Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
In 1977, after years and years toiling in obscurity in rough and tumble bars on the Sunset Strip, massive backyard parties around the San Fernando Valley, and a go-nowhere demo session with Kiss’s Gene Simmons, Van Halen finally secured a deal with a major label to release their first album. With three weeks of studio time and a $54,000 budget, guitar savant Eddie Van Halen, his bombastic drummer brother Alex, bassist Michael Anthony, and their over-the-top frontman David Lee Roth cooked up one of the most jaw-dropping debut albums in history.
Fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, the promise of carnal delight, a whole lot of angst, and some of the wildest guitar solos anyone had ever heard before, Van Halen captured the imaginations of pissed off teens from coast to coast when it dropped on February 10, 1978. At a time when rock was either taking itself too seriously with dense, intricately orchestrated prog-projects or not seriously enough, like so many flash-in-the-pan punk outfits, Van Halen showed up like saviors, ready and eager to get the party started. You can almost smell the quarter-filled cups of stale beer and cigarette butt-filled ashtrays as you pore through its 11 tracks.
On the occasion of Van Halen’s 40th anniversary, I thought I might run through the 40 different reasons why it remains one of the greatest albums ever made.
1. The logo. How many high school-aged kids defiled the covers of their notebooks or the insides of their textbooks with that iconic “VH?” Gotta be in the millions right?
2. The cover, which is vastly superior to their icy, initial choice. You can’t put the lead singer in the background with his eyes closed, c’mon!
3. Eddie’s “Frankenstrat” guitar, which he built himself with his own bare hands, because Eddie Van Halen is unf*ckwitable.
4. The haunted wail of car horns that opens “Runnin’ With The Devil,” which was a mishmash of Alex’s Opel, Eddie’s Volvo, a Mercedes Benz and a Volkswagen.
5. When Roth says, “G*ddamnit baby, you know I ain’t lyin’ / I’m only gonna tell you one tiiiiiiiime.”
6. Every single one of Roth’s vocal ad-libs on this song. “A lot of that comes from old blues records,” he explained in his autobiography Crazy From The Heat. “You go, ‘Bopedy bop blah, baby, all night long.'”
7. The first 43-seconds of Eddie’s mind-melting instrumental showcase “Eruption.”
8. The three seconds of silence in the middle of “Eruption” when you think the song is over.
9. The last 54-seconds of “Eruption,” which introduced the blazing-fast finger-tapping technique to a wide audience for the first time, and defined the sound of metal guitar for the next decade.
10. Eddie’s casualness about how “Eruption” ended up on the album. “I just didn’t think it was something we’d put on a record,” he told journalist Steven Rosen. “I played it two or three times for the record, and we kept the one, which seemed to flow.”
11. The dedication it took to get that good. “I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Malt tails,” he told Billy Corgan in an interview for Guitar World. “My brother would go out at 7 PM to party and get laid, and when he ‘d come back at 3 AM, I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years… I still do that.”
12. Michael Anthony’s high harmonies on their Kinks cover “You Really Got Me.”
13. Michael Anthony in general, who has been overlooked in recent years now that Eddie’s son Wolfgang has taken over on bass. As Roth told Rolling Stone, “What we have at our fingertips is arguably one of the greatest high tenor voices ever — that was in Michael Anthony. In our tiny little corner of the universe, that voice is as identifiable as the high voice in Earth, Wind & Fire, as identifiable as the high voice in the Beach Boys.” I totally concur Diamond Dave.
14. The fact that the band had to rush release “You Really Got Me” out to stores because Eddie played an advance copy for another LA band named Angel who tried to swipe their idea and put out their own version of the song.
15. Kinks founder Ray Davies’ review of “You Really Got Me,” “I… liked the Van Halen version of “You Really Got Me,” because it made me laugh… It was all done with good spirit and good humor, it made me smile.”
16. The music video for “Eruption/You Really Got Me” which is late-’70s/early ’80s cheese at its finest.
17. The fact that “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” was meant to be a piss-take on punk rock. “[It] was originally supposed to be a punk rock parody,” Eddie told Guitar World. “It was a stupid thing to us, just two chords. It didn’t end up sounding punk, but that was the intention.”
18. The song’s melodramatic breakdown: “I been to the edge / And there I stood and looked down / You know I lost a lot of friends there baby / I got no time to mess around / Mmm, so if you want it, got to bleed for it baby.”
19. The “Hey, hey, hey!” ending.
20. When the band sings “Bop badda, shibby doo wah,” over and over in “I’m The One.”
21. That David Lee Roth was too healthy to record “Jamie’s Cryin’” initially. “I had taken special good care of myself,” he wrote in his autobiography Crazy From The Heat. “I’d watched what I was eating, watched what I was exercising, didn’t smoke any cigarettes, nothing. Walked in, started singing and Ted Templeman the producer said, ‘Dave, it doesn’t sound the same, it sounds like it’s not you… did you do something different?’ I said ‘Yeah, well, you know I didn’t smoke any cigarettes and really made sure what I had for breakfast.’ He said, ‘Well, go outside and smoke a joint, somebody order a cheeseburger.’” Dave obeyed his producer’s instructions and then, “Walked in, knocked out ‘Jamie’s Cryin’’ in 40-minutes.”
22. That Jamie held out for more than a “one night stand,” because love should mean a little more.
23. Actual postage. “She wants to send him a letter, uh yeah yeah / Uh just to try to make herself feel better.”
24. The scratchy guitar intro to “Atomic Punk.”
25. The idea of a black lycra-clad David Lee Roth ruling any streets at night. Or the netherworlds for that matter.
26. Roth describing a makeout session as “getting funny,” in “Feel Your Love Tonight.”
27. The wah-wah riff to “Little Dreamer,” which is secretly Eddie’s best.
28. The stacked vocal “Oohs” in the background while Dave is singing.
29. Both of Eddie’s guitar solos in “Little Dreamer.”
30. Actually, I like everything about “Little Dreamer.” It might be my favorite Van Halen song.
31. Okay, “Light Up The Sky,” is my favorite Van Halen song, but still!
32. That the band decided to chuck one acoustic song, “Ice Cream Man” into the mix.
33. That it takes them exactly one-minute and 11-seconds to ditch the acoustic guitars and crank the Marshall stacks again.
34. Dave’s hiccup/squeal between the line, “Puddin’ pie banana” and “Dixie cups.”
35. The way the windows in my house crack when Dave screams “I’m On Fire” over and over again through the last song.
36. The fact that it was ultimately certified diamond by the RIAA for sales exceeding 10 million copies.
37. That Van Halen blew Black Sabbath off the stage on a nightly basis during their subsequent tour behind this album. “From the very first minute I heard them I knew straight away that they were something special,” Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi told Guitar World.
38. How Dave’s father is thanked as “Dr. Roth” in the liner notes.
39. Charles M. Young’s, catty contemporary review in Rolling Stone: “Mark my words: in three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and disgusting, and they’ll follow Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet. In the meantime, they are likely to be a big deal.”
40. Roth’s inhuman pose on the album’s back cover.