Eddie Van Halen and The Impressionists

by Alberto D. Prieto

Just as with the impressionists, along came the “heavy-metals”, who came, took accessory by the base and invented a brand new language. They knew they were venturing into uncharted territory. Heavy-metals and impressionists alike both knew that. They also knew they would be branded as weird, turned inside out, loud and noisy, with blemish as a principle for everything, with a frenzied pace, with atmosphere more important than the formal line, the distortion of the instrument ...How do you paint an eruption? What does fire sound like? Who said that they cared about being understood? It was enough just to have people follow you, right?  

Eddie Van Halen
(1955/2020) as a kid listened to all the musical greats who came before him and began it all, and who seemed terribly old to him. His generation was weaned on blues before developing a background in rock'n'roll or swing, and when it was his turn to bear witness, he came and turned everything upside down, because everything taken for granted can be rendered disposable, especially if you are prepared to develop alternative potions and your buddies want a new poison.
So, the day he grabbed a Gibson and began to research it and understood things others had never even suspected; he knew he could create atmospheric brushstrokes with his guitar. Strumming and plucking his instrument, the young Dutchman added pulses, imagining the piano keys his father had taught him to play as a child, combined into a new formula. And so, without intending to, he managed to paint the most important heavy rock album in rock history. This was how the LP “Van Halen” was hailed by music industry reviews in 1978, the focus concentrated on the surname of the leading brothers, the group name, the title of the album, marvelling at how the record was the remedy for the anxieties of the 10 million estranged rock fans who took to the streets to spend a few dollars for the work of this new long-haired breed of musicians on everybody’s lips.  

And, unwittingly, the strings of Eddie’s MusicMan, the drumsticks of Alex Van Halen, vocalised by David Lee Roth and accompanied by the colour palette wielded by Michael Anthony on bass brought the boys to the forefront of avant-garde just as the 20th century was drawing to a close. Van Halen had grabbed the accessory, whose detail had inspired the greats of decades past, and used it as their motivation for creating a revolution, the soundtrack of boys who were not from the post-war era; to them, Elvis had always been fat and Queen, a sugar-coated imitation of the truth.

Thus, in the early works of the combo out of Los Angeles, one can appreciate the sound of a powerful voice coupled with torn, distorted and powerful guitars. That sound which put the cherry on top of the conceptual compositions of The Who, or the result of the research put into Zeppelin’s exploratory vinyl’s— it formed the principles of the band led by Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex at its most fundamental core. And based on these strokes, they reaped millions in sales, picking up sidelong glances from rivals along the way. Was noise no longer enough? What was the reason for more? And why? What need was there for such a frenzied pace from the start of a song, rather than as its climax? Who could ever endure that? Where will this all stop? Never. Stop, never. That was soon to become abundantly clear.

Eddie Van Halen,
born a Dutchman (Nijmegen, Netherlands, 1957) like another mainstay of the avant-garde art movement, Vincent Van Gogh (Zundert, 1853). And as far from Paris—the focus of the artistic revolution of the late Nineteenth Century—as Los Angeles, California, where in the late 70’s— a century later—a new movement began, casually just like before, but causal as well, as much a consequence of the genius of those luminaries at the wheel as for the need for a new expressive road to drive down. In 1978 they released 'Van Halen' and amongst their songs stood out the anthem, 'Ain't Talking 'Bout Love', and an exercise in madness that could have gone horribly wrong: 'Eruption’; an instrumental piece that tried to paint tragedies using sounds. And, contrary to what logic dictates, it succeeded. That track—first conceived as an exercise in finger warming up— became like so many painting sketches from years before: an initial milestone. It was the consecration of a Stratocaster customized by Eddie himself, the 'Frankenstrat', and his technical magical artistry. A Marshall valve amp and the strings tuned halftone down did the rest.  

The creative talent of the producer, Ted Templeman, prompted the rather apt inclusion of a track on the album which, although strayed from the “Van Halen style”, its irreverent cover of 'You Really got me' by the Kinks—a perfect example of reinterpretation of the classics and manipulation of the original sources—ended up placing them firmly on the “global map” and, more importantly, in the Billboard charts.

The following year, prodigious exercises provided the year of the unplugged guitar on Spanish Fly. Along the back of a nylon-string Ovation, Eddie showed virtuosity equivalent to the already known sound of the electric guitar, generating a delicatessen whir of sound that crowned the group’s second album. A work that, much like the painters who are more interested in the creative process than in the outcome itself, also had no title. In such seventies fashion (already practiced by Led Zeppelin or Queen) they followed suit and called it 'Van Halen II'. In fact, hereinafter the band began to suffer the clash of egos of the band’s leader, both vocally and spiritually, whose tank of glory on the divine stage was beginning to spill over, and along with it the need to continue experimenting.

A series of small slumps in sales and a cover album as an excuse to delve into new genres (a little bit of funk, a foray into big band, pop synthesisers...) did not mitigate the power of the band’s live concert performances—where they were unbeatable— instead, they opened the door for Eddie to collaborate with Michael Jackson, a project which duly had both artists labelled “traitors” by fans.
This and the definitive industrialization of the music business through television in the 80’s finally broke the already cracked symbiotic relationship between David Lee Roth and the band, giving the opportunity for Sammy Hagar to become the new soloist: a more elementary voice and with an image which was less specialized in groupies. The fact that the band managed to survive the trauma of changing the lead vocalist, that the product soared sky-high despite the fact that the new voice that led to the production of new records was much more standardized than the past sounds of eighties rock, only serve as proof that the essence of Van Halen was always the art of pointillism of Eddie's guitar. And in the early 90s, for the first time in a decade and a half, it was necessary to go back to the 'doping' method of a live album and a greatest hits, a clear sign that the original formula no longer worked. They came, lurching, Gary Cherone of Extreme, on the microphone; in full detox-addictive sessions; Eddie with other medical problems of his own and the collapse of the heavy metal music industry. Also the avant-garde crowd, despite its name, fell behind at some point. Although this only happened when society had at last arrived at the precise point in time where these artists had wanted to take them for years.  

And no one had ever played the Fender in that way, nobody had ever thought to take advantage of the guitar neck with both hands like Eddie Van Halen, no one else previously had thought any Peavey out there could take more than strokes; however Eddie had the muses and the Frankenstrat on his shoulders and, just like a century before in the Paris of dancing whores and other whoremonger artists who knew how to paint the sunset, the cold and weariness with their brushstrokes, so it was he who translated the tectonic force into music. Later they baptized it as “Eruption” and the technique of the plucked string, became known as tapping. But it just as well could have been called the inaugural work of the new Impressionism.

Legions of fans to this day purchase tickets to their museums and concerts.