Imagine a small theater with an extremely crowded backstage area which has no room for the opening band’s equipment. Add an inexperienced road crew, four pairs of 3 inch platform shoes, and an equipment truck with the headlights accidentally left on. What could possibly go wrong?
From 1974 to early 1978, Van Halen probed their way through the local rock scene in Southern California, stopping only long enough to pour themselves another round of drinks. In the context of today’s music world, four years of club dates is nearly a lifetime for most eager young bands. Few have the fortitude and dedication to stick it out, choosing instead to join different groups or give up on the dream altogether. Eddie and Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth looked at it differently. They weren’t worried that they wouldn’t be discovered. They simply wondered when it would happen. In 1977, the band finally got a series of breaks and quickly found themselves in the studio slamming together what would become one of the most dynamic debut albums in rock history. The tracks that eventually comprised Van Halen were the fuel that kept those early club shows alive. Nearly all the album’s material had been tested hundreds of times live on stage. As a result, the project was quickly completed and Van Halen found themselves smack dab in the center of an upcoming World Tour, courtesy of Warner Bros. records.
In February, 1978, Van Halen’s first album was released, while the band continued to play shows around Hollywood and Pasadena. Their final club show was, fittingly, at the Whísky-A-GoGo on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Only one week later, they were playing the Aragon Ballroom in Chicago, IL – the heart of the Midwest. As the opening act for Journey and Montrose, Van Halen was afforded few luxuries. The Aragon was a small theater with an extremely tiny backstage area. Once the other bands had loaded their equipment inside, there was no room for anything else, much less VH’s gear. Van Halen’s completely inexperienced road crew had to load all their gear through the main entrance, walking each item through the venue and over the stage. The half-hour show they performed was easily the worst set of the entire tour, mostly due to logistical problems. Plus, the entire band was wearing three inch clogs, making even the easiest stage moves nearly impossible. Taking cues from rock gods KISS, the band began their tour wearing three inch platform shoes, costing up to $300 a pair. As much as they loved the shoes, it was very difficult to walk, so they were quickly scrapped. Dave began wearing Capezio shoes while the rest of the band wore sneakers.
The Aragon’s stage was far too small for the movement they were used to, and it showed. After it was all said and done, the lighting director’s headset malfunctioned for the entire show, and the band left the headlights on in the equipment truck, which resulted in a dead battery by the time they finished the load-out. As first tours go, this wasn’t the ideal way to start. Fortunately, this would be the only tour where Van Halen would find themselves as an opening act.
Van Halen spent most of their first world tour as an opening act for Journey, Montrose and later Black Sabbath. The tour was initially supposed to last only three weeks. Due to the incredible response, the band ended up touring roughly eight months. Jack Boyle, of Cellar Door Productions, advised the band to play smaller venues rather than the full-scale coliseums that Warner Brothers wanted them to tackle. The reasoning behind this approach was that Van Halen could sell out each performance and learn how to work the crowd to hone their overall stage presence.
Guitarists everywhere would get a nightly dose of Eddie’s extended guitar solo, perhaps at its most raw and uninhibited. Although the band only had one album out, the set list often included additional material that would surface on Van Halen II. These inspired performances were something to behold – the flagship tour of a band that would go on to sell nearly 90 million albums worldwide.
- On Fire
- I’m the One
- Bass Solo
- Runnin’ with the Devil
- Feel Your Love Tonight
- Atomic Punk
- Drum Solo
- Little Dreamer
- Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love
- Ice Cream Man
- You Really Got Me
The Aragon Ballroom is located in Michael Anthony’s hometown of Chicago, IL. (It’s still up and running by the way.) In the seventies it began hosting lots of rock and roll acts. The shows gained a reputation for attracting a tough crowd, leading to the nickname “the Aragon Brawlroom”.
The March 3rd, 1978 bill was Journey / Ronnie Montrose / Van Halen. Aragon’s standing-room-only, capacity crowd of 5,450 (every mouth in the crowd agape at Eddie’s never-before-heard guitar style) was the first group of people ever to see Van Halen perform outside of their Southern California stomping grounds. History in the making!
Newly surfaced photos from that night …March 3rd, 1978:
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