The beginning of my personal “musical awakening” at the age of 12 or 13 saw me delving into the world of hard rock, and, for a few years, fervently rejecting any other form of music. Since I was about 15, I have broadened my horizons considerably, and have found a liking for so many other types of music that I have mostly left my love for hard rock on the ash heap of history. Yet there have been certain stand-out albums and personal favourites that I have never ceased to love, but merely neglect, for many years. One such album is Van Halen’s eponymous debut. Like many items of personal preference, whether for sentimental reasons or otherwise, I find it hard to express exactly what it is I love about the album. Sure, it’s packed with fantastic guitar playing, but what respectable 70’s rock album wasn’t? It’s got numerous hits, arena rock intensity, a lead singer that positively oozed sexuality… but nothing in this is terribly abnormal, right? Freddie Mercury was a more captivating singer and performer than David Lee Roth, Jimmy Page a more interesting guitarist than Eddie Van Halen. And yet it’s not just me who was so taken with the album: it was a monster seller, critically acclaimed and made the band into instant superstars. But why?
Well, for starters, Van Halen held nothing back on this, their debut. While some of the hard rock bands of the era put out careful debuts that only hinted at their future sound, (think Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith etc) Van Halen had their style down to a tee. Brash, outrageous and in-your-face, you couldn’t help but take notice. Take even the opening track, Runnin’ With The Devil. It begins with the surging sound of five car horns blared through a Marshall amp before a pounding bass riff and testosterone-fuelled guitar kick in. David Lee Roth’s vocals are charismatic and passionate, and unlike the refined, perhaps aloof vocals from the likes of Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters and co, they seemed approachable. Roth had no pretensions; he was a fun-loving guy who wanted to make music, and you really feel that vibe from him on this album. The whole band, too. It wasn’t about making something in search of critics’ praise or to make themselves look intellectual; it was music for enjoyment, both to the band and the listeners. Yet they were all talented musicians, and used their talent most appropriately. Eddie Van Halen’s explosive guitar instrumental Eruption might now be a cliché and the song that every wannabe guitarist aspires to play, but it’s worth remembering how startlingly original this song would have sounded at the time. The tapping, hammer-ons and pull-offs were known guitar techniques, but Eruption’s heavy use of them popularized them and influenced the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen. The neo-classical style of his playing also popularized this approach to heavy metal in the 1980’s. For such a short piece that wouldn’t have been included on the album if the producer hadn’t heard Eddie rehearsing it for a live show, its influence was massive.
For a relatively new and unknown band, Van Halen had absolutely nailed the art of songwriting. Their originals are absolutely superb; from the titillating Feel Your Love Tonight to the scathing Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love to the wistful Jamie’s Cryin’. Furthermore, the band added their own individual touches to each of their songs to make it exclusively theirs: the hilarious lounge jazz section in I’m The One, the glorious vocal harmonies and so on. Each song is flavoured with Eddie Van Halen’s characteristic guitar, Roth’s “Robert Plant on speed” shrieks and the pounding drum and bass of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. Each song is so rooted in hard rock that nobody could accuse them of “selling out,” yet each song is catchy enough to have been released as a single. As for their covers… while there are only two of them, both are sublime. The Kinks’ You Really Got Me is updated from a frantic rocker to a heavy metal beast, with deafening guitar and frantic drumming. Furthermore, the song has a short breakdown in the middle with quiet sound effects and orgasm-like vocals from Roth. It’s a bit of a strange one, but a definite highlight from the album. The second and final cover is very different. It’s a cover of an old blues song called Ice Cream Man. Beginning with the only acoustic guitar heard on the album, the typical bluesy lyrics are laden with sexual innuendo. Roth acknowledges this in his cheeky vocal delivery, full of amusement and sneering. About halfway through the song it transforms into a pounding rocker, more typical of the rest of the style of the album.
There’s something about this album that’s friendly and approachable. That’s really what makes me like it so much. You feel like you’ve always known them; that they were those kids who had a band and rehearsed in their garage down the road and finally made it big. You’re rooting for them, cheering them on, willing them to succeed. Their bold and daring debut brought hard rock music back down to earth while laying the blueprint for the genre’s future sound. In my opinion, the genre hasn’t sounded quite so fresh or exciting since.
Words - Adam