The thing about albums which are truly progressive (to be clear, I’m referring to albums which break new ground – not necessarily prog rock albums) is that their impact on pop music as a whole takes a bit of time to really register. Sure, there’s a chance that they might break through, win fans and become popular early on, but measuring the extent of their reach can’t be assessed on an abbreviated timeline. Take Van Halen‘s self-titled debut album, for example – there’s no denying that it was popular when it was released on February 10, 1978: Van Halen was certified platinum the first time by the end of that same year and would go on to sell over ten million copies. But its artistic reach has proven to be virtually unbelievable.
Van Halen bravely broke existing hard rock and metal moulds and included songs which incorporated elements of both pop and punk and really expanded the possibilities of what was possible in what had previously seemed a very regimented form. Now, listeners don’t even bat an eye when a band like Fall Out Boy breaks stride on one of their albums to include a song like “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race” or Foo Fighters confess a love of Motörhead (and vice versa), because Van Halen helped to install the cross streets which connect those styles.
That’s cool but, even better yet, they did it with a sense of style that no one had ever tried before. Van Halen made jaws wag with “Eruption” and its finger-tapped solo, but the band’s genre-bending ambition was even more evident in “Atomic Punk,” which factored punk rock dynamics and themes into a hard rock setting (which was still pretty unheard of in 1978) before throwing all the guitar god histrionics out the window, picking up acoustic instruments and spinning out a cover of “Ice Cream Man.” Each of those jumps was enormous for its time, and the musicianship was unbelievable – but Van Halen did it on their first album with little more effort than it takes to shrug, crack a coy smile and wink.
The sort of groundbreaking performance coupled with effortless accessibility presented on Van Halen proved to be the hook which helped to pull a lot of other artists from the period into the spotlight as well. Back in 1978, California in general and Los Angeles in specific weren’t particularly known for their rock bands. At that time troubadours like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, folkies like Anne Murray, Carly Simon and Carole King and AM-lite bands like The Eagles and the last gasp of the Sixties peace and love movement (represented by Jefferson Starship) were the standard. But Van Halen really helped to change that. Soon, bands like Motley Crue, Ratt, W.A.S.P. and Guns N’ Roses would come along to typify the L.A. Rock sound and image, but Van Halen was the band who first got the sound and style through the gates, and their debut album remains a rare charm in that it is a glittering mix of hard rock, punk, technical talent and the kind of spit and sneer which only the young possess.
Even now – decades after its original release – Van Halen has the capacity to send out shockwaves. While the running order of the tracks doesn’t exactly make sense (the fact that “Eruption” doesn’t open Van Halen‘s A-side is a mystery for the ages on the same level as Stone Henge and the statues on Easter Island), there’s no denying the power: opening with “Runnin’ With The Devil” sets a precedent which continues to stand. There, after bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen lead off with some spare and sinewy play to get the neck hairs up and standing on end, guitarist Eddie Van Halen steps in and begins to lay down a formidable rhythm figure. That introduction remains brilliant and captivating, but David Lee Roth is the one who seals the deal when he steps to the mic and summarily updates rock’s rebellious spirit as well as putting L.A. on the map for a new sound and set of values with these words:
“I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
All I’ve got I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills.”
With those lyrics and the accompanying sound alone, Van Halen brings L.A. into a new, golden age and sews the seeds for the success of every band from Guns N’ Roses to Metallica to Megadeth to Suicidal Tendencies and Jane’s Addiction as well as a truckload of others from beyond the Los Angeles city limits in one fell swoop. It’s absolutely incredible, in retrospect – and we’re not even a minute into the song yet.
And “Runnin’ With The Devil” doesn’t rest after its first verse rounds out. Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony keep pushing the song along mercilessly with a solid but not showy rhythm performance while Anthony also sets a precedent for the sonic color of the band with his background vocals (don’t think so? Van Halen has had three lead singers, but the songs are always vocally recognizable – not because of the lead, but because of Anthony behind them), but all of that falls behind the show which is Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth.
In this first introductory track, Eddie doesn’t show off much but still cuts an impressive image with a stomping, swaggering performance which, while not sunny like The Beach Boys, still screams “Los Angeles.” His tight, meticulous and tidy leads characterize the song but do not overshadow the rhythm section at all, and take care to give David Lee Roth’s vocals – which fly high in a street rock kind of way for the time (keep in mind, Queen was operatic and Guns N’ Roses wasn’t around yet) – be the primary personality of the song. This first performance really introduces the band well, to be honest; it gives a good sampling of Van Halen’s strengths without really aiming to bowl listeners over or melt their faces – it simply establishes the band’s presence.
After that presence is set up, then Eddie Van Halen flies over the moon and leaves listeners questioning what the hell they just heard after “Eruption” sears/soars through. It’s not so easy to understand now but, at the time of Van Halen‘s release, synths were stealing a lot of sound creation space in rock from guitars and they were really good at it. At the time, synthesizer technology was getting better and cheaper than ever, and musicians had long since begun to realize the convenience of a keyboard for filling out a mix. Because of that, when Eddie Van Halen came along finger-tapping his fretboard and making sounds that no one had ever heard before but it was clear that they were being made on a guitar, the result spontaneously breathed new life and interest into the instrument. Suddenly, kids wanted to figure out “how to do that” so they could make something unbelievable too, and Eddie Van Halen became a superstar overnight because of it. Right then and there in “Eruption” (which is really just an almost-two-minute guitar solo), the guitarist became the face of the cutting edge and got a legion of teenage boys interested in learning to play guitar. The excitement that “Eruption” generated was almost unfathomable when it was originally released, and remains impressive to this day.
As the A-side of Van Halen continues, the band touches upon a few different points which offer a little more context and accessibility. The band’s ‘Hollywood’ cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” simultaneously sleezes up the standard but also gives Van Halen a song that even the unfamiliar can sing along with (not for nothing was it the first single released from the album) while “Ain’t Talkin’ About Love” offers up the band’s first genuine-article, clearly stage-tempered and tested anthem before “I’m The One” turns on the speed for one last fantastic blast to close the side. Throughout each track, the band is clearly very well aware of the impressions they’re making when they speed up to build adrenaline and slow down to make sure they’re still holding every listener’s attention, and the result is excellent. Everyone who runs top-to-bottom with the A-side of Van Halen is going to flip the disc because it just leaves listeners aching for more.
And, because they’re aching for more is why Van Halen knows it can push a couple more boundaries on the B-side of their debut. After “Janie’s Cryin’” upholds the solid rock pedigree set by the album’s A-side, the band begins pushing boundaries unapologetically by cross-wiring hard rock and punk (which was still very taboo in 1978 – punk rock was not yet “trusted” by the mainstream) for “Atomic Punk.”
While “Atomic Punk” was not released as a single and remains a deep cut on Van Halen to this day, it’s hard to not hear a few genre-founding timbres in it now, decades later. First, the reverb-soaked atmospherics which open the song sound as though they may have been an idea that Guns N’ Roses five-fingered when they began making works of sleezy genius like “Welcome To The Jungle,” and some of the guitar parts sound as though they may have been inspired by Black Sabbath’s darker days in the mid-Seventies – but it all gets brightened significantly in this context simply because producer Ted Templeman may have willed it so (one listen to albums like Carly Simon’s Another Passenger and his work with The Doobie Brothers draws a possible link to the sound here) and emphasizes the high end on the song. It works well regardless and serves as a great bridge into the more raucous rave-up vibe of “Feel Your Love Tonight,” which cooks hotter and harder than “Janie’s Crying” easily but, when the band shifts again with a cover of John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man,” Van Halen prove that they have more in them than just being a new breed of hard rock n’ roll band.
Needless to say, for all of the reasons listed above, Van Halen is a classic but, even thirty-seven years after its release, the depth and distance of the album’s reach across the pop music spectrum has yet to be accurately measured. Granted, every now and again, some music will come along which bears its influence in a manner which is so obvious and undeniable that it forces listeners to recognize and appreciate it, but moments like that really only scratch the surface – there’s always a sound deeper in the underground which could be examined as well. That’s a fairly astounding statement for an album to make, and it generates a lot of new interest and excitement every time listeners realize it.