Written by Kevin Cenedella
There’s been a movement within people who are roughly my age to dismiss Van Halen’s music entirely. I drove four hours to see them with David Lee Roth in Greensboro North Carolina last spring, and my reaction to their reformation and tour was nothing short of “This is going to be awesome!” Much to my surprise, this emphatic reaction prompted most of my friends to basically say (or at least think) “you’re an idiot.” From what I’ve gathered their sentiment basically declares Van Halen was a “party band” (bad) who was the template for 80’s hair metal (worse). Their lyrics were simple, juvenile, and misogynistic (totally true). Both front men of note (Roth, Hagar) are basically clowns (perhaps). Their actual music was nothing but a vehicle to display the members (especially Eddie’s) virtuosity and nothing more (mostly true).
My response to these assertions is basically “so what?” I think Van Halen is the most entertaining rock band ever. Their entertainment value also happens to come exactly from the aforementioned attributes that lead people to dismiss them. Now, I’ll admit I’m not a Van Halen historian. Unlike almost any other band I love I have never felt compelled to read a Van Halen biography. I have never read contemporary reviews of Roth-Era Halen albums. I have no idea if Lester Bang’s had an opinion about Fair Warning. However, I did once read David Fricke say that Van Halen blew their chance at becoming the 80’s version of Led Zeppelin by releasing OU812 (I happen to like 5150 and OU812 but won’t focus on Hagar). My reaction to Fricke’s statement is “good.”
Led Zeppelin was a great rock band who often tripped over lyrical concepts that I had no interest in them telling me about (mysticism, the occult, hedgerows, etc). Its not that I have some inherent aversion to rock bands teaching me about Greek Mythology (Pink Floyd Sysyphus, anyone?). It’s that, in Led Zeppelin’s case, I never believed the messenger. It can be admirable when a rock band tries to “enlighten” you, however it’s easier to take them seriously if: a) the singer is wearing a shirt, b) you can’t see his dong through his jeans, and c) you know their real interest isn’t really just having sex with 16 year old girls. This is exactly the reason that when listening to Zeppelin I do my best to block out whatever nonsense Robert Plant is screeching about so John Bonham’s foot pedal can more effectively turn my brain to mush.
Van Halen is a great rock band who didn’t pretend to care about being more than a great rock band (and that is why they are a great rock band). Chuck Klosterman once wrote that Van Halen “mattered without duplicity in 1981.” Their goals were always clear. These goals were only to rock, party, and have sex. These pursuits led them to do things like: design an intricate communication system that allowed roadies to find and take the right women backstage all while they were playing, have midgets in tuxedos bring them drinks during shows, play guitars that were exact replicas of Jack Daniels bottles, roundhouse kick balloons (filled with other balloons) in music videos for no apparent reason, and wear bandannas occasionally.
I also have absolutely no idea if Van Halen ever cared about what critics thought of them, but I suspect they absolutely didn’t give a shit, still don’t, and never should. Van Halen passes the ear test. Even after all the shots I’ve heard them take over the years, if aliens landed on Earth and asked me explain what Rock n Roll was between the years of 1978 and 1984, I would simply play them the first two tracks of Van Halen 1 and throw “Drop Dead Legs” in there for good measure. This is because Van Halen’s music at once defies historical context yet needs no explanation. It is what it is. This is why I’ve never felt the urge to really research it. It would be an utterly ridiculous waste of time. Even though it lyrically deals with teenage themes it sounds unlike anything that came before it and those who tried to copy it failed miserably. If someone asked me to describe Van Halen’s sound using a minimum of 500 words there’s no way I could do it. I would come up with two and a half: rock n roll.
Besides Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen is the only other guitar player whose sound shattered the context of time. Lets say its 1978, you live in Iowa and you’re 15 years old. You have a basic knowledge of Rock n Roll. You’ve heard the Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and you like Cream (Van Halen’s idols). You also happen to love Isaac Asimov and are obsessed with the concept of time travel. You have never heard of Van Halen before. You can play three chords on a guitar. One day, a curious looking man arrives at your house. There is something off about him but you can’t put your finger on what it is. The stranger simply drags you into your room and plays “Eruption.” I cannot fathom (due to your predilection for believing in time travel and the strangers appearance) that you would believe that what you’re hearing came from the present. It bears almost no resemblance to the music that came before it, which is theoretically, where it had to come from. If I were this teen and the stranger asked me to describe what I was hearing, I would say the first minute of the song is probably a guitar and the second minute of it most definitely is not. If the stranger then told me that the whole recording is in fact a guitar, I would ask how many strings guitars have in 2034. I would also inquire about whether humans also have more than 5 fingers on each hand in the future. If the stranger then told me what I was hearing was recorded that very year I would demand to see it played live. Upon seeing it played live I would conclude that a) Eddie Van Halen may be from the future, b) he was put on earth to do only what I’m witnessing, and c) he has all the physical skills necessary to hit .300 against American League pitching (dexterity, freakish hand eye coordination, amazing quickness, uncanny timing).
There is a duality to Van Halen’s music. The subject matter their songs deal with, sex and partying, are things every teenage boy thinks about every minute of every day. However, Eddie’s virtuosity is something kids of the 70’s and 80’s could never possibly attain or even begin to explain. There is futility in even trying. So, what did most of these kids do? They simply enjoyed Van Halen unconditionally. Classic Van Halen will always be the perfect mixture of reality and fantasy wrapped in one. They’re like a good summer blockbuster; you become engrossed in the plot because it is easy to follow and you enjoy the characters because they are relatable, but you don’t actively worry about how the special effects are accomplished or about scenes that seem implausible as you are watching. You suspend disbelief for a brief time. Van Halen is entertainment. Van Halen is rock n roll without pretense. Don’t ever over-think something your gut tells you is great.
It doesn’t appear that Van Halen ever questioned the validity of what they were doing for the first twenty years of their career. Circumspection and self doubt are antithetical to their message and methods. Why would they have ever thought that what they were doing would one day be viewed as “uncool”? There was once a time when Van Halen was widely viewed by the public as the greatest rock band in the world, although it’s hard to fathom that now. As far as I can tell their loss of credibility came from three factors; a) the whole generation of bands that were influenced by them, b) the change in the public’s taste for how a lead singer should act (i.e. “The Diamond Dave Effect”) and c) the place they fell in time.
Brian Eno once said the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies but everyone who bought a copy started a band. Van Halen’s first album probably started 30,000 bands in Southern California. By definition these bands were unoriginal the day they formed. Some of these bands did become commercially successful but only because they adopted the persona Van Halen made cool. But, even in 1988 they still couldn’t replicate a formula that Van Halen perfected a decade earlier. 80’s hair metal lost its popularity because it had no discernible variety. White Lion could easily be mistaken for Warrant. Why? Because they were both trying to be Van Halen! There can’t be 20 Van Halens. Perversely, the end result is that, within my age group, Van Halen somehow gets lumped in with bands who failed miserably at copying them. That’s not really fair. Blaming Van Halen for Cinderella is like blaming the Beatles for the Monkeys. It makes absolutely no sense to define a band by what came after it. I can still somehow accept Van Halen much like people who first heard them when I wasn’t even born. However, most people my age tend to see them within another context that I can’t help but feel is invalid.
One of the reasons is that at some point in the early 90’s the way a lead singer was supposed to act changed. (Insert grunge singers name here) ‘s life was hell. We were supposed to believe that he was filled with angst because the world he grew up in supposedly sucked (partly because of Dokken). The irony that these guys were living their dream (and my dream) and telling me how horrible modern life is was never lost on me. It was not lost on Jim James either. The My Morning Jacket frontman recently said that Nirvana basically fucked his whole generation up because they acted like doing what they supposedly loved was a curse and not a blessing. Grunge was seen as revolutionary at the time but it was barely evolutionary. It was not even close to being a new form of music (it is barely a style from what I can discern). If it was anything, it was reactionary rock n’ roll with cynicism built in to it. The underlying theme to me was alienation from mainstream society because of a sense of manipulation by the powerful (i.e. Van Halen, Warner Brothers Records, Pepsi, Reebok). Grunge couldn’t last. It was propelled and then eventually killed by the cyclical nature of the music industry and of consumer’s tastes. Ironically, Grunge ended in the same fashion as the music it was trying to discredit; a bunch of clones copied the originators until you couldn’t tell Candlebox from Collective Soul. Eventually, Levi’s started sponsoring Spin Doctors tours and you can take it from there. The difference is that, among my peers, unlike Van Halen, I’ve detected no discernable hit to the credibility of Pearl Jam because of Everclear.
Now, on to Diamond Dave. “Angst” is obviously not in David Lee Roth’s vocabulary. However, for 40 years it was never a prerequisite for being a rock star. I’ll be there first to admit that David Lee Roth can be annoying but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring anything to the table, but 90% of what annoys me about him has nothing to do with what he does onstage or on records. Its that he never stops being “Diamond Dave.” You get the feeling that Dave acts the same way in Kroger as he would onstage at a sold out Madison Square Garden. But, I actually see very little difference in his skills as a performer and songwriter than Mick Jagger or Robert Plant. Have either one of those other guys written lyrics that made you see the world in a different way? That’s not what the Stones are about and in my opinion it’s not what Zeppelin should have tried to be about. Mick’s obsessions are the same as Dave’s and his dancing may be worse. If you are annoyed by Dave’s constant “Ewwwwws” and “Uhhhhhs” listen to the middle section of “Whole Lotta Love” and you’ll know exactly where he got it from. There are two differences between the older fellas and DLR – Mick and Robert seem like a thoughtful guys when they’re being interviewed and Dave seems like an ass, and the Stones and Zeppelin tapped into a genre of music that was already viewed as sacred and Van Halen didn’t try to do the whole “white blues” thing(probably because Eddie couldn’t be contained).
As a consumer, you are able to know when Mick and Robert are “on” and when they’re “off.” But what does that say about them? It could say they’re full of shit exactly half of the time, but I don’t believe that. It says that they know they’re entertainers but aren’t paid to be them in their own living rooms. Dave also isn’t paid to be “Diamond Dave” when he’s taking a piss at Burger King; I just don’t think he can help it. The point is that Mick and Robert aren’t given shit for doing an “act” but Dave is given shit for being who he probably is in real life. Mick and Robert’s “act” also includes pretending to be American black men who experienced The Great Depression. Who is being more disingenuous? I think being an ass actually makes Dave a more entertaining performer. More importantly he is not integral to Van Halen being at least “good” (hence the instrumental “Eruption”, 5150 ,and OU812).
It’s also hard to rag on The Stones or Zeppelin if you like the blues. There are still a few blues “purists” who hate the Stones and Zeppelin because they liberally borrowed from the black masters who were unfortunately born 30 years too early. However, 99% of people who like the blues will like The Stones and Zeppelin because they are building onto an already established foundation. In that sense, the Stones and Zeppelin already had a built-in fan base. That makes not adoring them like swimming against the current in the river of rock. I would never argue that Van Halen is a better band than the Stones or Led Zeppelin, but to respected music journalists like David Fricke, they were once seen as worthy heirs. Why are they never even mentioned in the same breath anymore?
It could be because they are associated with a different era. The fact that Van Halen existed before Zeppelin recorded “Kashmir” or their first album came out the same year as the Stone’s Some Girls doesn’t seem to matter. They will always be seen as an 80’s band. That is unfortunate because because most rock fans my age tend to dismiss the whole decade. Everything about the 80’s seems so decadent and superficial now, but did it really feel that way at the time? No. I had no concept of fakeness emanating from MTV. I just knew I loved Van Halen. And I guess I still do.The fucked up part is that I have to be reminded that I loved them. I actually think it would be more accurate to say I have to remind myself that I love them. Because there is nothing to do it for me. Which is even more fucked up because it is a testament to how much they’ve faded from my generation’s collective memory.
The funny thing is that even though rock is cyclical, we’ve never quite recovered from hair metal syndrome. The drummer from The Black Keys, Patrick Carney (who was born within six months of me) recently said:
“Rock and Roll is dying because people became OK with Nickelback being the biggest band in the world. So they became OK with the idea that the biggest rock band in the world is always going to be shit — therefore you should never try to be the biggest rock band in the world.”
Although this statement sounds a lot like something Michael Stipe could have said about Van Halen in 1984, Carney accurately summed up our current situation. We have been tricked into thinking that anything successful cannot be truly good(a phenomenon my colleague recently wrote about regarding Mumford and Sons). It is a ridiculous viewpoint (see: Guns N Roses). I have a suspicion that maybe there is another Van Halen out there but they’re afraid to embrace it because of how people have been conditioned to think. My other suspicion is that rock may truly be dead. If there is another Van Halen out there, they should know that being a great, popular, and frivolous band all at the same time is not impossible. You may be judged harshly 30 years after the fact, but so what? I’m sure Eddie and the boys aren’t losing any sleep. I’m also so pretty sure they have no regrets about what they can actually remember.
From MerchantsOfRock.com, Written by Kevin Cenedella