[The PHOTO of young Alex and Eddie Van Halen is from the (out of print) Official Van Halen magazine, The Inside.]
The Early Years of Van Halen: A Paper Route, a High School Essay, and a Couple of Lucky Breaks
Jerry McCulley | 01.23.2008
It took a decade of false starts, misfires, and acrimony, but David Lee Roth’s return to Van Halen after a 22-year absence was not only a dream come true for many faithful fans, but it produced a blockbuster tour that began in September of ’07 and is still rolling on, scheduled out as far as April ’08.
It’s now been 30 years since Van Halen’s Warner Bros. debut became a breakthrough commercial success. Considered one of the most wildly influential hard rock albums ever, Van Halen has inspired many a critic to compare guitarist Eddie Van Halen—aged 22 at the time of its release—to Jimi Hendrix in terms of his immediate and enduring impact on guitar playing.
But like many a vaunted overnight success story, Van Halen’s was a long time coming. Having emigrated to California from Holland with their parents in 1962, Alex and Eddie Van Halen had some classical piano training before embracing their instruments of choice—albeit exactly opposite of the ones they’re known for. Al originally studied flamenco guitar, while Ed, inspired by the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” delivered newspapers to buy a $125 Japanese-made drum kit.
“I’m out throwing the paper—five in the morning, in the rain, with a bicycle with a flat tire,” Eddie once groused. “And my brother is practicing on my drums. He got better so I said, ‘You take my drums.’”
Eddie’s second instrument choice was a $70 Teisco Del Rey with four pickups: “I used to think the more pickups, the better!”
But while the Van Halen brothers collaborated in haphazard music projects throughout high school, it wasn’t until their days at Pasadena City College that their careers began to gel.
“I had an English class where I had to do an essay on what my future plans were—what I wanted to do in life,” Eddie has said. “I said I wanted to be a professional rock guitarist—not a rock star.”
To that end Eddie would spend most of his free time listening to ’60s rock guitar icons—especially Eric Clapton—learning their solos note-for-note. “I like phrasing; that’s why I always liked Clapton,” Eddie has explained. “He would just play it with feeling. It’s like someone talking, a question and an answer.”
College classmates recall Eddie pulling guitar picks from his pocket to show off his phenomenal pick speed, one of the cornerstones of his groundbreaking technique.
By 1972 the brothers Van Halen were playing covers and a few originals in a local power trio called Mammoth—with Eddie handling vocals. “I got tired of singing,” he later admitted. “I couldn’t stand that crap! I’d rather just play. [David Lee Roth] was in another local band, and we used to rent his P.A. We said, ‘It’s much cheaper if we just get him in the band!’” Another local band had already copyrighted the Mammoth moniker so, at Roth’s urging, the brothers dubbed their band with the family name.
Van Halen soon graduated from the backyard party circuit to playing mostly covers in what was then a burgeoning small club scene in Southern California. KISS’ Gene Simmons took interest in 1976, producing a demo tape containing the core of what would become their debut album. But “nothing really ever came of it,” Eddie has admitted. “Because we didn’t know where the hell to take our tape. So we had a bitchin’ sounding tape—the world’s most expensive demo tape, which he paid for, but we didn’t know where to take it. We just kept playing everywhere, and eventually they came to us.”
“I guess the main thing that really got us going was the Pasadena Civic Auditorium,” Eddie explained. “We used to print up flyers, with some local people helping us. But it was basically our own thing. We’d put thousands of ’em in high school lockers. And the first time we played, I guess we drew maybe 900 people. The last time we did, we drew 3,300 people at four or five bucks a head. And that was still without a record out or management or anything. It was about the only place where we could play our own music.”
Local radio personality Rodney Bingenheimer took an early interest in Van Halen, with Roth appearing on his influential KROQ show to say thanks and debut a few tracks from the Simmons demos. Bingenheimer also helped move the band up the food chain of local clubs, from playing Top 40 covers at Gazzari’s on the Strip to a crucial few months of gigs at the more prestigious Starwood. It was there that Marshall Berle, nephew of pioneering TV comic Milton Berle, discovered the band, eventually becoming their first manager.
“We played a good set in front of no people,” Eddie has recalled. “It was an empty house at the Starwood on a rainy Monday night, and all of a sudden Marshall walks in with [producer] Ted Templeman and [Warner executive] Mo Ostin. It was heavy. I remember talking to other bands who were always trying to get Ted to produce their records, but he only works inside of Warner Brothers. Within a week we were signed. It was right out of the movies.”
Templeman and Ostin recorded two-dozen plus demos in 1977, most of the Van Halen debut album, and proto-versions of such later staples as “Beautiful Girls,” “Light Up the Sky,” “DOA,” “Mean Streets,” and others—along with a batch of also-rans that would never be officially released. Sessions for their debut album spanned three weeks that October, with the band playing what would be its farewell Pasadena Civic show in the midst.
“The album is very live with no overdubs,” Eddie has said of the whirlwind sessions for their debut. “That’s the magic of Ted Templeman. I’d say out of the 10 songs on the record, I overdubbed the solo in two or three. One of them’s doubled in ‘Ice Cream Man’ and ‘Jamie’s Cryin’’—all the rest are live! I used the same equipment I use live, the one guitar, soloed during the rhythm track. And Dave stood in the booth and sang a lot of lead vocals at the same time.”
As for Eddie Van Halen’s most famous guitar solo, he’s said, “My guitar solo in ‘Eruption’ wasn’t really planned to be on the record. Me and Al were dickin’ around, rehearsing for a show. I was warming up, you know, practicing my solo, and Ted walks in. He goes, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ I go, ‘That’s a little solo thing I do live.’ He goes, ‘Hey, it’s great. Put it on the record!’”