Van Halen’s stellar trajectory began in 1974 with the explosive chemistry produced by the collision of charismatic frontman David Lee Roth and the pioneering guitar work of Eddie Van Halen. Together with Eddie's brother, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, they released their eponymous hit album in 1978, which, according to many, restored "hard rock to the forefront of the music scene." Four multi-platinum albums followed before Roth departed in 1985 to be replaced by Sammy Hagar. The change of lead singer did not affect the band’s status, however, as they continued to make huge sales and pack stadiums around the world. In the mid-nineties Gary Cherone (Extreme) also successfully fronted Van Halen, before Hagar returned.
Eddie Van Halen, the lead songwriter, died on 6 October, 2020, and shortly after it was announced that the band’s journey was over. Here are Guitars Exchange’s pick of Van Halen’s top 10 songs:
10. Eruption - (Van Halen; 1978)
Van Halen offered far more than Eddie Van Halen’s extraordinarily original technique on the six string, but the guitarists two-handed tapping, vibrato magic and harmonic effects undoubtedly made the band stand out. The studio version of Eruption is barely two minutes long but when it was played live, the guitarist turned it into an extended feast. The Dutchman and this song influenced, and continues to impact, countless guitarists around the world, and any list of Van Halen’s top songs would be incomplete without it.
9. On Fire - (Van Halen; 1978)
On Fire opened Van Halen’s 1978 World Tour for good reason. If Eruption showcases Eddie Van Halen’s talent, then On Fire might be said to do the same for Roth. A key element of many of Van Halen’s songs is raw sexuality, and few display it as directly as this track: “Lay your bodies down, I'm in your beds, your beds, Throw your headphones on, I'm in your heads, Now I'm hanging ten now baby, As I ride your sonic, wave, Good God y'all, I'm on fire, I'm on fire,” Roth screams - and everybody is gonna know about it!
8. Dance the Night Away - (Van Halen II; 1979)
Dance the Night Away represented Van Halen’s move into ‘pure pop’ and was the band's first really big hit, reaching number 15 in the US charts. Eddie favours rhythm over solo and is strongly supported in this shift by his brother’s drumming and Anthony’s bassline. Eddie reportedly persuaded Roth to change the lyric from "dance, Lolita, dance" to what it became, which allowed it to be played on the radio and helped it become the hit it is today.
7. Hot for Teacher - (1984; 1984)
Van Halen courted controversy head on, however, with its fantasy song and video, Hot for Teacher, which features adolescent boys lusting over a teacher who strips off to a bikini and dances on a table. The whole idea was dated even at the time, but it didn’t stop it becoming a huge hit. Each of the band ‘strut their stuff’ in turn, with the atypical 30 second heavy drum and guitar intro giving way to Roth and Anthony combining their talents in the chorus. Parents objected to it, the US senate debated whether songs like these should be censored, but Hot for Teacher will be one of the big songs that Van Halen will always be remembered by.
6. Jump - (1984; 1984)
For a man so heavily identified with the guitar to stand up to his own band and write a synth-driven song is extraordinary in itself; but for it then to be such a monster hit as well is… pure genius. Eddie Van Halen led the band all the way to the number 1 spot and brought synthesisers into mainstream hard rock with Jump. Yes, it is undeniably commercial and pop, but it shows a completely new side to a band that was undoubtedly in its pomp.
5. Panama - (1984; 1984)
Panama on the other hand highlights the band’s heavy side. Its comic video features the familiar tropes of cars and sex, but it is musically original, including for example Eddie Van Halen’s Lamborghini, which can be heard revving during the track's bridge section. The lead guitarist again showcases his harmonics and his capacity to shred, on another classic Van Halen track.
4. Runnin' With the Devil - (Van Halen; 1978)
Van Halen's first album kicked off with an iconic bass line, followed by Roth's screams, which announced the band to the world:"I live my life like there's no tomorrow, And all I've got I had to steal, Least I don't need to beg or borrow, Yes I'm living at a pace that kills, Runnin' with the devil," sings Roth in what is almost a manifesto of the band. Eddie Van Halen’s powerful riffs and a brief solo provide the motor for what has become another mythical song in their repertoire.
3. Little Guitars - (Diver Down; 1982)
Little Guitars begins with a disarming guitar melody that builds and builds, and in doing so showcases yet another facet of the band. “Señorita I’m in trouble again,” Lee Roth sings in what is a much more subtle, and even romantic, lyric than the majority of Van Halen’s usual fare. This beautiful ballad demonstrates once again that the band were much more than simply ‘noise and heavy guitars’.
2. Everybody Wants Some! - (Women and Children First; 1980)
Back in ‘heavy guitar-driven land’, however, this celebration of sex sees Van Halen doing what they do best. This rocking tribal anthem was featured in the John Cusack movie Better off Dead, and was a staple of their live performances. In the live version in our video selection, the drums explode into action after three minutes, while a minute later Eddie Van Halen soars on his legendary Frankenstrat; it’s simply breathtaking stuff and always rewards one more listen.
1. Unchained - (Fair Warning; 1981)
In this list however top spot goes to the thrilling and ominous Unchained, with Eddie Van Halen in perhaps the form of his life. “Change, nothing stays the same, Unchained, and ya hit the ground runnin'," Roth sings on a track that exemplifies the magical interplay between guitarist and singer. "The title reflects the band’s lifestyle…" Chuck Klosterman wrote of the song for a magazine in 2018, "the music reflects the power of their reality."