Most of my friends think I'm joking when I tell them that I'm really into Van Halen now. They know I grew up listening mostly to indie rock and have nary a shredder's bone in my body. When people think of Van Halen, they think of 80s kitschiness, big hair and spandex, David Lee Roth doing jump kicks, and Eddie Van Halen wanking away like some jerk-off on the guitar. To that, I'd say what is considered fashionable always comes and goes, but that last one is an especially unfair misconception I'd like to dispute. Just because a guy possesses incredible virtuosity doesn't mean that every difficult sounding thing he plays is excessive garbage. To the contrary, I think most of what Eddie plays is perfectly appropriate for his music.
Musical excess is not a trait I'd label onto Van Halen. In all the songs I've listened to, none of them have even hit the 5 minute mark. Van Halen songs are compact. If anything, the band seems to trim excess from their music and favors making concise pop statements (at least in the studio). Their albums are lean- barely over 30 minutes in most cases. Even Eddie's choice of equipment is telling- he could have played any guitar he wanted, yet he mostly stuck with a guitar he handbuilt and equipped with barely any features.
It's kind of funny to think that Van Halen and the Sex Pistols both came out around the same time in 1978. Back then, they must have been perceived as total opposites. The punks probably thought that Van Halen was the epitomy of everything they were rebelling against in terms of the rock scene. But it seems to me that in their own way, when they were being the best representation of themeselves (i.e. not playing lame covers of "Pretty Woman!"), Van Halen were making a type of punk music themselves. Actually, as a friend of mine pointed out- Van Halen has much more in common with that other seminal punk band, the Ramones. Think about it- the Marshall stacks, the unabashed love of '50s rock and roll, the long hair, and wit...
I'm not trying to be a total Van Halen apologist and I'm not saying I love all of their songs. In fact, I could care less about the great majority of them. I waded through a lot of crap to find the gems I like, and I think the search was worthwhile. What I really like about Van Halen is that it's FUN to listen to their songs, and I've been indulging myself lately.
Below is a mix* of my favorite Van Halen songs. Track them down and see what you think. I hope that you will be able to appreciate at least some of the music of Van Halen without guilt or resorting to ironic posturing. Actually, there's nothing wrong with a healthy dose of irony- I don't think it would be right to listen to "Hot For Teacher" with a stony demeanor. If Van Halen teaches us anything, it's to lighten the fuck up!
*(You'll notice all the selections come from the Diamond Dave era. Sorry Sammy, but I couldn't get into the Van Hagar.)
1. "Eruption" from Van Halen (1978)
It's hard to appreciate this recording of Eddie messing around in the studio for what it's worth today. It evokes the sound of the mid-day cacophany in so many guitar stores, which is ironic when all those noodly 14 year olds are just trying to evoke "Eruption". But really, its importance in the rock canon rates somewhere near Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock. As on their debut album, it segues perfectly into...
2. "You Really Got Me" from Van Halen (1978)
In my opinion, Van Halen's version of this Ray Davies' classic far surpasses the original Kinks version. All those little things Eddie does with his guitar really adds up to a sensation of absolute giddiness. Again, think about this choice of cover- a garage/proto-punk classic.
3. "Loss of Control" from Women and Children First (1980)
I think this is the fastest Van Halen song and it flies by at a little over 2 minutes. Sometimes I just listen to this one song over and over. Dig that freaky vocal part on the "chorus".
4. "Unchained" from Fair Warning (1981)
There are other VH songs I like better, but this is the one that gets stuck in my head the most for some reason. Probably because the chorus is so good. I love that talking bit that happens in the middle. It really creates for the listener the character that is "David Lee Roth"- the funny loud-mouthed asshole that no party would be complete without- but also the guy who totally grates on you in any other context. I guess now we can all find out if that's true by tuning into his new morning talk radio show...
5. "Sinner's Swing!" from Fair Warning (1981)
Is Van Halen sexist? Yeah sure, sometimes. But come on, what do you expect from a bunch of long haired metal dudes? Just rock with them.
6. "Romeo Delight" from Women and Children First (1980)
He's bringing whiskey to the party tonight and looking for somebody to squeeze. Haha
7. "D.O.A." from Van Halen II (1979)
This song is not all that different from something the Stooges would've done on Fun House. 4 minutes of primal riff savagery.
8. "Spanish Fly" from Van Halen II (1979)
Let's please let the master shred for a minute... It is notable to be hearing this style of playing on an acoustic guitar, and with such precision at that! It's about twice as hard to play anything on the acoustic guitar as it is to play on an electric- there's nothing to help you fudge over any mistakes.
9. "Panama" from 1984 (1984)
Was this song huge back in the day? I know there's a video for it, but I don't think I've ever heard it on the radio. It seems like the kind of song that would've gotten totally played out. Thankfully, for me, it's not.
10. "Hot For Teacher" from 1984 (1984)
This is their best song ever. I simply cannot tire of it. Remember how awesome the video was? http://www.youtube.com/?v=3bP9Nj_rK4E Sit down, Waldo! Now check out how much they destroy it live: http://www.youtube.com/?v=P5RnzEpxaLQ
11. "Could This Be Magic?" from Women and Children First (1980)
Eddie's slidework is really fun on this song- it's not something that I've heard featured in any of their other songs. I think one of the things I really like about VH is that easy going sense of humor that permeates most of their work- kinda like Pavement- they've got that off the cuff kind of charm.
I hope you enjoy this mix and drive many miles blasting it in your car (as I plan to) or however you please!