Diver Downer

In my life, Van Halen have gone from being hailed as Gods to being complete clowns back to being a source of great love and nostalgia. Growing up in the Midwest in the 80s you were limited on cultural growth and expanding ones tastes musically to Top 40 radio and physical print mags you found at local bookstores and grocery store magazine stands. If you had cable and MTV then you were ahead of the game slightly. For me, my parents wanted no part in the cable game. We had a 40ft attenna tower that got us 9 channels, plus some Chicago stations on clear, summer nights if we were lucky(The Twilight Zone on Channel 9 was a treat.) My parents saw cable as a scam(though were quick to buy a splitter for their bedroom when I paid for cable at their house when I was 20 years old. Pfft.)

What I’m getting at here is that I was limited to my musical adventures. By the time I hit 5th grade I’d already bought Ratt’s Out of the Cellar, Quite Riot’s Condition Critical, Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry, and Van Halen’s 1984. These were my “holy grails” of music. The big four that would push me into all other directions. While Ratt would put out at least three more decent records(Invasion of Your Privacy, Dance, and Reach For The Sky), the rest kind of faltered. Van Halen turned into a different band altogether. With Roth hitting the road they brought in Sammy Hagar, and though they never hit the massive “cock rock” appeal that the Roth years brought they were equally successful(if not more with Hagar.)

For me, though, the David Lee Roth years were my favorite Van Halen years. I’m a completist when it comes to bands. At least I was back then. Once I got a taste for 1984 I knew I had to dig back for all the good stuff. I was familiar with Van Halen and Van Halen II as my parents had them both on 8-track, but the rest was waiting for me to explore. I think Fair Warning was and still is my favorite Van Halen album. It was cheeky and had all the Van Halen tropes I’ve grown to love, but there was also this darkness to it that none of the other albums ever achieved. The album that seems to be everyone’s least favorite is Diver Down. I think it was my least favorite when I bought it in 1985. 32 years later I’d have to say that’s not the case. It’s really quite a hell of a record.

I may not remember much in the ways of Algebra, or how to tie a tie(I was pretty fluent in the art of tie tying in high school because I had to wear one as a bag boy at Owens Supermarket…clip-ons were for losers, baby), but I remember where I was when I bought certain albums. Not all of them, but some. I bought Diver Down on a day I stayed home from school because of a doctor appt. After the appt my parents took me by Butterfly Records where I picked up the last piece of the Van Halen puzzle, Diver Down. The only song I was really familiar with on this album was their cover of “(Oh)Pretty Woman”. I remember seeing the video on ‘Friday Night Videos’ and liking their guitar-heavy version. We arrived home and I went straight to my room to dig into Diver Down.

What I heard was an album that didn’t have any one song that stood out. Each album previously seemed to have stand out after stand out. Diver Down seemed to just roll tape and give out this continuous hum of same ‘ol stuff. I dug “The Full Bug” right off the bat, and I really liked “Big Bad Bill”, if not only for the fact that it made me think of my dad(his name is Bill and in his younger days he was known to throw fisticuffs here and there), plus the clarinet made me think of old Woody Allen movies. “Little Guitars” was nice as well, but everything else just seemed to blend together. It was also the most covers on a Van Halen record, with “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”, “(Oh)Pretty Woman”, and “Dancing In The Streets”. At the time I thought that was kind of lazy of VH. I listened maybe one more time before putting it in the cassette case to sit quietly and complete my collection.

Many, many years later when I would grow up and come to terms with my hair metal past, I started looking back on some of those 80s albums that I loved and would occasionally even pick one up on vinyl when I’d see it on the cheap. Two or three years ago I started snagging up Van Halen albums. Fair Warning was the first. Still a classic to my ears. I found a record club exclusive version of 1984 that was in mint condition last year and grabbed that, too. Then a few months ago I found a $5 copy of Diver Down. I couldn’t resist. I have to say, the 11 year old me just didn’t hear the goodness I’m hearing now. It’s not their best by any means, but it’s still a hell of an album.

One of my biggest complaints 30 years ago was that there were too many covers on this album. My opinion has changed completely on this. I think the covers are probably the strongest thing going on this album, with “Dancing In The Streets” being the cream of the crop. The use of synths, the patented Van Halen groove, the soaring Eddie solo, and David Lee Roth never sounded as sincere in his delivery as he does on this song. Really, I start with side 2 every time I spin this because I love this song so much. “(Oh)Pretty Woman” is another stellar cover, with the song starting out with some weird, dark instrumental(“Intruder”) that goes right into Orbison’s titular riff. Roth turns Orbison’s sadsack guy trying to get the attention of the girl into a blowhard come-on which Roth does like no other. The last cover(I’m not counting “Happy Trails”, kids) is the cover of the Kinks somewhat obscure track “Where Have All The Good Times Gone”. I hadn’t heard The Kinks version before hearing Van Halen do it, so I didn’t really have a reference point. I always dug the guy lamenting about the good old days schtick, and after hearing the Kinks original I felt Van Halen stayed pretty true to it.

Elsewhere, the originals don’t disappoint. “Hang ’em High” is a nitrous-fueled rocker with a mix of punk and LA glam. “Cathedral” is a dreamy little instrumental that leads into the poppy “Secrets”. Roth would go on to put out songs like “Ladies Night In Buffalo” and “Skyscraper” that seem to have their origins in songs like this. For all his crotch writhing and Tae Kwon Do mid air splits, Roth was a goofy romantic at heart. “Little Guitars(Intro)” and “Little Guitars” is flamenco guitar that morphs into the sweetest and most earnest pop the VH dudes had made yet. A kid looking for serious guitar mind melting would be disappointed with this, but for a guy in his 40s looking back this is a perfect dollop of late summer confection. Eddie’s guitar and Michael Anthony’s backing vocals make this song soar. As I mentioned before, I dug “The Full Bug” back in the day and still do now. It’s the obligatory “boogie” track. Nearly every VH album through Roth’s tenure had them. “Ice Cream Man”, “Bottoms Up!”, “Fools”, “Sinner’s Swing!”, and “Hot For Teacher” were all boogies in some shape or form. “The Full Bug” fills the boogie quota for Diver Down quite well. A good portion of the “Sunset Strip” bands of the mid-to-late 80s owe their 15 minutes to the Van Halen boogie(I’m looking at you, Bullet Boys.)

I’m not sure what happened in 1982 when Diver Down came out. Maybe it was VH overkill. Maybe the DLR schtick was starting to wear on everyone. Whatever it was, this album is the least discussed. I’m here to say that after putting some years between me and old Diver Down I can look back at it and appreciate it for the pretty decent LP that it was. It led us to the monumental 1984 and then the eventual ego war between Eddie and David Lee Roth. Then Eddie and the world at large.

If you haven’t heard this one in a long time, give it a spin. See what happens.

Oh, the video is pretty gross. But it was the early 80s. 


11 thoughts on “Diver Downer

  1. Well, well, well! Great to see some Roth-era Van Halen love here. As you know, I was late to the VH party, but I love it all. All of it. Every single note. However, you have highlighted that I do not have this one. This is true. I do not have this. I think I overlooked it during my early explorations as it wasn’t very well regarded and I just never went back to it. Ouch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This was the first piece of music I bought with my own money. Release day on cassette. I have a soft spot in my heart for it. I can probably go on record and say, for that sentimental reason, this is my favourite Van Halen album. I especially love Little Guitars (Intro) and Little Guitars.
    This song helped me appreciate Flamenco, and I have tried to collect every Carlos Montoya album ever since.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fifth least favorite of mine by VH. Only 1984 was worse. Hated, and still hate, that record. Loved the slamming hard/fast Women and Children, followed by the debut, then Fair, then II. No fan of Diver at all, except for the Full Bug. 1984 puts me to sleep. Love the song Mean Street on Fair.


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