Now legendary hard rockers Van Halen, from Pasadena California, put out their debut album Van Halen 40 years ago this month (Feb 10). It hit the ground running behind the excellent work of producer Ted Templeman, known for his work with the Doobie Brothers and Captain Beefheart and went to #19 on the Billboard pop music charts. The original group comprised Eddie Van Halen/lead guitar, vocalist David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen on drums, and bassman Michael Anthony. Their relationship with Templeman proved to be a long and fruitful one, being the studio wizard who honed their sharp punchy sound, and helmed all their most successful records.
The self-titled album still remains near the top of the most successful debut efforts. It blows open with Runnin’ With the Devil, driven by Anthony’s bassline and Alex Van Halen’s throbbing drums. It was released as a single but didn’t chart, but is one of their staple kickass pounders. Lee Roth’s voice was at its peak and it lights up this opener with raw energy and perfect pitch over Anthony’s backup vocals, which went a long way to giving the band its signature sound. Who on earth would put a guitar solo up as complete track? They did, with Eruption, an instrumental that has Eddie shredding his custom rasta Frankenstrat to celestial heights; using his fabled two-handed finger tapping style that would prove irresistible to legions of budding guitarists the world over. It was named the 2nd greatest guitar solo ever by Guitar World magazine (right after Jimmy Page’s Stairway To Heaven). It’s also a tasty lead-in to the cover of The Kinks You Really Got Me, the only song that made the charts on the album. This is one the few covers that was actually more popular than the original, thanks to Eddie’s wicked touch, mercurial riffs inside riffs, and Roth’s primal screams building to a feverish pitch. To say it bested Ray Davies 1964 classic is saying something. It remains one of the alltime go-to songs for garage startup bands.
Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love is a darker rocker, “I’ve been to the edge and there I stood and looked down, you know I’ve lost a lot of friends there baby, ain’t got time to mess around”. It exemplifies the hard driving rock style that was, and still is remarkable. And to push the point, I’m the One, the last track on side 1,is hard and fast, and is witness to the sheer shredding speed of Eddie Van Halen’s nimble fingers, not to forget the explosive rhythm section and Roth’s crystalline voice; a true power number stylishly ending with some harmonised she-do-wops. In fact the entire first side could boil a lava lamp!
Side two of this formidable collection takes the foot off the pedal, but still delivers some notable numbers such as Jamie’s Cryin, a pop song by all measures, yet makes the cut and shows off the lovely vocal harmonies between Roth and Anthony. Feel Your Love Tonight is a catchy tune, danceable, again, showing the band’s feel for arena rock. Perhaps the best track on side 2 is Little Dreamer, a menacing rock anthem featuring Anthony’s bouncing bass off of Alex’s stickwork. Ice Cream Man is a cover of bluesman John Brim, (recorded originally in 1953), with Roth playing an acoustic guitar solo, and singing the blues over typical walking blues until it slams open to hard driven bass and drums topped off by Eddie’s lead guitar ripping into this vintage number. We wonder what Mr. Brim would have thought of this approach. Slapping his knee and roaring, no doubt.
The album reached Diamond status at the end of the 20th century (over 10 million records sold) and got back on the charts in 2012 when there was a Van Halen reunion.
These boys laid this stuff down 40 years ago, and it still rides the airwaves worldwide. They were (and are) magnificent!