The Van Halen era: the glorious rise, and tragic implosion, of Reagan America's favourite rock band

Van Halen in Osaka, 1979 - Getty
On September 23, 1978 Van Halen built the largest gig in the history of modern music. As the crowd waited for their arrival at Anaheim Stadium, four men fell from a plane towering high in the cloudless sky of Orange County. Minutes later, the band sprinted onto the stage in equivalent skydiving suits, from which they undressed before ripping up their 11-song set, appropriately titled On Fire.
And weren't they fair? After the release of this year's title debut album, the irrepressible quartet from Pasadena exploded into an American rock scene dominated by the smooth grooves of Boston and Journey. In contrast, Van Halen hid her caramel choirs in driving music with sharp elbows. When reporting on modern classics - You Really Got Me and later (Oh) Pretty Woman - they did so with a touch of brilliant and crazy virtuosity.
The group was harnessed by the supernatural and revolutionary talents of guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who died this week of throat cancer at the age of 65, and the irresistibility of their roll-up roll-up roustabout front man David Lee Roth and was the equivalent of the US mainstream punk rock. Drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony provided the underground grooves. At the console, producer Ted Templeman drove the needles into the red to create a sound that was both roomy and loud.
“Remember, 1978 was the year of the Sex Pistols and Saturday Night Fever,” wrote Roth in his endlessly quotable memoir, Crazy From The Heat. "Well, Van Halen is sailing right in the middle of this canal, because those in this volume are part of both sides of the coin."
Determined to miss the point, the critics were quick to pigeonhole Van Halen as a heavy metal act. The band themselves preferred the term "big rock", a soubriquet that is impossible to improve on. Whether on stage or on vinyl, America was very important here. Convertibles, cheeseburgers, California, suntans, cocaine and not a single moment of self-reflection.
Speaking to the Dallas Morning News, Roth stated, "[We are] the new generation, man. The eighties are here" - that wasn't 1978, by the way - "and Van Halen is young and so writes ... we call it Big rock and it's different from hard rock or heavy metal. ”On the stump with the Houston Chronicle, the singer tried again to point out that“ Van Halen is big rock. We're not a heavy metal band even though we were called that. "
Big rock. I have it? Write it down. Big rock. But despite their best efforts, the band boasted with deaf ears. "Van Halen's Heavy Metal is sleek and ordinary - a kind of black Sabbath with bourgeois professionalism," was a typical summary from the pages of High Fidelity. This intransigence helped inform the low opinion in which David Lee Roth would hold fourth estate. "Most journalists like Elvis Costello because most journalists look like Elvis Costello," he said later.
Without the input from their front man, Van Halen might have become a heavy metal band. When the singer (who was taking the lead with another group at the time) watched the Van Halen brothers at a party in the early 1970s as the Van Halen brothers perform a 20-minute medley of Cream songs - drum solo and all - , he praised Eddie and his older sibling Alex for their technical skills. That was pretty good, he told them, except for one problem. "You can't dance to it."
Eddie Van Halen 1978 - Getty
Together, the two parties turned Van Halen into something awe-inspiring. In 1978 the singer supported a fading Black Sabbath and told a house-rich Lewisham Odeon - that's the Lewisham Odeon - that their corner of south London was "the rock and roll capital of the world". On and across the British Isles, the audience was severely beaten. In Sheffield, the crowd in town hall was still shouting for the Americans as Sabbath began their set.
Van Halen was better than Kiss and more reliable than Aerosmith and the American rock band that best defined the first half of the 1980s. You were a stream roller that acted like a Ferrari. The group would arrive even in the smallest towns with up to 19 heavy commercial vehicles and a lighting system that would cause the roofs of the halls in tertiary towns to buckle and groan in protest. For her and for the crowds who paid to see her, every night was July 4th.
Even her dresser driver became a legend. For many, the group's insistence on having a bowl of M & M's in all colors other than brown spoke of the kind of madness that comes when a rock star stops hearing the word "no". Critics put their clocks on and counted the minutes until Michael Anthony was fished out of a Rolls Royce parked at the bottom of a hotel pool.
The reality was far smarter. Van Halen knew that the sight of a chocolate-colored candy meant that the promoter had not read the band's contract in full and therefore did not know the technical specifications. The consequence of dragging a production that "weighed more than the business end of a 747" could be fatal. Before a gig at the Massari Arena in Colorado, the stage the musicians wanted to stand on literally fell through the floor.
David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in San Diego, 1984 - Getty
"If I've seen a brown M&M in that bowl ... well, check out the entire production," said David Lee Roth. "Guaranteed you will encounter a technical error. You haven't read the contract. Guaranteed you will encounter a problem. Sometimes it just threatened to destroy the whole show. Sometimes it would be literally life threatening."
For fans of a certain age, Van Halen made a passable impression of the best band in the world at this point. The footage on YouTube - 1981 at Oakland Coliseum, 1982 from the Capital Center in Landover - shows a quartet ideally suited to the extraordinary age of Reagan's America. This was the environment they belonged in and always reluctant to leave.
"As long as the audience has a good time, we have a good time," said Alex Van Halen in 1984. "We are also paid a lot."
Van Halen, who was high on the bill on Heavy Metal Day at the three-day US Festival in San Bernardino in 1983, spent $ 1.5 million on two dozen songs. Their presence on the bill - along with that of Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, the Scorpions, and Judas Priest - drew an audience of nearly a quarter of a million to the suburbs of Los Angeles. The traffic was so great that the actors were transported to and from the location by helicopter.
Van Halen 1978 - Redferns
"The whole US festival was something like my first look into the whole backstage atmosphere," says Tommy Lee, the drummer at Mötley Crüe. "[Van Halen] had set up the wildest s___ back there. They had f______ little people - dwarfs - and f______er alcohol flows like crazy. It was like a circus back there. I think I was 17 then and just looked around Dude, that's f______ crazy! Is it so? "
As an insult to gluttony, it always seemed to me that Van Halen managed all of this without really trying too hard. Even the group's most revered album - 1984, ab, ahem, 1983 - features songs (Girl Gone Bad, House Of Pain) that are little more than riffs and tempos hastily stitched together in the face of a non-smiling deadline. That is talent without much application. The lyrics make so little sense that they might as well have been written by Salvador Dali.
But in the midst of all this delightful nonsense, Eddie Van Halen stands up like a god. 1984, the lead guitar that explodes over the lazy beat of Drop Dead Legs is nothing short of electricity with wild and violent designs. The squalling and fluid solo that later emerged from the hectic Hot For Teacher - an evergreen classic to this day - owes much more to virtuoso jazz than anything else in the traditional rock canon.
Despite this abundance of brilliance, the guitarist's influence was almost entirely malevolent. With a Kramer Baretta and a DOD American Metal effects pedal, Eddie Van Halen ushered in a generation of shredders who were able to mimic the mechanics but had no idea of ​​his innate and advanced sense of melody. His talent was hardly from this earth. In the hands of others - George Lynch, Warren DeMartini - the yank plank pyrotechnic spank became pointless and boring.
It couldn't last and it didn't last. Behind the smile, Van Halen had become one of the wildest rock bands. Fresh from two new releases - California Girls and Just A Gigolo - David Lee Roth decided to turn his hand to acting.
With a script called Crazy From The Heat and CBS pledging $ 10 million, the singer envisioned a movie in which he played a replacement ("Dave") who was on a desert island with a bevy of Beauties in bikini has been confiscated. "Grab your swimsuits, guys, we're going to the tropics!" reads the script.
As part of the musical, Roth suggested that Eddie Van Halen compose the score for this soon-canceled Busby Berserkley extravaganza. The guitarist declined, but agreed to the singer's demands to keep his wife, actress Valerie Bertinelli, out of the press for fear that her presence would spoil the band's image by party Lotharios. Disputes over creative control abounded. In 1985 Rolling Stone reported that "the band as you know it is over".
Crazy From The Heat: A poster for the David Lee Roth musical that never existed
When Van Halen replaced David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar, he - I'm pretty sure I never dreamed it - became increasingly popular. No, I can't explain it either. The voice of Rags America - not to mention the writer of a protest song lamenting his country's speed limit - Hagar pulled the soda out of his new band like they were a bottle of pop on a long journey. Just like that, they were just as boring as anyone else.
At least the two parties had a grace to sneak around like price tails. Hagar described Roth as "the enemy of all enemies", a man who was "false and made up". Roth said that if his successor had "an original idea, it would die of loneliness [and] rattle like a golf ball in a garbage can". Take it from me, this stuff was way more fun than anything else on the albums released by a group whose critics are now referred to as Van Hagar.
"The truth is, most bands have a lifespan of seven or eight years from start to finish," punk DJ and documentary filmmaker Don Letts once said. “Look at the Beatles, look at the Smiths, look at Led Zeppelin [and] a lot of the bands I'm in. And of course there are exceptions, but you could argue that they got their best time in the first seven or more eight years. "
Here Letts Van Halen describes a tee. As the quartet coughed their way through horrific albums like OU812 and Balance, even Sammy Hagar got tired of leaving the recording studio marred by migraines caused by the clouds of smoke coming from the mouths of Alex and Eddie Van Halen. An unlikely reunion with David Lee Roth couldn't shoot all but one top hat. Every song on A Different Kind Of Truth was released in 2012 and is older than the band's first album.
And that was it, a bubbly first act followed by decades of disappointing albums, botched reunions, and a tendency toward permanent laziness that hinted at a terrible cynicism. When it came down to it, the drop wasn't pretty. Sammy Hagar, in his lengthy, self-aggrandizing memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, recalls meeting Eddie Van Halen for the first time since he left the band a decade earlier.
"He looked like he hadn't bathed in a week," he notes. "At least he hadn't changed for so long. He wasn't wearing a shirt. He had a huge coat and army pants, torn and torn at the cuffs, held up with a piece of rope. I had never seen him so thin in my life. Him some teeth were missing and the ones he had left were black, his boots were so worn that he was taped and his big toe was still sticking out.
“He walked up to me, bent over like a little old man, a cigarette in his mouth. He had a third of his tongue removed for cancer and spoke with a slight lisp, ”he recalls.
In other words, who needs it? Eddie Van Halen was the beneficiary of an unsustainable talent who lives forever in songs like Runnin 'With The Devil and The Cradle Will Rock, Dirty Movies and Top Jimmy. Metallica's Kirk Hammett - by far the tastiest and most talented successor - said: "The things he came up with became the modern guitar dictionary."

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