Ain’t The Worst That You’ve Seen

On their era-defining sixth LP, Van Halen salute 1984 and even Big Brother takes notice

Van Halen 1984, Warner Bros. 1984

In George Orwell’s ominous novel 1984, the world of the future is described as a place where perpetual warfare is the norm and the population finds itself under the ongoing scrutiny of an all-powerful Big Brother.

By contrast, 1984, the sixth album the Van Halen catalog, was mostly an upbeat affair. It was a collection of catchy songs and tuneful melodies belying the Pasadena party slammers’ main purpose was primarily to prompt the enthusiasm of air guitarists within the legions of a mostly male audiences. The fact that they would make any concessions to pure pop seemed surprising at first, given the fact that singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen seemed mostly concerned with posing and posturing when flirting with that male machismo. The idea that they could ride that wave and end up enjoying mass appeal may have been equally unlikely, but with 1984, it came to fruition regardless.

1984 back cover

Nevertheless, the album was recorded during a somewhat tumultuous time in the band’s trajectory. Roth and Eddie Van Halen were at odds due to creative differences, especially as regarding the guitarist’s increasing fondness for the keyboards that were intruding on the band’s guitar-driven sound. Nowhere was this more evident than on the lead single “Jump,” a whimsical rocker that featured a synthesizer riff as the prevailing sound. Roth originally rejected the track and refused to pen the lyrics, but in the end he capitulated, writing words that were supposedly inspired by a man on the edge of a building and toying with the idea of suicide. Any ominous notions were quickly dispelled by the recurring refrain, a sound that eventually brought the song to number one, the first and only time the group could claim a grip on the top of the charts.

Other album highlights included the similarly infectious single “Panama” and the attendant number “Hot for Teacher,” the track that became an MTV video staple. While the band remained clearly committed to their rock heavy groove, there was enough enticement in the melodies to assure a clear connection to a pop-loving public.

Van Halen in “Jump” video

Ultimately though, Van Halen’s willingness to moderate their heavier approach caused a decided rift between the band members. Roth left the group in 1985, taking a leave of absence that would last 22 years, Bassist Mark Anthony stayed with the group through its revival with singer Sammy Hagar, eventually departing in 1996. Nevertheless, 1984 ranks as Van Halen’s most successful effort ever. even despite the subsequent divide. Hagar’s recruitment helped salvage the ensemble, but it was the well-stocked selection of songs from 1984 that helped the band sustain its success well into the future.

Panama!

Today its material is still widely represented on the radio, and the hits the album spawned have become enduring rock staples. So while the fate of Van Halen currently lies in doubt amidst reunion speculations, 1984 remains the kind of album that assures the band’s legacy will continue to linger on regardless.

 

 

 

 

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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