When Edward Van Halen departed this existence two years ago today, the tidal wave of tributes was fully justified. But my own words have been held back until now, to let perspective grow and to focus on the legacy of Van Halen’s music rather than the immediate loss from his death.
In February 1978, the top of the album charts was not a hard rock battlefield. It was the turf of Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, and the now-solo Rod Stewart, with the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever ruling them all. The once-abundant sonic waterfall of highly-amplified guitars and thunderous drums was slowing to a trickle in the realm of the major labels, who were selling a softer California sound emanating from the likes of Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac.
But not everything in California was a mellow dream. In the Los Angeles club scene, hard rock competition was as cutthroat as ever. And a group curiously named Van Halen – born and raised in that element – had overcome obstacles while clawing and scratching their way to the release of their debut self-titled album on Warner Brothers.
As a music consumer in early 1978, I shopped by a simple credo: If it looked like it rocked, I would buy it – sight unseen, sound unheard. Often these purchases revealed bands with dim commercial prospects who nevertheless would eventually prove influential on those who heard them. Bedlam, Tempest, Budgie, White Lightnin’ and many more had made the trip from the record store bins to the cash register while clutched in my eager hands.
So it was with Van Halen. The cover immediately struck me with a diagonal tic-tac-toe line from bottom right to top left: Michael Anthony plummeting to earth trailed by streaks of color, the bold and striking Van Halen logo, and my first look at Eddie Van Halen, in mid-yell, aggressively wielding a highly-modified (or bastardized?) Stratocaster-shaped guitar.
These Van Halen cats had something else going for them. The credits read, “Engineered by Donn Landee” and “Produced by Ted Templeman.” I knew those guys, especially because they were the architects of THE perfect metallic hard rock album, 1973’s Montrose. Landee and Templeman took the raw elements of guitarist Ronnie Montrose and his band in a futuristic, heavier-than-Zeppelin direction. It was extremely effective and extremely powerful.
If Landee and Templeman were on board with Van Halen, I was, too.
Not having heard a note of my purchase, I went directly to a friend’s pad – one who had an imposing stereo system. Shrink wrap removed, vinyl placed, needle dropped, and “Runnin’ with the Devil” emerged fully formed. The song lumbered along on a rhythm section surge topped by David Lee Roth’s wild-man whoops, sounds I could fully relate to instantly.
And then came “Eruption.”
Other guitarists had dipped a finger or five in the tapping realm. Only jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan had really surveyed that land. Others were heard as mere curiosities. But if they were flirting with the technique, Eddie Van Halen fully amplified it and simply took possession. “Eruption” was appropriately titled, a hail of notes, dives, and string-bending swoops being force-fed into the ears of listeners primed for a new sound in hard rock. Even if they had no idea what on earth they were hearing. You could almost smell the tubes in Eddie’s modded Marshall amp heads cooking.
It was also the sound of rock music changing right before your very ears. The first time you heard it, you just knew it could be nothing less than a fundamental course-change in rock guitar playing. You didn’t know rock needed it because you couldn’t even imagine it, but there it was.
That, combined with the superego of Roth, the root note possession and overlooked harmonies of bassist Michael Anthony, and Alex Van Halen’s bluntly dexterous drumming, equaled one thing – the perfect musical storm.
Unlike all the influential but largely-forgotten bands haunting my record collection, Van Halen was not bound for obscurity.
In the years that followed I saw Eddie Van Halen play live quite a few times, including one memorable three-nights-in-a-row stretch in Philadelphia’s holy hockey arena of rock, the Spectrum. He was always charismatic, smiling, and shredding his way through a vibrant musical attack. It was a non-stop thrill ride. Eddie, taking risks while easily walking that thin line between guitar disaster and genius. Even as all those who tried to follow in his footsteps set about studiously deciphering modes and laboriously constructing their progressions.
The very things that just came naturally to Edward Van Halen.