Monday, October 14, 2013

On Van Halen...

A short time ago, conversation among friends turned to Van Halen (no idea why). We were discussing the band, their history, and the eighties. One friend turned to me and said "they (the band) are so over-rated..."

"Over rated?", I replied. "Are you kidding me?!?"

1978 was a bad year for rock. The pop charts were filled with disco, and while Led Zep had just released "In Through the Out Door", Ozzy was getting into a tizzy with Black Sabbath. Rock/metal music was still a late-60's/early-70's-attitude, a ponderous mix of old blues and heavy guitar riffs. It seemed - to me, at least - as if metal and rock was quickly on its way to the "classic" radio stations.

Out of this mess exploded the band Van Halen. When they hit the charts they were a sharp lightning bolt in a sky of disappointing music, a distinct turning point from 70's metal to 80's rock. Eddie Van Halen's refreshing guitar sound was nothing like we'd ever heard before; when I heard that for the first on the radio (yes, a real "radio") I actually stopped and listened, amazed at what I was hearing. What was this sound? Who was this? How did they do that? Is this some kind of electronic-produced music? EVH's techniques were so far removed from anything I'd heard before; I read a rumor that in their early concerts Eddie used to do his solos with his back turned to the audience so that no one could copy his techniques. His talent on those guitars was such that even today, someone trying to copy what he did will still be heard as "similar but not Eddie". Don Dokken once commented that "I knew I should give up my guitar playing and just concentrate on my singing because there was no way I could ever attempt to do what he was playing."

A friend commented that "[as] a guitar player, you definitely divide[d] the world into pre-EVH and post EVH time periods; [pre EVH] was almost exclusively blues driven, muddy overdriven stuff, while EVH pretty much created the modern thick, mid boosted metal/hard rock guitar sound."

Go ahead, take 36 minutes to re-listen to their first album "Van Halen", and remember what was playing on pop radio at the time. It's still excellent music today; for the rock lover at the time, it was heaven.

But as much as I believe EVH's talent was the core of the band's success, I just as firmly believe that he probably would not have been as successful - certainly not as soon - without the other three guys in the band. As good as EVH is, he had a strong, talented rhythm section. Alex Van Halen is a very good drummer, but at least on that first album offered nothing truly outstanding (certainly not on par with Rush's Neil Peart), he was not flashy, and he did not stick out. But he was always right there. But you didn't notice it. On that first album he was such the percussionist that when you listened to the album on your second or third time you started saying to yourself "hey, that guy is good." Same goes for Michael Anthony on the bass: nothing flashy (until you saw him in concert) but solid and right there. And MA's near-falsetto background vocals go unnoticed, until you actually listen to the value they bring to the singing (imagine them not there...) Added together, the rhythm section of Van Halen was the perfect foundation for EVH's talents to shine.

And then, of course, there's front man David Lee Roth. There's nothing I can say about DLR that hasn't already been said, except to point out that his singing and gymnastic talent made him the right front man to bring attention to the band's aggregate talent. DLR provided the band with the "look at me!" attraction so the world could see band's talent. Without DLR the band may not have gotten the attention it deserved as early as it did. While I consider Sammy Hagar to be one of the best American rockers of all time, I can only imagine if he'd moved from Montrose directly to be the front man for Van Halen, without having made it successfully in a solo career first; would the band have been as successful and as quickly? Though I think the eventual merging of VH and Hagar was a good one, I suggest without DLR that may not have happened.

What it all comes down to is that the band Van Halen - and Eddie Van Halen in particular - was a "perfect storm" of talent and chronology, one that may be one of the most influential in the history of rock and roll.

And we should all be thankful for it.

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