Formed in southern California in the mid 70s, the band known as Van Halen laid down the blueprint for hard rock and pop metal in the 80s. At a time when disco, AOR, and soft rock ruled, VH exploded onto the worldwide stage with a swagger not seen in years and proceeded to rock with a vengeance, making all other bands suddenly sound tired and tame.
Lead singer David Lee Roth—an early champion of blow dryers and head-to-toe spandex—was born to entertain. With his sleazy but good-natured, party-hearty persona and “wink and a smile” delivery, Dave was like a cool and crazy uncle, giving you a taste of the fun your parents were always warning you to stay away from. But wait a second.
Let the pictures speak a couple thousand words.
And then there’s Eddie. Trained as a child on classical piano, but switching to guitar as a teen — stop, stop, stop. Show ’em how it’s done, Eddie.
I have no evidence, but I’m pretty sure every music store in North America sold out of electric guitars after kids heard this track on Van Halen’s debut album, thus leading to the Great Guitar Shortage of ’79. (No need for anyone to fact-check — I’m fairly certain about this.) Anyway, “Eruption” is where Eddie’s legend begins.
Unfortunately, these two headstrong talents had differing opinions on life, music, and the pursuit of awesomeness. To everyone’s shock, in 1985, Dave was out, and Sammy Hagar was in. This incarnation of the band—sometimes referred to as Van Hagar—then reeled off four straight #1 albums before dissolving in acrimony again.
I brought my pencil. Gimme somethin’ to write on! Here’s the least you need to know:
Van Halen (1978) The debut heard ’round the world. Nobody vocalized like David Lee Roth, and Eddie’s guitar playing sounded like it was beamed in from the future, from a time of flying cars and robot butlers. (If you recall, a cassette of Eddie soloing is how Darth Vader from planet Vulcan convinces George McFly to ask Lorraine to the “Enchantment Under The Sea” Dance thereby allowing Marty McFly to melt the minds of the sock-hoppers with his Chuck Berry/Van Halen guitar playing which ultimately results in a few modifications to the space-time continuum.) This is the album where metal starts to party. Check: Runnin’ With The Devil & You Really Got Me
Women And Children First (1980) The boys get a little more serious. The songs get a little darker around the edges. The sonic palette expands with different textures, and the band ramp up the action with a few of their heaviest riffs to date. Taut, muscular, and firing on all cylinders. Check: Everybody Wants Some!! & Could This Be Magic?
1984 (1984) The sound of world domination. (Sounds suspiciously like synthesizers.) A perfect blend of Dave’s lovable bad boy persona and Eddie’s seemingly easy virtuosity. Diamond-hard music, built to thrill. Orwell could never have predicted Van Halen. Check: Panama & Hot For Teacher
Best Of Both Worlds (1978-1995) There aren’t any perfect compilations for Van Halen, but this double-disc set comes the closest. It’s a mess of sequencing–alternating Roth and Hagar doesn’t work–but all the hits are present in one form or another and it’s the best way to hear the Van Hagar years. (Note: Despite massive commercial success, the Sammy albums aren’t exactly acclaimed and many fans either listen to select songs or refuse to acknowledge the post-Roth albums at all.) Check: Why Can’t This Be Love & Finish What Ya Started
Van Halen’s video for “Jump” perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the band. It’s a classic example of the “stage performance with no audience” genre.