly was and remains to be to this day. Eddie’s searing tone, Dave’s over-the-top presence, banter and frenzy-inducing stage persona, the rhythm section of Mike and Alex providing the backbone and driving the message home…it doesn’t get any better than this!
For most people, having only seen the aforementioned multi-dubbed, highly-generated, tape-damaged versions of this footage, this will take you back to a time when the Mighty Van Halen planted their stake in the ground and claimed the land as their own. In an era where Disco and Adult Contemporary artists like The Bee Gees, The Commodores, Chic and Chuck Mangione ruled the airwaves, Van Halen pillaged and plundered their way across the country and around the world, making their own rules, corrupting the minds and bodies of a whole new generation and ushering in a whole new musical genre: Big Rock! Now, for the first time, we can see just a small sample of the raw energy, natural charisma and uninhibited grandeur that Van Halen embodied in those early years.
Many thanks go out to D.L. Johnson for all of his efforts, past and present, and for sharing this amazing footage with the fans around the globe. So, crank up your speakers, get emersed in these videos, and as Van Halen would say, “FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS!”
Part 3: You Really Got Me (cont.) / Bottoms Up
Tune in next week, when VHND.com will feature the 1979 Fresno Van Halen footage!