Who They Were: A truly legendary Southern California band originally featuring the Dutch-Indonesian-American Van Halen brothers (Eddie on guitar, Alex on drums), singer David Lee Roth, and bassist Michael Anthony. Eddie was (rightly) praised as one of the greatest guitarists of all time, and the original group were just perfect in their heyday (roughly 1978-1984) as an ultimate rock n’ roll party band, with hooks to die for, technical chops that left guitar nerds wiggling with envy and aspiration, easy-on-the-eye videos at the dawn of the MTV era, and an over-the-top collective public persona that always made them fun to read about in the music magazines of the time. Roth left or was evicted from Van Halen (depends on who’s telling the story) in 1985, and was replaced by Sammy Hagar, who fronted the group through another period of great commercial success, though the critics tended to be a bit less generous to them with each subsequent album. Hagar lasted about a decade before being replaced by Gary Cherone, who only lasted through one (rightfully) critically-lambasted record. Then Hagar came back. Then he left. Then Roth came back. Then Anthony was shoved out, to be replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen on bass. That line-up released the group’s final studio album, A Different Kind of Truth, in 2012, and played the group’s final tour, in 2015. Then, alas, Eddie died last year, after a long battle with cancer. And that was that for the group, as he was its one utterly irreplaceable part.
When I First Heard Them: Spring of 1978, Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York, USA, soon after the release of the group’s first single, a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.” The radio station I listened to most often at the time (WLIR, 92.7 FM) was not singles oriented, and their DJs usually played that song from its source album along with its instrumental introduction, a piece called “Eruption,” that is now regarded as one of the finest electric guitar solos of all time. A friend’s older brother was the first person I knew who acquired that debut album, and I distinctly remember listening to it at the brothers’ house, all three of us young aspiring guitarists suddenly feeling terribly, terribly inadequate as we processed the noises we heard Eddie making. I switched my primary instrument to bass guitar soon thereafter. Years later, when I wrote my long-form Best of the Blockbusters: The Greatest (Popular) Record Ever article, Van Halen’s debut got as close to taking the title as possible without actually doing so, losing in a tie-breaker to another titanic piece of ’70s album rock. I’ll let you go read that article if you want to know which record knocked it off.
Why I Loved Them: I wrote a bit about my love for the group in my obituary for Eddie last year. In that piece, I noted that the very, very best telling of Van Halen’s story and explanations for the group’s appeal were written by my online bud, Thoughts on the Dead. You can go here to read his three pieces about them, and I encourage you to do so, most heartily. Sadly, TotD himself passed away some six months after Eddie Van Halen, also stricken way too young by cancer. My thoughts on that are here. Eddie was obviously a transformative influence on his instrument, and David Lee Roth was a spectacular showman, but I do want to note that my esteem for the group is also based on the less-frequently-lauded work of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. The Mike-and-Alex rhythm section was low-key but mighty; their signature pulsing BLOMP-blomp-BLOMP-blomp sound on the quarter-notes is as much of a Van Halen trademark for me as Eddie’s guitar solos were. Plus Michael Anthony was one of the finest backing vocalists in popular rock history; his high harmonies are absolutely essential to the sound of the group’s very best songs and performances. While I’m not one of those folks who hates or hates on Sammy Hagar (I quite liked him with Montrose; dig this if you’ve not heard him in that era), I can’t say that I cared for Van Halen as much with him as front man, and the songs just mostly seemed to lack character to me. So I was nominally pleased when Roth returned, and I liked that reunion album well enough when it came out, though it lacked that special something-something that Anthony had always provided over the years. So, probably not surprising, my top ten favorite Van Halen songs are culled from five of the first six albums by their original, and greatest, incarnation, with the debut disc dominating the proceedings. RIP Eddie. (And RIP TotD).
#10. “Panama,” from 1984 (1984)
#9. “Everybody Wants Some,” from Women and Children First (1980)
#8. “Hot for Teacher,” from 1984 (1984)
#7. “Dance the Night Away,” from Van Halen II (1979)
#6. “And the Cradle Will Rock,” from Women and Children First (1980)
#5. “Mean Street,” from Fair Warning (1981)
#4. “Unchained,” from Fair Warning (1981)
#3. “Runnin’ With The Devil,” from Van Halen (1978)
#2. “Eruption/You Really Got Me,” from Van Halen (1978) (Note: Yeah, I may be cheating by counting this as one song, but it’s how I first heard it, and how it tracks on the album, so I am going with it this way!)
#1. “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love,” from Van Halen (1978)