The Weakest Cut: Van Halen
by: James Greene Jr.
Our musical heritage is littered with albums deemed “classic” and “essential.” Yet can any one album, even the most highly-touted or beloved, truly be flawless? I say no. Welcome to The Weakest Cut, a weekly feature in which the least important, interesting, cohesive, or artistically integral song on a specific album will be singled out and discussed at length.
In his all-encompassing Consumer Guide, Robert Christgau hilariously describes Van Halen’s first record as “music [that] belongs on an air craft carrier.” Methinks the Dean was trying to be dismissive, but he really hit the nail on the head. For only a vehicle as massive and as steady as an aircraft carrier could ever hope to support the weighty, dynamic sounds of party metal’s ultimate foursome. Sure, you could try to carry Van Halen via helicopter, but unpredictable wind patterns would surely upset the vehicle’s ability to safely ferry the bombastic music of this Pasadena quartet from point A to point B.
I don’t think anyone’s going to argue that the guitar is not the MVP of Van Halen. Yes, the sum is basically greater than the individual parts on nearly every track, from the deliberate drunken waltz of “Runnin’ With The Devil” to the searing rant that is “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, right on through the show-stopping acoustic fake-out known as “Ice Cream Man.” There is surely no denying the power of David Lee Roth as a front man, or how Alex Van Halen plays those drums with that perfect rock ‘n’ metal feel (it’s not a party without some of Alex’s excellent cymbal wash), or Michael Anthony’s invaluable backup vocals and bass fingering. YET, yet, Van Halen would not have risen much higher than Blue Oyster Cult in the hard-rock canon had it not been for Eddie’s ridonkulous six-string pyrotechnics.
Honestly, can the impact of “Eruption” be accurately measured on any red-blooded American teenage male the first time they hear it? It’s so utterly mind-melting. Absolutely the definitive guitar solo of the post-Beatle era. That’s what’s so amazing—it’s just a guitar solo, but Eddie pulls a rainbow of vibrant colors out of his ass with the screeching and the skronking and the bending and the sweeping and—oh, those final hammer-ons! That’s the sound of the vortex that separates classical music and heavy-metal being eradicated. Mozart’s maggot-infested Viennese brain exploded the minute Eddie laid that to tape.
For me, “Eruption” will always represent and reflect the turbulence I felt in the ninth grade over my first serious crush. All that noise is what I was feeling inside every day as I sat mere feet away from her in Politics/World History. She was like some kind of Sumerian goddess I couldn’t even bring myself to look at with my peasant eyes because it would be disrespectful. Every time she took two seconds to look at or talk to me (or, god forbid, flash that million dollar smile), I’d hear those final “Eruption” hammer-ons reverberating through my head. The glory, the pain! I was trapped in a glass cage of emotion perfectly outlined by Eddie Van Halen’s fret molesting.
But I digress. Van Halen is a pretty unfuckwithable record from start to finish, rising to several occasions just when you think the fellas are out of steam. I must admit, though, I’ve never been big on “Little Dreamer”, mainly because the opening riff is an awful stuttering Rick Springfield fart that only reminds me of dirty decaying snow mounds (brown from a mixture of passing car exhaust and decomposing autumn leaves) and the blanket of grey that hung in our Connecticut sky from November until mid-March when I was usually trapped in the house listening to this cassette. It’s also pretty depressing subject-wise. “Little Dreamer” is about… what, a friend of DLR’s who’s down on their luck? Way to make me frowny faced, Van Halen. It’s mainly that opening riff, though. It’s so devoid of life and texture.
Thankfully, Van Halen bounces back with “Ice Cream Man” and the ballistic closer “On Fire.” “On Fire” seems to contain all the awesome guitar shit EVH couldn’t cram in anywhere else on the album, and amazingly, it all comes together for a real kick-ass tune. If this tune doesn’t make you wanna lift weights or punch something or whip it out at church, consult your doctor immediately. You may have a terminal case of the Mondays.
By the way, I’m no expert on this, but I feel like the B-52’s “appropriated” the bridge riff heard in “On Fire” for their beach-going smash “Rock Lobster”. That’s not a complaint—I wouldn’t change a damn thing about “Rock Lobster”, it’s an awesome song—just more of an observation. Guitar experts, please let me know if I’m off here by a gross series of notes.