Runnin’ With The Devil: ‘Van Halen’ at 45
Is the band’s ferocious debut LP ground zero for hair metal?
It wasn’t the first, but arguably the ground zero of hair metal was released 45 years ago today.
That may seem like I’m damning Van Halen’s debut with faint praise, but that’s not the case.
If everyone who bought the Velvet Underground’s first album formed a band, then every band on Sunset Strip in the ’80s like the Coconut Teaszer had that first Van Halen album in their collections.
Such influence came from the band as a whole, but especially guitarist Eddie Van Halen and lead singer David Lee Roth. Van Halen was fleet-fingered and precise while coaxing wild sounds. And while it became something a lot of metal guitarists did, he was the one who put two-handed tapping into the rock lexicon. Roth, meanwhile, was part Vaudeville showman, part rock shouter. He’d clearly taken copious mental notes of Jim Dandy from Black Oak Arkansas.
The quartet was a fortuitous gathering of people who didn’t start in California. Eddie and Alex Van Halen were immigrants, who came to Pasadena, California with their Dutch father and Indonesian mother when they were in elementary school. Roth mostly grew up in Indiana before his Jewish family moved to Pasadena. Bassist Michael Anthony’s Polish-American family moved from Chicago to nearby Arcadia.
By 1973, this American melting pot band had come together, a marriage born of necessity. Eddie didn’t want to be the lead singer and Roth owned a PA system they needed. They tirelessly played clubs and high school parties throughout Southern California. Between relentless self-promotion and a growing live reputation, they grew in popularity.
Their first break didn’t quite pan out. Gene Simmons, blown away by a 30-minute club show at the Starwood Lounge in Hollywood, got them to sign a deal with him. He produced demos in New York and L.A., then tried to convince KISS management to take them on.
For some reason, Simmons was the only one who saw Van Halen’s real potential, because management passed. So Simmons cut the band loose.
It didn’t take long for their second break, as the buzz around them grew louder. Ted Templeman saw them at a later Starwood show. He was similarly impressed. He had more success with Warner Brothers than Simmons had with Bill Aucoin. The band was off and running, with Templeman in the producer’s seat, where he’d remain throughout the lineup’s original run.
Templeman was most known for producing runs of albums by the Doobie Brothers and Van Morrison, but it’s another one of his credits that no doubt drew Van Halen’s attention. 1973’s self-titled debut by Montrose certainly was a hard rock record that paved the way for hair bands to follow, including VH, who covered “Make It Last” in their early days.
And, of course, it was Montrose’s original lead singer, Sammy Hagar, who the band brought in to be Roth’s replacement in 1985.
It took three weeks and $40,000 to record Van Halen. ““Even though we had gigged steadily for a couple of years, we didn’t have a ton of material, so we basically just took our live show and all the songs we knew and went for it. The whole album took a couple of weeks,” Anthony told Music Radar in 2010.“Ted Templeman wanted to make a big, powerful guitar record, and he had all he needed in what Eddie was doing. He fell in love with Ed’s playing.”
One of the first things that’s striking now is how frontloaded it is. Van Halen classics tumble out, one after the other. “Running With the Devil” is built off the heavy bottom end from Anthony’s bass and Alex’s drums. That’s the launching pad for Eddie’s riff, exposing another one of his weapons– an absolutely filthy guitar tone (see the Fair Warning album for further proof).
But even with Eddie’s soloing, the track is Roth’s show. He sings, yelps, whoops and, at some point, possibly even makes sounds only audible to dogs. Nobody accused Roth of having the most technically proficient singer ever, including Roth. “”I’ve never had any delusions about my voice. It sounds like four miles of flat road with knobby tires. Mom used to say that; in fact she said it last week,” he told the Minneapolis Star-Tribute years later. What he did have was charisma to burn, a perfect foil for the band.
Eddie takes the spotlight on “Eruption”, which wasn’t planned. “Eddie was just noodling around before a session, but once Ted heard it he said, ’Stop everything. Ed, we’re rolling tape on that,'” Anthony said.
It’s a full-on showcase in 100 seconds, full of effects and Eddie managing to be fleet-fingered and heavy. It’s a solo section that many an aspiring guitarist kept playing over and over on their home stereos, trying to figure out how he did it (perhaps even slowing down the record player to do it).
It’s the perfect lead-in to a holdover from their covers repertoire, a version of “You Really Got Me” where Eddie tears into the classic riff, Roth leans into being a Capital F Frontman and the high harmonies of Anthony and Eddie play off him. You might not be in the Starwood Lounge, but it’s a cover that puts you there to hear what Simmons, Templeman and others did.
Only three songs in and Eddie wasn’t done with iconic riffs. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” might be standard “I am not going to be your monogamous partner’ rock fare, but the performance gives it heft (those harmonies were an underrated part of their sound).
It wasn’t intended that way. Eddie told Guitar World in 1996, “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love’ was originally supposed to be a punk rock parody. It was a stupid thing to us, just two chords. It didn’t end up sounding punk, but that was the intention.”
Those weren’t the only VH standards on the album, but the band definitely put a lot of the best front and center.
Side 2 kicked off with “Jamie’s Cryin'”, which recognizes that guys who ain’t here to talk about love aren’t for everyone, as the titular Jamie tries and fails to make a high school relationship work (as most don’t). Eddie’s mastery of tone shows particularly in the soaring notes he throws over the top of the riff.
“Atomic Punk” is more atomic and punk, full of atmosphere and attitude. No harmonies here, just a pounding rhythm section to propel the proto-“Mean Street” along.
“Feel Your Love Tonight” is melodic enough that it could have been a single. “I’m the One” is a strutter seemingly sped up to 78 RPM with a witty little “Bop bada, shoobee doo wah” bridge that’s a nod to the fact that the band members didn’t just grow up on the Beatles and Cream. Eddie and Alex’s father was a clarinetist, after all.
“Little Dreamer” slows things down to midtempo, working a nifty little groove while singing about someone like Jamie, if she hadn’t had her heart broken yet.
If there’s a quibble to be had, it’s the sequencing at the very end. If there’s a song made to end the album, it’s the cover of Chicago bluesman John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man”, a song recorded for Chess Records in 1953 that wasn’t released until 1969, a song that Roth loved before he even joined Van Halen.
Rather than do a straight ahead cover, the band turns the volume up. Roth goes all-in on the double entendres in the lyrics. Eddie rips through an intense solo. It’s the sound of a band having a hell of a good time.
Even changing things up as much as they did, the band did the right thing, not taking royalties from Brim. It was his song and he was able to use some of those royalties to buy a nightclub (and he’d still perform until the early 2000s).
But instead of the perfect closer, Van Halen ends with “On Fire”. It contains all the classic VH elements laid out before it, but all the singing of “Fire” grows repetitive. “Atomic Punk” is a much tighter, much better attack on this type of material.
But that’s a relatively small quibble. Even for an album with a blues cover, this was not a hard rock band traveling through blues tropes.
The amazing thing to ponder is what the album could have been. Two of the second album’s standouts– “Beautiful Girls” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” were among the Simmons demos, in pretty recognizable form. “Mean Street” didn’t have the right lyrics yet (being called “Voodoo Queen”), and the breakdown was in another demo called “She’s the Woman”, but that riff was there. Likewise with the heavier take on “House of Pain”, which wouldn’t appear until 1984. Indeed, some of the demos wouldn’t be released until they were reworked for the 2012 reunion album with Roth — A Different Kind of Truth.
But the album unleashed 45 years ago was a classic case of reinvention by a band not intending to reinvent anything. It was four guys who’d built up their chemistry and talents through gigging throughout Southern California to the point where they had the elements of their sound.
The innovative guitarist who didn’t even start out playing guitar as a kid (Alex basically took Eddie’s drums for himself). The lead singer who was smarter and savvier than his created status as a live-action cartoon character. A heavy bassist and a deft drummer. All looking badass on their individual shots on the cover. And contents that teenagers cranked up for years later, many of them trying to unlock the secrets to how Van Halen pulled it off.
Indeed, for all of Van Halen’s successes to come, the debut was the template and the album that they never topped. These were the godfathers of ’80s hard rock, right out of the box, hitting the ground running with the devil.
And even with the acolytes and imitators who came along in their wake, the debut still sounds as bracing today. There might have been other bands who had some of the pieces in place, but Eddie and Dave leading the way, Van Halen perfected it.
Ground zero for hair metal. When it’s this good, it’s not faint praise in the slightest.
- Sharp Dressed Men: ZZ Top’s Eliminator at 40 - March 23, 2023
- Condemnation: Depeche Mode’s Songs of Faith and Devotion at 30 - March 22, 2023
- Any Colour You Like: The Dark Side of the Moon Turns 50 - March 1, 2023
2 thoughts on “Runnin’ With The Devil: ‘Van Halen’ at 45”
want cooler? from “zombieland”–
Bill Murray as Bill Murray: “I just saw Eddie Van Halen at the Hollywood Bowl.”
Woody Harrelson as Talahasssee: “Oh yeah! How was he?”
Bill Murray: “He was a zombie.”
name-checked as one of the undead! Eddie will never die!
I had heard an early cut of House of Pain that featured the car horns, and it ends with the horns slowing down and going into Runnin with the Devil as they do on the finished album.
So it seems at one point that might have been the first cut of the first album, and instead ended up being the last cut on their last album with Roth.