Eddie Van Halen’s “Fair Warning”: An Appreciation

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From Truth And Beauty:

“Eddie Van Halen ruined guitar!” yelled the drunken ROTC guy standing just inches from my face. House party. 1991.

The conversation had been very civil up to that point. I’d started with hey, we went to the same high school. That was all I had, as we were several years apart in age and had only met once before–a brief introduction through a mutual friend by the nickname of “Jamestown.” Plus, I was a humanities student; he was in Business. I was a liberal longhair; he was a crew cut conservative. So I reached for the universal and asked what kind of music he listened to. He liked the blues. I liked blues too. Did he play guitar? He did. So did I. More progress. What guitarists did he like?

Things were headed in the right direction until I asked him what he thought about Eddie Van Halen, one of my favorite guitarists.As we stood with cups of watered-down keg beer in hand and a loud party going on all around us he foamed over, blaming all the ills of ’80s hyper-technical guitar playing on the virtuosic Eddie. He hated Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, not to mention the legions of Eddie’s hair metal imitators.

I let him vent to his heart’s content; it was obvious he was a blues purist. Still, I was a little surprised by the venom. I loved old school blues guitar too, but…Eddie was the most innovative rock guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. And he was an accomplished composer/arranger. And, like Jimmy Page, he was a studio rat who was integral to the production process. And he sang sweet background vocals. And he was a humble team player; he played to the song and had no need to hog the spotlight. And rather than choose between Stratocasters and Gibsons like most mortals, he…crafted his own hybrid guitars.

And ultimately, The Mighty Van Halen towered over all the other acts who’d copied and diluted Eddie’s gifts. Blaming Van Halen for guitar shredders with no feeling or originality would be like blaming Steven Spielberg and George Lucas for every piece of shit big budget epic that employed the marketable formulas of “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” without any of the creativity or directorial skill that made those movies so entertaining. Bum rap.

Apparently some people just weren’t grabbed by the mystique of the brown sound.

Two years before this diatribe I’d sat in an apartment right across the street as a friend of a friend plugged his guitar in. I’d just started playing at the time; my capabilities began and ended with a few major chords, stumbles through the Pentatonic scale, and the opening riff of “Purple Haze.” But what I lacked in skill, I made up in enthusiasm; I was very excited about electric guitar.

The guitarist was tall and thin with long blond hair and glasses. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. No nonsense. I asked him if he knew any Van Halen. As I looked on with rapt attention he played the introduction to “Mean Street” virtually note for note, performing a miracle before my eyes.

25 years later this moment in time still stands out, as does Fair Warning, the album “Mean Street” appeared on. Fair Warning was the dark Van Halen album. The dreary brown and black cover art features a figure running head first into a brick wall and a man in a yellow shirt pinned to the ground as he gets pummeled. The album contained no hits; there were no soft, radio-ready songs, no honey to attract the faint of heart.

Rumor has it that Fair Warning was Eddie’s angry album. In addition to the push-pull between introvert and extrovert, Eddie and David Lee Roth fought over creative control.  Eddie wanted more time in the studio and more clout for his studio companion, Donn Landee, the band’s sound engineer. Roth was allies with the producer, Ted Templeman, who focused on singles and didn’t fancy Eddie’s desire to tinker and experiment in the studio.

Within a few years, Eddie would win this battle by building a studio in his home, but at the time Fair Warning was recorded, he had to make do. The result was the purest, edgiest Van Halen release with the most intense guitar fireworks.

Mean Street” opened the album and set the tone. And it showed who was the boss on Fair Warning.

There is much for the practicing electric guitarist (or astute listener) to love in this song. The tapped notes in the introduction come in quietly at first, as if rumbling up from under the surface, then increase in volume. I’ve always loved the counterpoint between the fierce tapped notes and the bright harmonics, all capped by the prehistoric whammy bar-with-feedback sound which howls then fades out in stereo, opening a chasm which is filled on the left channel by the opening riff.

And what of the main riff? As a friend once said, it’s “like a chainsaw ripping through a sequoia.” The main theme backed by Alex’s swinging drums are sinew with swagger.

Then there’s a tasty bridge at 2:06. Roth’s words “dance, baby” are a perfect complement to the slinky, phasered rhythm guitar line.

Eddie ladles more gravy on after the solo-verse-chorus, at 3:22. As the band brings things down, he fills the space with subtle volume modulations, then leads the march to the finish with his patented blood-curdling pick slide. The sound sculpture outro is yet another example of what set Eddie apart from his peers.

So This Is Love?” is the first song I heard off of Fair Warning. In the early ’80s, when MTV exclusively played music videos, I saw a live version of “So This Is Love?” At the time, I wasn’t into Van Halen, but something about the energy of the performance stayed with me.

Fast forward to the summer of 1984. By this point, I’d discovered Van Halen through the release of their most commercially successful album, “1984.” I was a rabid fan; Van Halen was my favorite band. I was eager to see live footage of the band, but there wasn’t much available.

One fine summer day I was watching MTV at a friend’s house. For a teenager, Jim (a.k.a. “Jamestown”) had a seriously tricked-out space–a basement with plush carpeting, nice furniture, a color television, cable, a quality stereo, a refrigerator stocked with cold A & W cream soda. And his parents almost never came downstairs.

Jim was a huge Van Halen fan too, and a huge fan of music in general. He was big into metal and hard rock, but seemed to see everyone live; he had a closet full of concert jerseys.

The rock video we were watching ended and MTV flashed the song credits in white print. We waited. A few seconds later, the opening shots of a concert audience came on, followed by footage of David Lee Roth hoisting  a bottle of whiskey. Could it be?

It was the long lost concert video of “So This Is Love?

Jamestown, 13 at the time, stood on an Ottoman and whooped. My consciousness was totally overtaken by the music and images for all 3:45 of the video. I wouldn’t see it again for almost twenty years, until the invention of YouTube.

The closest thing to a hit on Fair Warning is “Unchained,” which has the party spirit many people associate with Van Halen. The opening is textbook VH:  start with a jagged riff, add drums, mix in an “all right!” from David Lee Roth, a pulsating bass line, and off we go, with some Tarzan yelps for good measure. Below is a live version from 1981. Alex Van Halen’s ring of fire, lit during the crescendo at 3:54, inspired a couple clean-scrubbed, middle-class kids in the neighborhood to try a similar trick at home. The result? One casualty (a detached garage, in ashes), lessons learned, a timeless conversation piece.

My favorite part of Fair Warning is the two-song medley which closes the album.

Sunday Afternoon in the Park” is an instrumental that features some of Alex Van Halen’s heaviest, most primal drumming. And in stark contrast to the bright, cheesy pop sound of the synthesizer explorations on future Van Halen albums–saltpeter to the legendary Van Halen virility–the synth tones on this tune are so dark and ominous that you can cut ‘em with a butcher knife.

Sunday Afternoon in the Park” leads directly into “One Foot out the Door.” After the deep-pocketed, sluggish beat of “Park,” “One Foot out the Door” sounds as if it has been shot out of a cannon, reflecting the immediacy in the narrative. The drum fill before the second verse (at 2:22) is brutal and the tempo change-up just before the solo, at 2:51, is one of those delectable little touches that come when an artist is at the height of their powers.
As if he’s dumping out all of the additional musical ideas he wants to fit onto this masterpiece, Eddie re-asserts his ownership of Fair Warning with a guitarist’s version of John Coltrane’s waves of sound in the epic, minute-long outro solo at 2:53. Eddie dispenses with simple and clean note articulation in favor of a heady blend of tapping, wide bends, stutter-step blues phrases, watery scale runs, and whammy-bar magic in the form of shrieks, dives, and assorted whale sounds. The final minute of Fair Warning is an exclamation point to an album’s worth of the most innovative, bad-ass electric guitar since Hendrix left us. When it comes to sonic invention, no rock guitarist has equaled it since.
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Other guitar hero essays on “Truth and Beauty” blog:
Click here for “The heaviest New Year’s Eve guitar jam ever: Hendrix does ‘Machine Gun’”
here for “The Second Coming:  Stevie Ray Vaughan,” a first-hand account of Vaughan’s final concert
here for “It was 70 years ago today:  an appreciation of Jimi Hendrix”
here for “Link Wray’s ‘Rumble’”
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #1:  Eddie Hazel (Funkadelic)”
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #2:  Frank Zappa”
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #3:  Hiram Bullock” 
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #4: Dweezil Zappa Nails ‘Eruption’”
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #5:  Alvin Lee”
here for “Great Guitar Solos, #6: Neil Young’s ‘Hey Hey, My My’”

and here for Shut Up ‘N Play Yer Guitar – The Six-String Wizardry of Frank Zappa, Part II”