By Brian Ives
“We came here to entertain you!” So begins “I’m the One,” from Van Halen‘s bulletproof 1978 self-titled debut.
One of the most groundbreaking rock albums of its time, Van Halen was reissued a few weeks ago, along with 1984. Today (July 10) the rest of Van Halen’s classic David Lee Roth-era albums are being reissued as well: 1979’s II, 1980’s Women and Children First, 1981’s Fair Warning and 1982’s Diver Down.
Also this week, 75% of the lineup that recorded those albums—Roth, guitarist Ed Van Halen and drummer Alex Van Halen (with Ed’s son Wolfgang replacing the exiled Michael Anthony on bass)—hits the road for another tour. In other words, it’s a great week to be a Van Halen fan.
But let’s get back to that 1978 debut album, because its impact was significant.
To set the scene, in 1978 rock music had moved beyond simply wanting to “entertain you.” Especially when it came to hard rock, the music had to be virtuosic, angry, scary or at least druggy. Even some of the era’s most legendary bands were feeling the change: KISS was unwinding; Joe Perry had left Aerosmith; Deep Purple was history; and Black Sabbath was about to part ways with Ozzy Osbourne.
All of those bands would make pretty stunning comebacks in subsequent years (some more than once). But in 1978, they all seemed a bit…tired. Even Led Zeppelin had one album left and were losing steam. There was the pre-Back in Black AC/DC and the pre-“Breaking the Law” Judas Priest, too, but neither band had yet reached the mainstream.
Things changed, though, with those first few notes of “Runnin’ With the Devil,” which opened Van Halen.
“I live my life like there’s no tomorrow!” Roth announced at the start of the song. But this wasn’t a “no future” kind of punk rock statement. Roth’s “no tomorrow” approach to living his life was more “devil may care” (“devil” was in the title, after all). And it wasn’t about “Lord Satan,” either: This was an album you could play at backyard parties without scaring your straight-laced friends. You could play it at the beach…hell, especially at the beach. In fact, in that sense they were more than a little like the pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys. And as with that California band, Van Halen had its own musical genius in Eddie Van Halen, a game-changing guitarist who spawned a zillion imitators.
The Roth-era Van Halen albums that have now been reissued are a discography that rivals any in rock music for greatness and influence. What you think of the bands who were influenced by them (especially the pop-metal acts who ripped them off outright) is another story. Eddie recently said to Billboard of his ’80s-era imitators: “I did not take it as flattery.”
Years ago, I asked David Lee Roth about Van Halen’s followers; after all, just as many frontmen copped his moves as guitarists adopted Ed’s technique. I told him that many bands seemed to only be influenced by Van Halen, with maybe a bit of KISS, Aerosmith and Zeppelin thrown in. Did he think that those bands would benefit from trying to listen to other kinds of music?
I wish I still had the tape, but because he had a funny (and on-point) answer, but suffice to say he agreed. He sort of brought this point home on Van Halen’s last tour, when they used Kool and the Gang as their opening act, instead of, say, a hard rock band. Sorry metal dudes: Dave’s loyalty is to a good time, not to a genre.
And that’s what’s so strangely sad about the way the way the Van Halen drama has unfolded in recent years. Ed doesn’t seem like he’s having much of a good time. Exhibit A: his smack talking about Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony. In the aforementioned Billboard interview, he tore into Anthony, saying, “Every note Mike ever played, I had to show him how to play,” and “I have more soul as a singer than he does… People always talk about Mike’s voice on Van Halen songs, but that’s a blend of Mike’s voice and my voice.”
As for Roth—his current bandmate—he says that “he does not want to be my friend.” According to Ed, “Roth’s perception of himself is different than who he is in reality. We’re not in our 20s anymore. We’re in our 60s. Act like you’re 60.” Which sounds like his problem is more with frontmen in general than Roth specifically. Although he added that he’d like to do a new Van Halen album, but “it’s hard, because there are four people in this band, and three of us like rock’n’roll. And one of us likes dance music.”
He adds that “Dave doesn’t want to come to the table,” which seems doubtful. Sure, David Lee Roth may enjoy dance music—it’s ‘entertaining,’ after all—but does anyone really believe that David Lee Roth doesn’t want to do another Van Halen album?
And that’s another thing that Ed Van Halen seems to have in common with head Beach Boy Brian Wilson: they’ve both created music that has brought joy to millions. It’s been the soundtrack to countless summers and good times. But it doesn’t seem easy, or possible, for them to access that kind of joy themselves.
But just as when Wilson toured with the Beach Boys (a band with more than their own share of drama) a few years ago, you could go to the shows and forget about all of that. And this summer when Van Halen are on tour again and focusing almost exclusively on their first six albums, rest assured, you will be entertained.