For day 3 of “Fair Warning Week” celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album, we have an extensive Fair Warning review written by longtime fan and VHND reader Scott Esman of Glendora California, along with all three of Eddie Van Halen’s isolated guitar tracks from the album, which have circulated only because fans were able to separate and extract the guitar track from songs included in the Guitar Hero: Van Halen game.
30 Years Later – Van Halen’s Fair Warning
by Scott Essman
“And somebody said fair warning; lord, strike that poor boy down.”– Van Halen, 1981
Thirty years ago, Van Halen released their best album, Fair Warning. Bold, dark, and deadly serious, their fourth recorded effort dispensed with the party atmosphere that the band carved in the grooves of their first three collections, and presented an ambitious, well-crafted and carefully-produced approach.
As with the first three Van Halen albums, Fair Warning was produced by Warner Bros. Records’ A&R man Ted Templeman, who had first been assigned to the band when they were signed to the label in 1977. On each of the first three efforts, Templeman aimed for a live approach, capturing the band’s wild but somehow honed legendary stage shows of the mid-1970s, where they played everywhere from San Gabriel Valley, California backyard parties to the now defunct Starwood Club in West Hollywood. For Van Halen (1978), Van Halen II (1979) and Women and Children First (1980), Templeman recorded the band with a minimal amount of overdubs, recording the tracks quickly and focusing on a blended mix of Michael Anthony’s bass playing, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, David Lee Roth’s vocals, and, of course, Edward Van Halen’s majestic guitar playing. This sound, which the Van Halen brothers unofficially trademarked as their “brown” sound, was tweaked for each successive record, all of which came in service of the Southern California fun which had been missing from rock ‘n’ roll since the 1960s tracks by the Beach Boys.
However, on Fair Warning, Templeman took the band through a measured lengthier studio process, focusing on more complex compositions and taking the band in a distinctly provocative direction, far removed from the lighter fare of the earlier material. Gone were the shenanigans of “I’m The One” and “Ice Cream Man” from the first album, the upbeat tones of “Dance the Night Away” and “Bottom’s Up!” from the second record, and even the toying of “Everybody Wants Some!” from the third one. In place of the happy talk of the first three Van Halen albums were the stark, direct, and intense music and lyrics of more mature but no less intent players.
Leading off Fair Warning is a slow fade-in of an Edward Van Halen tapping lick that is at once immediately identifiable and inscrutable. Listeners from the first track on the first album onward wondered how the guitar player was making his unique sounds with the instrument on nearly every song, but the lead-in to Fair Warning was something else again. How is he pulling this one off, no pun intended, was the pervading question which perfectly ushered in the mood of the new album. After the buildup, the band springs into the first track, “Mean Street”, full blast. Though still considered a deep album cut, “Mean Street” is among the best tunes of the band’s career, offering a interlude slogan so expressive, it was also written graffiti-style across a wall featured on the sleeve of the original vinyl package, with the slogan doubling as an explanation of the album’s title. Combined with the bizarrely disturbing painting featured on the album’s cover, with “Mean Street”, one knew that they were in for a totally new Van Halen experience with Fair Warning. Though heavily overdubbed, the end of the track provides some of Edward Van Halen’s nicest guitar touches on the album. And this new recorded journey had begun.
Not letting up a beat, the following track is no less memorable or affecting. “Dirty Movies” is an ode to a former prom queen’s descent into pornography and the guilty speaker’s reminiscence about her past and present lives, sharing with others that they could “go see baby now.” Starting with Alex Van Halen’s iconic drumming and his brother’s swirling surreal guitar intro, not less adventuresome than “Mean Street” but perhaps more precise, “Dirty Movies” launches into a guttural explosion of instruments, then immediately into another classic Edward Van Halen riff, onto which Roth’s heartstricken lyrics meld perfectly. While “Mean Street” might be a more memorable track, “Dirty Movies” is no lesser a written and recorded composition though it unthinkably very rarely if ever gets any play on classic rock radio.
If there is a party-inflected track on Fair Warning, it would be the third track, “Sinner’s Swing”, though it’s noticeably darker than any similarly anthemic material from the earlier Van Halen output. Featuring overt profanity, Van Halen was going all out on this track, showing that they could rock as hard as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal of the time without losing their predilection for top musicianship. The song features Edward Van Halen’s most blistering solo on the record, and David Lee Roth’s lyrics are more steadfast and urgent than those on the feel-good tunes of the first three albums.
But just when the listener might be fooled into thinking that the album is taking a low-culture approach, “Hear About It Later” offers another classic Edward Van Halen introduction, possibly using effects such as a flanger, but somehow made wholly unique in its execution. With the sole exception of the opening of Van Halen II’s “Women in Love”, the intro to “Hear About it Later” is Edward Van Halen’s most melodic opening to a song in his recorded career and it does not rely on the lightning fast pyrotechnics of his solos on, most noticeably, “Eruption” from the first album, “Spanish Fly” from Van Halen II, and even of the opening of Fair Warning’s “Mean Street”. Once the listener has settled in to the beauty and resonance of the opening, Roth’s howl and Eddie Van Halen’s overdubbed riffing initiate another more serious song with “Hear About It Later”, with the speaker wanting to be left alone from complaining neighbors and onlookers, wanting to run for his money, that’s all, without wasting time. Roth’s nearly spoken-word approach with Edward Van Halen’s subtly crunching riffing combine with the thunder of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony’s booming rhythm section. But the best part occurs mid-song. Not delivered as a typical solo, the “solo” section begins with a total dropout of the guitar, relegated to several bars of a cowbell-drums-bass groove setup. Then, Edward Van Halen joins in, first riffing, then exploding into a solo with the other players, before an outro that engages his considerable skills of speed without losing feeling. When Roth returns, we do not get another verse so much as an extended chorus with a grandiose finish. When Roth produces a final yelp, we have been taken on a musical journey unfamiliar to Van Halen fans to that point in the band’s career.
If there is a fully anthemic track on the album without a light iteration, it would be the first song on the second side of Fair Warning, “Unchained”. Introduced with a monster guitar riff with a quirky interlude of its own, leading into a full band outburst, the song reeks of the reckless abandon that the speaker professes. Hitting the ground running, not asking for permission, with the speaker’s chance to finally fly, the lyrics and music are the total combination of a hard rock band at their pinnacle. It would never again be the same for the band despite what the sales figures might say about future releases. “Unchained”, still widely played on rock radio, also features one of Roth’s most clever interludes, coming after the guitar solo – which is dispersed within a funky bass-drums time signature – even breaking the fourth wall to have Templeman tell Roth to give him a break and Roth ordering up that break. A final humorous distortion-free guitar chord is all that there is to tell you that the bombastic song is over after only three-and-a-half glorious minutes.
The lone ballad on the album, “Push Comes to Shove”, oddly follows “Unchained”, a melancholy bluesy outing for the band that serves as Roth’s lonely reflections on a rock ‘n’ roll life where few of his female encounters remember his first name after 40 one night stands in various cities across the country. Van Halen’s tours in the late 1970s and early 1980s were legendary for their length and willingness to play anywhere, and this song might be the group’s best reflection on that life. Another singular Edward Van Halen guitar solo, with fewer reliances on aural tricks than other solos, punctuates the song nicely, working in tandem with the other players.
Following the ballad is “So This is Love?” Again a bitterly ironic number, a mediation on the differences between lustful wanting and pure love, the song begins with a bass-drum boogie attack before launching into another Edward Van Halen power play. Yet, the riff in the main verse is understated and more of a counterpart to Roth’s needy lyrics than a natural underscore as in the other songs. Though the verse is not as memorable for its playing, the whole is greater than the individual parts, and the song is elevated by another deeply-felt Edward Van Halen solo. Barely more than three minutes, the song, a shade lesser than the other key album cuts, ends up being a rollicking upbeat tune and the last “real” song on the album.
The instrumental “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” has been described as a monster coming out of a swamp, and for good reason, with its heavily synthesizer-laded guitar and drum trade-offs, two minutes of auditory gore whose place is puzzling on the album though never disinteresting. The short bit leads to another half-song, the exiting “One Foot Out the Door”, which finds the challenged speaker having an affair with a woman whose mean old man is coming home. Also short of two minutes, the final song, with its pedal to the metal, again features the driving synthesized sounds of the previous instrumental. And with that, Fair Warning comes to an exhausting close.
Though press releases indicated that each Van Halen album outsold its predecessor in the Roth years, Fair Warning, with its thematic album-oriented approach, and lack of a genuine hit single as on most of their other records, was actually the poorest selling album of its time for the band though it did reach double platinum status with over 2,000,000 unit sold in the United States. Nevertheless, at the time of its release, the combined musicality of the songs, the more focused production, and the aggressively sinister presentation made it a favorite among diehard fans of the band. After the next two albums aimed for a more pop stance to the music, the band opened its audience to new fans, though arguably lost many early ones. Alas, just as they hit their commercial nadir, the original lineup called it quits entirely, only reuniting again in 2007 after 23 years apart. Whether the rumored new Van Halen album (rumored to be due in late 2011) will achieve the definitive brilliance of Fair Warning remains to be seen, but for real Van Halen aficionados, their fourth album will remain the standard to which the band will forever be held.
Scott Essman bought Fair Warning on April 29, 1981 at Record World in Levittown, Long Island, New York when he was 14. He then saw his first VH show on November 13, 1982 at Nassau Coliseum. He now writes about music and movies from his Southern California home. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.