‘Lighters In The Sky’ Exclusive: Van Halen’s 1979 Concert At The LA Coliseum Set A New Bar For Insanity

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On October 10, Corbin Reiff’s first book Lighters In The Sky: The Greatest Concerts Of All-Time 1960-2016 will hit the stands. Each chapter seeks to highlight one show every year that defined live music for the year. For more information about the process behind the book, check out our interview with him here. While there were several cases where he was faced with hard decisions about who to include, 1979 was not among them. Van Halen’s stand at the Califfornia World Music Festival on April 8 ranks as one of the most over-the-top, wild and debaucherous events in music history. That’s not even mentioning what happened onstage. With that being said, here’s an exclusive look into that incredible gig.

Van Halen’s one-night stand at the CaliFFornia World Music Festival in 1979 reigns as one of the most over-the-top events in rock history. That’s without even mentioning what happened onstage. Though they had only “made it” the year before, following the release of their self-titled debut album, Van Halen had spent the last several years plugging away in the San Gabriel Valley as a beer-swilling, cop-enraging, backyard party band. They were four guys who knew how to have a good time and delighted in pushing the envelope.

Van Halen was the co-headliner for the festival’s second day alongside an on-the-edge-of-disintegrating Aerosmith. From the second they arrived at the Memorial Coliseum, they did just about everything they could do to attract attention. The band, their crew and their coterie of hangers-on—about 300 people—rolled up to the venue in a fleet of 16 white stretch limousines. Backstage, a pair of little people acted as the band’s “security team,” but their chief responsibility was to fetch lead singer David Lee Roth more beer whenever his cup ran low.

Rocking the faces off tens of thousands of adoring fans wasn’t the only thing they had on their agenda that day. To while away the hours before they hit the stage, Van Halen concocted a prank to play on Aerosmith. They parked a yellow Volkswagen Bug in front of the Coliseum and periodically had someone make an announcement to the crowd asking for “someone in the Aerosmith organization to please move their car.”

Meanwhile, Van Halen had already rented a World War II–era Sherman tank from a Hollywood entertainment company with the intention of running over “Aerosmith’s Bug.” As Roth explained, “The theory being that after all of these announcements throughout the day and the night, the lights would go down, they’d go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen . . . da-da-da . . . Van Halen,’ the spotlights would hit us and the tank would come out from under a cover on that landing, run right over the Volkswagen and we’d pop out of the tank and run down the stairs to the stage.”

Aerosmith found out and put the kibosh on Van Halen’s plan. “We discovered several days before the show that Aerosmith had been put wise to our little scheme and had found some stock footage of airplanes blowing up tanks, and that’s what they were going to show when they came on after us,” Roth said. “We decided that because Aerosmith had a little trump card that we weren’t going to do the tank trick, so we never ran over the Volkswagen, we just ran down the stairs. We didn’t want to be one-upped on our one-upmanship, you know?”

With their plan to sabotage the Aerosmith’s set thwarted, Van Halen were going to do something even better. They were going to blow the headliners completely off the stage.

Van Halen is introduced to the large crowd by the festival’s MCs, the stoner comedy duo Cheech & Chong. At the mention of their name, the band shoots down the stairs just as the sun begins to sink below the lip of the Coliseum. Without wasting a second they launch into the hard-charging track “Light Up the Sky” from their new album, Van Halen II. Roth
is quite a sight decked out in electric yellow lyrcra pants and an unbuttoned rainbow striped shirt. Next to him, Eddie Van Halen is beaming as he rips into his self-modified red and white “Frankenstrat” guitar.

“Los Angeles!” Roth screams when the song ends. “We got a bunch of new ones for ya, baby!” Alex Van Halen taps in a soft four-count on his cowbell and the band blasts into another Van Halen II cut, “Somebody Get Me a Doctor.” From there they go back in time, pulling out their first album single, “Runnin’ with the Devil,” before hitting the crowd with their latest hit, “Dance the Night Away.”

Unlike many of their ’70s rock contemporaries who rely on hundred-thousand–watt lighting rigs, pyrotechnics and lasers to make an impression, at this point in their career all Van Halen needs to keep the audience’s attention is their outsized charisma and significant musical chops. The massive stage setups—no brown M&MS please!—would come in time.
But at this moment Eddie’s incredible fretboard gymnastics, Michael Anthony’s nimble harmonies, Alex’s frenetic double-bass footwork and Roth’s midair splits and ear-piercing wails are more than enough to keep the crowd enthralled.

Amongst the 65,000 people in the audience that night was future Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and the dizzying display made a lasting impression. “I subconsciously knew then that rock ’n’ roll was entering into a new era as a result of this great new band. They were really powerful and alive, and there was a palpable rush of excitement the moment they hit the stage,” he remembered. “It was loud and aggressive, melodic, rhythmic, and fluid, with a boatload of charisma and showmanship on top of all that. That first experience seeing [Eddie] play has stuck with me to this day.”

Roth has a clear read on this audience and takes special delight in toying with them throughout the show. “There seems to be a lot of concern, especially about this show with all of the kids doing drugsssssss,” he deadpans during a breakdown in the middle of “Ain’t Talking ’Bout Love.” The crowd cheers wildly. “And I don’t know, but I heard there’s a rumor that a lot of people do sex after they do the drugs.” The crowd cheers even more wildly. “So what I wanna do is take my own, personal Van Halen survey. So I wanna ask ya: Who likes to get high around here?!” The crowd explodes, affirming en masse their love of narcotics and all the accompanying side effects. Roth beams like the Cheshire cat.

After this comedic interlude, the band breaks back into “Ain’t Talking ’Bout Love.” At the behest of the lead singer, the Coliseum turns into a galaxy of upraised lighters while Van Halen brings the song to its “Hey, hey, hey” conclusion. Then comes the moment that everyone has been waiting for. A spotlight shifts over to Eddie as he pings out the first harmonic notes to his extended guitar solo “Eruption.”

For five full minutes, the smiley-faced virtuoso shows all that he can do in a volcanic display of mind-blowing musical wizardry. The notes pour out of his stack of Marshall amplifiers faster than the mind’s ability to fully digest them. Then he shifts into the warp-speed second half of the song, the part where he abandons his pick altogether and starts
tapping the notes out on the fretboard of his instrument. It’s all everyone can do to keep their jaws from hitting the floor.

The second Eddie finishes his solo, the band dives headfirst into its first-ever single, a cover of the Kinks’ classic “You Really Got Me.” The cheering shakes the walls of the Coliseum to their foundation. When the song ends, the band departs and the audience spends the next several minutes begging for an encore. When Van Halen emerges to perform “Bottoms Up!” the scream of appreciation is deafening. “I got to tell ya,” Roth says to the crowd, “L.A., you are, and you always will be, the f*cking greatest!”

A little over an hour after they started, Van Halen waves goodbye and retreats backstage, where their parents are all waiting for them in their dressing room. But if you thought that the presence of maternal and fraternal authority might curb their bad behavior, think again. The night ends just as chaotically as the day began, with gobs of chocolate cake flying through the air and copious amounts of cheap beer disappearing down their throats.

You can pre-order your copy of Lighters In The Sky: The Greatest Concerts Of All-Time 1960-2016 here.