I’ve been writing this blog for over six years now. In that time, I have put out articles that fall into distinct categories. The most common type is me commenting on something politically relevant to the moment; this kind of article garners 90% of its hits in the first 48 hours, and often most of that is in the first 24. Another sort of thing I do here is when I write about some facet of popular culture that has less immediate impact but a long tail. For instance, one of the three most read articles ever on this site is entitled “Five Worst Kiss lyrics“; the day I published it, the piece got no more than 100 hits, and yet it has a googleability that keeps readers coming in steadily so that over a couple of years, tens of thousands ended up reading it. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk on how to run a blog.
On a slight tangent, one of my proudest moments on this site, perversely, came when I had an idea to write an article about The Police, and by that I mean the 80s band. I was interested in the fact that The Police were considered ultra-hip for a large chunk of the 80s, but the lameness of Sting’s solo career had such a powerful effect it had changed opinions on The Police retrospectively. I was trying to encapsulate this phenomenon and got stuck; that’s when I figured out another way of trying to do the same thing. I decide to write a gag article about The Police to prove my point. I called it “The Sgt Pepper of the 80’s: The Police’s “Synchronicity” revisited” and tried to write it as a straight-faced, Patrick Bateman-esque review of what I always felt was the worst Police album. I recall literally jumping for joy when the article was retweeted by Accidental Partridge (@AccidentalP) – my attempt at intentional Partridge had fooled the experts on such matters.
I give all this over as a longwinded preface to the article you are currently reading about Van Halen and how their catalogue relates to the current pandemic we are all living through. Perhaps what follows is a piss-take in the vein of my Police article. Perhaps I mean every word sincerely. Perhaps lockdown has driven me totally mad. Whichever it is, there is one band that I have been listening to far more than any other since lockdown was instituted and that is Van Halen. Somehow, their rocking party style has been a readymade substitute for a real social life. This would make sense if I had loved Van Halen as a kid, you know, when they were actually famous. The psychoanalysis of the situation would have been that I’m retreating to a safe place in a time of darkness, reconnecting with my teen self as a way of dealing with the terror of the plague. Except, I never liked Van Halen as a kid. At all. And not because I wasn’t into that style of music – I loved hard rock and heavy metal in my early teens almost exclusively. I just didn’t like Van Halen. I’m sort of discovering the band, at least as much as one can do for something that was culturally ubiquitous throughout almost all of my childhood, during the lockdown.
I should do a brief introduction of who Van Halen are for any Zoomers reading this. Van Halen are a band formed in Pasadena, California (a sort of suburb of L.A.) in the mid-1970s by two brothers named Eddie and Alex Van Halen. They joined forces with a wild man named David Lee Roth who became the lead singer, and Micheal Anthony, a dude they met in college. The band’s calling card was the following: Eddie re-invented the guitar, so much so that six-string playing can be split into pre and post Van Halen epochs; David Lee Roth took Robert Plant as a template and turned up the energy, fun and outrageousness to 11; the music was a bombastic reinvention of hard rock that sounded like nothing else at the time but within half a decade of their first album hitting the shelves would be the blueprint for 80% of the bands in America.
By 1982, the band were mega huge; an instantly recognisable pop cultural reference, almost to the point of cliche. There’s a reason the Jeff Spicoli character in Fast Times at Ridgemont High cites Halen as his favourite band. What else would it be at that point in history? But this wasn’t enough for Eddie Van Halen. He wanted the band to have actual pop hits on the radio. Selling millions of records didn’t satisfy him; he wanted to shift ten of millions. He wanted Van Halen to be the biggest band in the world.
As a result of this burning ambition, Halen made a strange journey in the second phase of their career toward an MOR (Middle of the Road, Zoomers) sound, away from their hard rock party sound and image almost completely. Synth heavy ballads became the order of the day. David Lee Roth was not down for this and left the band, to be replaced by Sammy Hagar, a man already known to hard rock fans at the time as the guy who had trouble driving a car below 55 miles per hour and employing lyrics that were notably right-wing even for heavy metal of the period. Amazingly, this shift was incredibly successful and Van Halen became a dad rock staple, selling millions of records to a totally different demographic than had first fell in love with the band. Even grunge, which toppled so many groups of Halen’s ilk in the early 90s, failed to dent Van Hagar (as the second iteration of the band is widely known) and its mega-success.
Eventually, Hagar left and Halen have been in a confused state ever since. They tried it on with David Lee Roth again, but this was unbelievably short-lived, mostly consisting of one appearance together at the MTV Awards during which Roth swore on air. They eventually tried to keep it all going with Gary Cherone, a guy who is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of Sammy Hagar. The results were widely hated, even amongst fans of latter-day Halen. They have stumbled from nostalgia cash-in attempt to nostalgia cash-in attempt since, sometimes tempting Hagar back, other times Roth.
The way to understand whether you like Van Halen or not is to listen to the first album, which remains their best. The second song on the debut record, “Eruption”, is a two-minute long guitar solo, the impact of which will almost certainly be lost on younger listeners. Eddie Van Halen re-invents guitar playing here completely, ushering in a new style that would dominate the form from then on. Even if you aren’t in favour of this having occurred, you at least have to credit the man with the enormity of such an accomplishment. The appeal of Van Halen is somewhat like that of the Ramones debut – a big part of the fun of it is the gall and youthful energy of a bunch of guys doing something genuinely new in music and seeing how much they can get away with. One of my favourite songs on the album, “I’m the One”, is so wild it barely features any riffs; Eddie mostly just shreds throughout. The whole thing is so unwieldy it feels like it must be about to fall apart at any moment. Then they do a four-part barbershop bit a cappella right in the middle of the tune, after which, the song picks up right where it left off. This is what you will either love or hate about early Van Halen – they do whatever they feel like doing, sod it all.
Van Halen II is almost as good as the first one. It features what I think is their signature song, “D.O.A”, which musically and lyrically not only defines what’s so great about early Halen but also provided the blueprint for hundreds of other successful bands. Motley Crue, for one, basically took “D.O.A.” and made a career out it. Elsewhere, you have “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls”, both of which define other aspects of hard rock that would be widely copied throughout the 80s.
I consider the mark of a good Van Halen song is if in the last ten seconds of it you are overcome with the urge to shout at no one in particular, “Van fucking Halen!”. The band Halen most reminds me of is the Beach Boys. The music creates its own world, one of non-stop sunshine, fun and girls. Both bands changed rock completely by their influence; both of them used vocal harmonies to great effect; both started great and went downhill, eventually becoming actually terrible, which we’ll get to shortly in the case of Van Halen.
For the third album, Women and Children First, the plan seemed to be to try and make the band’s sound deeper, both philosophically and sonically. Whereas the first two albums were more or less recorded live and then corrected here and there, WACF sees Van Halen really utilising the studio for the first time. It has some great songs on it – “In A Simple Rhyme” is the most beautiful track they ever recorded – yet the album feels like a let down from the first two, in same way Rocket to Russia isn’t quite as brilliant as the first two Ramones records. When bombast and energy is your thing, you are inevitably going to suffer from the law of diminishing returns.
But Van Halen are not the Ramones for the simple reason that Halen were technically one of the best rock bands ever assembled. They are closer to Led Zeppelin in most respects, a comparison that would surely not have been lost on Eddie Van Halen. He wanted the band to get deeper, more serious. That’s where the fourth album, Fair Warning, comes in. It is the most “metal” of all the Van Halen albums, which is part of the reason why a lot of hardcore fans think it’s the best. My opinion on it is that it’s the least good of the first five Halen albums, partly because it achieves its aims so successfully. A big part of what’s so great about early Van Halen is that feel good party vibe they so successfully put across in their music. This is why Diver Down, the fifth Halen record, is their most underrated album (it has a decent claim to be the most underrated album of all time by anyone). Fair Warning bombed at the box office, causing the label to put pressure on the band to fart out another record in record time. They went into the studio and did a bunch of covers and anything else they had lying around. This caused them to accidentally rediscover what made the first two albums so great. Diver Down is fabulous fun, from the quasi-thrash abandon of “Hang ‘Em High”, to the casually genius “Little Guitars” (one of their best ever songs) to the perfectly done 1920’s pastiche of “Big Bad Bill”, which charmingly features Jan Van Halen, Eddie and Alex’s dad, on clarinet. Diver Down is the final great Van Halen record because it is the last one where they don’t take themselves too seriously.
Now we come to the part where I didn’t like the band as a kid and how I now know why. When I was 11, 1984 was the biggest thing in the world. It was ubiquitous in a way younger people today could never fathom. Even when things are popular these days, everything in pop culture is so Balkanised it would be impossible if you didn’t experience it to imagine something being so universally admired it is inescapable. I thought perhaps it was the experience of the album’s hugeness that had soured me on both it and the band in general; surely having now come to love the first five records I would appreciate the infamous sixth one with the passage of time. But having immersed myself in their back catalogue for several weeks beforehand, I’ve come to the conclusion that 1984 isn’t a patch on their first five records and I can pinpoint why – it reeks of “maturity”. It is the musical equivalent of being told that it’s time to cut your hair, get a suit and a real job. Which might be fine advice for life but not for rock n’ roll, which to me is supposed to be about youthful abandon and escape. If it has to be serious, write lyrics about deep topics and musically go prog or something. Don’t make songs that could double as the soundtrack to a corporate video. Then again, what do I know; I’m clearly in the minority here. Sure, lots of people bought the first five Van Halen records, but way more bought the five that followed. Turns out MOR is timeless as well as big money.
That’s why the commonly held belief that David Lee Roth leaving the band and Hagar joining is what ruined Halen is incorrect. Roth left because of what the band was becoming, which was inevitably going to happen, not the other way round. Eddie had bought a studio, intent on making MOR staples from there on out. Roth didn’t want to go along with the new programme; Hagar as a replacement vocalist makes perfect sense in context. Eddie Van Halen essentially wanted to break up Van Halen and bring most of the same band back together to create a new band which would also be called Van Halen.
After finding 1984 still left me mostly cold, I tried to like Van Hagar during this lockdown discovery of the whole of Halen’s discography, I really did. And while I have to admit there is a song here and there that isn’t bad, I just hate the style to the cockles of my very soul. It’s like Bon Jovi with better chops. No thanks.
Final question: why Van Halen as the soothing choice in the time of CoVid? I think I needed music that was youthful sounding and fun but that was also something I hadn’t previously used up. I needed something new that wasn’t really new at all, in other words, if that makes any sense. I wanted to find a relic from the past that I had misconstrued back in the day and discover its true value in the present. I don’t know what that says about the virus or my reaction to it ruining all of our lives for a few months. But I do know that I now fall into the camp of people that smile when David Lee Roth asks “Have you seen Junior’s grades?” before Eddie shreds his ass off, and that’s good enough for now.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
Also: there is a subplot around the government trying to built a stupid bridge, which now seems a charming echo of a more innocent time!
It’s available here: