Marriage delayed work on the band’s fourth album. Torn between his new domestic bliss and a helter-skelter career in Van Halen, Eddie grew disillusioned with the band and wanted to quit. In his book Kiss and Make-up, Gene Simmons reported that a distraught Eddie at least halfheartedly made motions toward defecting Van Halen and joining Kiss as a second guitarist. “We thought Kiss with Eddie Van Halen on second guitar was an exciting idea,” Simmons wrote, “but if it came to pass what would his makeup character be?”
Certainly Eddie’s qualms were serious enough that Alex later claimed to have convinced Eddie to keep Van Halen together. “On the whole album I was angry, frustrated, and loose,” Eddie admitted. It was a dark time for him personally.
Consequently, Fair Warning was a major departure from the playfulness of Women and Children First. Before work began in the winter of early 1981, Roth had spent a few royalty checks for a glamorous jungle adventure to Haiti and had been punched with an emaciated paw in his conscience. He saw poverty and corruption in doses unavailable in Pasadena or Indiana, and he came back to the fractious Van Halen camp ready for a revolution of his own.
The record brought back the dynamics of the debut album, the silences and rhythm-section showcases that formed the full heavy metal machine. At the same time, it was much denser. Musically, almost every song had thick overdubs on the rhythm and lead guitar tracks, and the band recorded using smaller studio amps to control the sound instead of capturing it directly from typical high-decibel stage rigs. The sunshine backing vocals were held to a minimum.
The album cover was also odd, a collection of drawings of violent street situations, each panel loosely corresponding to a song on the album. The images were chosen and arranged by Van Halen’s lighting designer turned all-purpose creative
director, Pete Angelus, based on paintings by troubled Canadian-Ukrainian prairie artist William Kurelek. Alex had discovered the paintings, and instead of a collage he initially was interested in only one image: a man ramming his head into a wall.
This tough fourth album declared the band’s reign over the rising tide of heavy music. They were pictured uncharacteristically wearing black leather, nodding to the British metal sound just arriving in the United States. Yet Van Halen remained wary of the term “heavy metal.” They had Americanized heavy metal, styling their hair and projecting exuberance and confidence instead of the dour attitudes of their European counterparts. As Roth said, “This is not like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath—that’s for young boys. I maintain that Van Halen is for everybody.”
Oozing with menace, Fair Warning was the closest Van Halen ever came to a thematic concept album, a suite of songs about life in the ruts. The opening cut, “Mean Street,” became an anthem. Beginning with Eddie’s fast-motion slapping pattern on high and low E strings, a technique he adapted from funk bass, the track stepped into skid-row territory instead of strolling down Main Street. The main riff was lifted from the band’s midseventies staple “Voodoo Queen,” while the funky transitional riff came from their “She’s the Woman.” Now past the point of reusing old songs, Eddie was chopping and rearranging the hot moments of his back catalog.
Fair Warning was a masterpiece made in the studio, not honed like past albums in the clubs before recording. While demoing the song as a work in progress, Dave slurred the lyrics in a monotonous jive, hustling the band toward a bang-up heavy metal can-can finale, far flashier than anything used on the album.
Eddie again picked up a guitar slide for “Dirty Movies,” though he had trouble reaching the high notes on his SG-shaped Gibson Les Paul Junior. Ever one to bend his tools to fit his needs, he sawed a chunk off the vintage guitar so he could play the song the way he thought it should sound.
Eddie claimed “Push Comes to Shove” was a nod to dub reggae, instigated by Roth. If so, the template for dread-rock fusion was years ahead of similar sultry tracks by Rastafarian punks Bad Brains or the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Saved as a big punch for the start of side two, “Unchained” was the biggest riff since “Runnin’ with the Devil”—a barrel-chested headbanger built on crunchy guitar, Roth’s screams, and a plowing bass line that left Michael Anthony free for high-pitched backing vocals. At the end of the guitar solo, the band pulled back while Roth ribbed the control room like a street-corner wiseguy running a friend through the dozens. “Hey man, that suit is you! You’ll get some leg tonight for sure!” “C’mon Dave, gimme a break,” Ted Templeman punched in from the control room, and a legendary ad-lib was born, a peek behind the curtain of the Wizard of Van Halen. As with most of the band’s off-the-cuff turns, however, each peck of brilliance was meticulously rehearsed. On the preproduction versions of “Unchained,” Roth delivered the “Gimme a break!” line himself.
Eddie and Templeman often came to screaming fights over overdubs, with Templeman refusing to allow multitracking that the band could never re-create onstage. He nixed a version of “Unchained” where Eddie had split his guitar with a harmonizer so that the sound in the right speaker was a muddy octave lower. Some days the team were best friends, sometimes Templeman was the enemy. Eddie later admitted to sneaking into the studio with engineer Donn Landee behind Templeman’s back. Significantly, Eddie’s need for more control pushed him to begin plans to build his own home studio with Landee’s help. Though brief instrumentals like “Eruption” were now part and parcel of a Van Halen package, Fair Warning’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” was a complete departure. Composed quickly by Eddie on an Electro-Harmonix synthesizer, allegedly for his new wife, the funky two-minute track fit the album’s mood perfectly. The synth rock pulsed as hard as any rudimentary electro music, resembling squelching European synth devils like the Italian horror soundtrack group Goblin or England’s cold-blooded Gary Numan.
Closing the record was “One Foot Out the Door,” a fast rocker built on another burbling synth line. The song was reputedly captured in one take as the band was literally heading out the door of Sunset Sound after finishing the record.
After a reviewer in Rolling Stone predictably tore up the album, Valerie Bertinelli threw the band a congratulatory celebration. Regardless of what a magazine that had yet to put them on the cover thought, Fair Warning established the band artistically and proved Van Halen mattered beyond a party environment. At one point or another, all four members later declared it their favorite early Van Halen record and defended its virtues.
Launched in April 1981, Fair Warning set a new chart high for the band by peaking at number 5 on the Billboard chart. The problem was there was no obvious radio hit. “Mean Street,” “Push Comes to Shove,” and “Unchained” all cracked the Top 30 rock list, but the mainstream pop hit that the record label wanted eluded them. In the eyes of the band’s business partners, that was a flaw. As much as the music industry pretended to be results-driven, there was a pack mentality that craved marketable hits.
Roth liked to say that Van Halen had played Lima, Ohio, and Lima, Peru, Paris, Texas, and Paris, France, and every place in between. But except for rehearsal sessions in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a few subsequent gigs north of the border, the Fair Warning tour in 1981 never left the country. The band’s operation had become too massive, requiring a small city of support staff and hardware. The four weeks of tour rehearsal alone cost almost $100,000 in crew salaries plus stage and gear rental. The actual tour budget named expenses like $5,000 for an “ego ramp” reaching into the crowd, $1,000 for Alex’s fire effect, a whopping $4,000 for backstage passes, and $2,500 for dance lessons. Instead of burning audiences in the corneas with a straightforward light show, the Fair Warning stage setup brought the bad side of town to the suburbs. A bluesy urban street scene unfolded on a massive backdrop while Van Halen ripped through darker material like “Sinner’s Swing.” Meanwhile, Alex acquired a massive gong behind his kit, which he lit in a circle of flame and bashed repeatedly to bring the show to a climax.
During 1981, the band sold out three nights at the Philadelphia Spectrum and two nights at the Capital Centre in D.C. The New York Times gave the band’s Madison Square Garden appearance a respectful nod, describing the three-ring circus administered by Roth with the help of “right hand man” Eddie Van Halen. The newspaper of record even credited “the heavy-metal brand of hard rock” with keeping the record business afloat.
Though the full tour was too expensive to haul to Europe, Van Halen appeared on Dutch television. On the streets of Amsterdam, Dave was comically brushed off by passersby, except for a well-meaning elderly man who thought he was a French tourist. Dave found his bandmates near a wurst wagon and mock-interviewed them about Van Halen. Eddie and Alex began rapidly discussing the band in Dutch. They pretended to be starstruck by the arrival of bassist Michael Anthony—a man so unpresumptuous that he still admitted to being thrilled when fans asked him to sign autographs.
Dave continued questioning the band as they cruised the Amsterdam canals. Eddie replied in his native Dutch: “The best city in the world, with the best beer and the best romance.” He and Alex glowed with pride, enjoying the royal treatment twenty years after leaving the country as small boys.
Par for the course, Fair Warning was platinum by year’s end, but sales of each of the band’s first four albums pointed toward a slight downward trend. The band shot a music video in a foggy forest near a giant brontosaurus sculpture, but the footage was never edited because the record label saw no need to promote an album without a single. That insatiable appetite for airplay would hang over the band during their next record.
This entire entry is from the book “Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga” by Ian Christe. The book is available at VanHalenStore.com and we think it’s the best history of the band ever written. (All photos from VHND).