The Freedom of Music: Van Halen
One likes to believe in the freedom of music.Rush – Spirit of Radio.
The spring/early summer of 1978 was one of those beautiful hot sunny springs, made for frisbee, beer and rock and roll. At my high school there was a large open grass area immediately beside the smoking area (yes, we had a smoking area on school property). One of the grade 12 students had one of those cool 70’s vans, stocked with cans of beer and a good stereo. He and friends would have a drink, throw the frisbee around and blast Van Halen’s first album.
The thing that always surprises me about Van Halen is how many record companies took a pass on them. Sure, record companies passed The Beatles before Van Halen, but you could see their point. The Beatles were, in 1962, nothing too special. If you had already been burned by one group that sounded like The Everly Brothers, why take a flyer on She Loves You? But after Gene Simmons fronted Van Halen the cash for demos, it’s hard to imagine record companies hearing Runnin’ With The Devil or Jamie’s Cryin’ and saying, “nothing special here.” The Beatles would become a great band in just a few years after recording their first record, but Van Halen was already a great band.
As a high school student hearing it that first summer, it was a Wow! album. Nobody had ever played guitar quite like Eddie Van Halen did on that album, (and almost every guitar player since has played too much like that), and Roth was all rock star, sexuality oozing from the speakers. The songs were instant classics, and the way Van Halen owned The Kinks You Really Got Me, it was obvious they were a force to be reckoned with.
Eddie Van Halen saw Led Zeppelin in LA before Van Halen was even a band. He watched Jimmy Page play Heartbreakerand went home to duplicate the solo he saw. While doing so, he stumbled across his two handed tapping technique, and took what Page was doing to a whole new level. His virtuoso guitar solo piece, Eruption, could just as easily have been called Heartbreakier, for that’s what it was (actually, Triumph’s Rock & Roll Machine would be Heartbreakier, Eruptionwould be Heartbreakiest). But what Eddie Van Halen really seems to have learnt from Led Zeppelin was how powerful a rock band could be, how much pure energy can be created with 1 guitar, 1 bass and 1 drum set. Eruption is not just an apt title for his solo piece, but the entire album could be called that. An eruption is exactly what Van Halen’s first album sounded like booming out of bedrooms, cars and vans back in 1978.
Thirty-four years later, Van Halen continues on. This winter the original lineup of Van Halen released a new CD, their first since the mid-1980’s, A Different Kind Of Truth, and toured together. They are, by all appearances, a band again and reviews suggest the raw power and energy of a great rock and roll band still erupts from Van Halen. Sure blasting Tattoo out of the mini-van beside a sign that says, “no smoking anywhere on school property,” isn’t the same thing, and nobody will argue Van Halen isn’t unchanged and unbloodied by their 34-years as professional rock stars. But, as Mick Jagger sang, “it’s only rock and roll, and I like it.” Sometimes, that’s good enough.