Greg Renoff’s Forthcoming Book on Van Halen’s Formative Years a Mammoth Achievement
Let us guess — you’re one of those people who thinks they know everything about Van Halen, right?
At least not until you’ve read “Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal,” the forthcoming book by historian and self-proclaimed Van Halen diehard Greg Renoff.
“Yeah, yeah,” many of you are probably thinking, “we’ve heard all these stories before in some form or another. What could there possibly be in this book that we haven’t already heard, discussed and dissected a thousand times before over the years?”
Hey, we here at the Van Halen News Desk feel ya. We harbored many of those same thoughts when it comes to the exploits of Eddie and Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony.
Until we read an advance copy of the book, which follows the band’s rise from the backyards of Pasadena to the Sunset Strip and beyond in unprecedented detail.
What we realized then — and what we believe dedicated Van Halen fans will immediately recognize as well — is that while there were many stories and events with which we were previously familiar in some capacity, Renoff was able to provide so much more in-depth background and layering to them that they almost seemed brand new again. On top of that, there’s all the stories from the band’s early years that have never been documented before!
Want a little advance tease? Here’s just a few examples of what we’re talking about:
- Van Halen fans, no doubt, have all heard the story about how David Lee Roth failed his initial auditions for Mammoth, but eventually was allowed to join so the band could save the money they were spending to rent his P.A. system for performances. As it turns out, renting Mammoth his P.A. was only the first step in a somewhat cunning scheme by Dave to leverage his way into the band — including the threat to pull his Acoustic 850 PA away from an important gig at the last minute unless the band let him sing a couple songs with them at the show. Dave “literally snuck his way in,” recalled Mammoth keyboardist Jim Pewsey. “I don’t know how else to put it.” Machiavellian? Sure, but it provided an early testament to just how bad Dave wanted to combine his talents with those of the Van Halen brothers.
- We all know that Van Halen’s backyard party concerts were the stuff of legend. But Renoff’s detailing of some of these events — based on interviews with participants and organizers themselves — is so intricate, it’s like you were actually there jamming with the band while thumbing your nose both at convention and law enforcement dispatched to shut the parties down. Renoff’s detailing of one legendary party in 1974 in particular — where it required a helicopter and 50-60 policemen in riot gear to finally break things up — takes up 16 pages of fascinating text to properly recount. Some of the more intriguing details involve the party organizer cutting power to the stage under police orders several times, only to have Alex Van Halen storm in and continually turn everything back on. Not enough? In the melee of approaching police and stoned party goers attempting to escape, someone tripped and severed a water supply line to the pool. Water began cascading across the patio toward the stage and the band’s electrical equipment. A quick-thinking friend grabbed a push broom to try and keep the water at bay and prevent possible electrocution. Details like these show just how wild and out of control Van Halen parties were — and why their legend remains.
- We all know that Eddie certainly overpowered and blew many other guitarists in other bands off their shared stages over the years. But we were ourselves blown away to pour through the compelling details of a May 1976 show at the Golden West Ballroom in Norwalk where Van Halen opened for rising stars UFO and budding guitar hero Michael Schenker. Not only did Eddie call his shot earlier that day — phoning a musician friend to tell him that he was going to kick Schenker’s ass that night — but then he delivered on the promise in storybook fashion as Van Halen not only wiped the stage with UFO but Eddie’s guitar histrionics reduced Schenker into an emotional wreck. To top it all off, what was probably the band’s biggest moment of glory to that point very nearly turned tragic as one of the band members suffered an overdose minutes after the show that nearly cost him his life! It’s yet another incredible story that fans have never heard, and could have altered everything we’ve come to know and love about Van Halen over the ensuing four decades.
- What diehard Van Halen fan doesn’t know about Gene Simmons “discovering” the band and producing their original demo only to have Kiss manager Bill Aucoin turn them down cold when push came to shove for a contract offer? Aucoin claimed at the time that the band was not commercially viable. We’ve always wondered how in the world Aucoin was unable to recognize the talent and potential of a future Hall-of-Fame act — opting instead to devote his energies into promoting Piper, a pop-rock band at the time fronted by Billy Squier. As Renoff uncovers, it turns out that the temporary setback was not because Aucoin didn’t recognize their talents. The real reason Aucoin passed on Van Halen is revealed in the book. This unexpected rejection turned out to be a pivotal moment in Van Halen history. In enlightening fashion, Renoff’s research puts the reader right in the car ride home from the airport — and shows how the demoralized band regrouped under Roth’s irrepressible attitude.
- You may have heard that at one point leading up to the recording sessions for Van Halen I, producer Ted Templeman pondered the possibility of replacing Roth with someone he worked with before — ex-Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar, initiating the very first Roth vs. Hagar debate — even if it was only in his own mind. The exact reason he changed his mind might surprise you.
- Of course, it’s no surprise that Eddie Van Halen revolutionized guitar playing with how he incorporated two-handed tapping into his personal playing style. Renoff’s research, however, uncovers the lineage, as it were, of where Eddie’s introduction to the technique came from, laying the foundation for how he eventually unleashed the incendiary new style on an unsuspecting public.
- Like many Van Halen fans who hopped on the bandwagon at various stages of the band’s rollicking career, we have always fantasized about a virgin Van Halen concert experience — you know, having the opportunity to go cold into a Van Halen show, most likely as the opening act, with no advance knowledge or preconceived notion of the band whatsoever. Would we recognize greatness in the moment, without being primed beforehand? Perhaps that is why our very favorite passage in the entire book is the section that recounts the stunned reaction of Black Sabbath as Ozzy Osbourne and company walked out to check on their brand new opening act in the spring of 1978 just as Eddie was unleashing an otherworldly rendition of “Eruption,” before leading the band into its blistering version of “You Really Got Me.” At that point, the Sabs knew what most other bands sharing the stage with Van Halen to that point had already discovered: They were in deep, deep trouble.
We are only scratching the surface here, relating some of our favorite takeaways from the book. In short, “Van Halen Rising” is chock full of memorable details and stories from the one period of the band’s history that has never been well documented before. Most of us know the Van Halen story from the groundbreaking release of Van Halen I forward. But Renoff shines a light on everything that led up to that point.
Yes, we all know the band Van Halen became. But we didn’t necessarily know what all the band members went through to get there. Now, thanks to “Van Halen Rising,” we have a pretty clear idea.
Renoff came by his Van Halen fandom naturally. Like thousands before him, his musical life was irrevocably altered when he saw Van Halen in concert for the first time on April 2, 1984, at the Brendan Byrne Arena in New Jersey.
“A guy in my homeroom had an extra ticket for the show,” Renoff told VHND. “He ended up scalping it to me for $50. That was a huge sum of money for a 14-year-old kid in ’84, but I really, really wanted to go to the show. I’d seen the ‘Jump’ video on MTV and just absolutely loved the song, and the whole look and vibe of the band.”
As anyone who caught the 1984 tour can well attest, Renoff’s experience did not disappoint.
“The show itself, needless to say, blew my mind,” Renoff said. “Dave was so charismatic and held the whole crowd in the palm of his hand. He seemed like a superhero crossed with Tarzan. And then there was Eddie. His virtuosity and coolness was everything I hoped for after I’d seen the ‘Jump’ video. That’s how I became a fan. Needless to say I’ve never regretted spending the $50.”
“Van Halen Rising,” which was six years in the making, includes content from more than 230 original interviews that have truly fleshed out the Van Halen story. The 372 pages are full of insight from friends and school acquaintances to former bandmates, contemporary musicians and people who dealt with the band through its early iterations. These include interviews with former band members Michael Anthony and Mark Stone as well as those who helped shape the band’s image and sound, like Ted Templeman, Pete Angelus, Marshall Berle, Donn Landee and Neil Zlozower. Want to know how dogged Renoff was in his research? There are more than 700 references cited in the book’s “Endnotes” section.
In addition, there are more than 30 previously unpublished photos that help place you in the right frame of reference while reading about the band’s corresponding evolution. There are pictures from both Mammoth and Red Ball Jets, as well as some vintage early VH practices and shows at local Southern California colleges, auditoriums and parks. These also include a couple of newly unearthed Zlozower photos of the band from 1978.
The treasure trove of visuals include vintage flyers from key Van Halen appearances in these formative years and also two entertaining postcards that Eddie and Alex sent to a friend from the road on the band’s first world tour – originally opening for Journey and Montrose, and eventually moving on to the first leg with Black Sabbath. Fascinating inclusions all the way around.
Renoff’s book follows the band through the end of its first world tour for Van Halen I. It’s a natural ending point — but, honestly, we wanted to keep right on reading.
One of the real strengths of “Van Halen Rising” is that the author has conducted so much research that he’s able to put you right there in the room during pivotal scenes in the band’s early days. You’re right at the VIP table watching Gene Simmons’ reaction seeing VH for the first time, and then you follow Simmons into the dressing room to meet the band. You’re a fly on the wall during the recording of VH’s debut album. You almost feel like you’ve time traveled directly to key moments during the band’s very first world tour.
Renoff has been posting additional notes and leftover side stories from his extensive research via various social media platforms for months. As interesting as those have been, keep this in mind: Those are the stories that DIDN’T make the book. So be prepared for even better material in the pages of “Van Halen Rising” than anything you have seen so far.
From our standpoint, “Van Halen Rising” is a must-read for all those interested in truly understanding how a little old band from Pasadena eventually changed hard rock history.
Author Signed Copies:
Author Greg Renoff is offering signed copies exclusively at Van Halen Store. Pre-order now and your choice of a signed or unsigned copy will be in your hands next month! (The book’s official release date is Oct. 1st. Van Halen Store ships them approximately Sept. 18th, so U.S. customers should receive them around one week before the release date.) ORDER NOW!
‘VAN HALEN RISING’ is Coming! [Book description]
The ‘VAN HALEN RISING’ Manifesto [The author’s promise to readers]