So by the time Van Halen’s 1984, or MCMLXXXIV was released in January of that year and you were a fan of Van Halen you were pretty much in one camp or another. You either dug the heavier synthesizer trip Eddie was taking and liked that at times they were starting to sound like Asia, or you were burning your copies of Diver Down and Women and Children First because you felt the original LA cock rockers had abandoned their boogie rock and metal tendencies for more well-trimmed pastures and Casey Kasem’s top 40 countdown. I don’t think either camp was completely right or completely wrong, but Van Halen never sounded like Asia and synths only went to expand the VH sound.
But let’s be real you Atomic Punks out there, Van Halen were starting to get a little stale by 1983. They came out of(in my opinion) their best record with Fair Warning and jumped(see what I did there?) right back into the studio, much to Eddie’s chagrin, and churned out Diver Down. I know Diver Down had its share of haters, and I’d agree with most of the complaints to a degree. But there’s still some pretty great tracks. Two of their best covers are on that album(“Pretty Woman” and “Dancing In The Streets”), and a couple killer originals as well. “The Full Bug” is the prototypical Van Halen boogie, but it works. And I don’t care what you say, I like “Little Guitars” parts one and two. But for the most part, the album just sort of came and went.
Eddie decided he wanted to take a breather, so he built a home studio(5150) and took his time learning an instrument he wasn’t proficient at, the keyboard. While the studio was being built he sat down at an Oberheim and started turning knobs till he found sounds he liked. No presets, baby. He went mad scientist style. Having locked himself away from the ego trip known as David Lee Roth and their “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” longtime producer Ted Templeton, Eddie Van Halen was free to compose the new Van Halen album on his own terms. In doing so, he broke new sonic ground for Van Halen and in turn wrote what would be a serious top 40 breakthrough album.
Commence your hating, Atomic Punks.
So where did I land in those two Van Halen camps back in 1984? Well, when 1984 was released in January of that year I was only 10-years old and still playing pretty heavily with action figures. Star Wars, GI Joe, maybe a Transformer or Go Bot thrown in for good measure. But that Christmas I’d received my very first boom box. It was a single speaker, single cassette GE radio/cassette player and I christened it with my brother’s copy of Def Leppard’s Pyromania and ZZ Top’s Eliminator. By the summer of 1984 I’d acquired a secondhand copy of Van Halen II and dreamed of playing “Spanish Fly” on a beat up Alvarez acoustic I’d see leaning in the corner of my uncle Mark’s apartment so I could impress the neighbor girl. Then in the fall of ’84 when I’d reached the 5th grade toys were starting to dwindle in my mind and cassettes were what I was wanting. The Rock and Roll Boogie Woogie Flu had taken hold of me and wasn’t going to let go. In October “Hot For Teacher” was released as a single and when I first saw the video on Friday Night Videos I knew I had to have that album. The speed of the drums, the flashy hammer-ons, the titular Van Halen boogie sounded better than ever, and David Lee Roth just seemed like the coolest bad influence a 10-year old could find. Plus that video was great; humor, T&A, and the idea that maybe during class I could somehow morph into Eddie and walk on top of the desks in class and play that guitar solo was overwhelmingly tantalizing to my prepubescent brain.
1984 became THE album for me. I can remember during indoor recesses when it was either raining or too cold out me and a couple other idiots in my class would crank out various of our cassette collections. Quiet Riot, Twisted Sister, Ratt, and of course Van Halen. We’d do these ridiculous lip syncs to them. Thinking back to this now as I type that out I feel a little embarrassed and horrified, but at the time we didn’t care. We weren’t trying to impress anyone(and I’m sure we didn’t.) It just goes to show that when you have a solid crew to hang with you sort of feel like you’re bulletproof(and idiot proof, apparently.)
My one buddy Kevin, him and I were the early adopters of buying music. By the time we were both 11-years old in Mr. Teeple’s 5th grade class we each had amassed quite a collection of cassettes of varying degrees. We also both had pretty similar taste in music. The difference between us was that he was a singles guy, where I was drawn in by the singles but stuck around for the side two deep cuts. I can remember us talking about Van Halen and me saying “Yeah man, I think “House Of Pain” might be the heaviest thing Van Halen’s done”, to which Kevin replied “What’s that?” He never ventured past the radio hits. That killed me about him. I mean, you paid $8.40 for a cassette, why not listen to the whole damn thing? I think if people flipped that cassette and found more than what’s being heavily rotated on MTV they might have found something else to dig. With the case of 1984, people were flipping the cassette and vinyl, as side two opened with “Hot For Teacher”. But most either flipped it then or right after “I’ll Wait”.
But I digress.
1986 brought the end of classic Van Halen. Roth went full ego trip and formed a band that was about as good and tight as any band on the planet at the time. There was no denying the power of the Eat ‘Em and Smile band, which consisted of Roth, Steve Vai, Billy Sheehan, and Gregg Bissonette. The Van Halen/David Lee Roth camps formed and when you’re comparing Eat ‘Em to 5150, well there’s no comparison. Roth won out on the crunch and not-so subtle odes to sex and his manhood. And really, Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan? Those two were wizards that Eddie and Michael Anthony couldn’t even get close to. But when you’re blazing that hot, you’re bound to peter out much quicker which is what Roth did. Van Halen lost their big personality in Roth, but they gained something even better in Sammy Hagar: longevity. Radio pop hits and ballads meant more ears and the fan base was beginning to be equal parts guys and gals. Roth had two, maybe three “big” records after Van Halen. After that he went full vaudevillian and his extremely limited vocal abilities became more apparent.
Me? Well by 1986-87 I was losing interest in both. Other bands came into play and other guitarists were doing it faster, better, and with more pyrotechnics that Eddie was coming off more like a burnt out porn star trying to retain an erection on stage rather than the guitar trailblazer he was just a few years earlier. That may sound rough, but whether it’s guitar solos or boners, alcohol and cocaine do not enhance anyone’s skills(contrary to the addict’s belief.) Still, even years after I’d moved on from Van Halen and I’d found Rush, Living Colour, Joe Satriani, and any number of speed and heavy metal bands to fall into I still had a soft spot for 1984. I can remember staying home from school one day in my Junior year of high school because I was “sick”. I remember watching the uncut version of Once Upon A Time In America, then for some reason I decided to teach myself “Hot For Teacher”. I sat in my room with my guitar plugged into my Tom Scholz Rockman and 1984 in my cassette deck. It took a couple hours, but by the time the bus would’ve dropped me off I had the song down pat, from beginning to end. There was a certain sense of accomplishment, as I had no guitar tabs. Just sitting and listening and trying different things until I had it down. I remembered how to play it for several years after that, but then I got into the British Invasion, power pop, and alt-country and figured what’s the point?
Not so long ago I began collecting albums of my youth on vinyl. Not everything, but the stuff that stuck out to me. Van Halen were first on the list. Fair Warning, Van Halen II, Diver Down, and 1984. I still stand by the statement that Fair Warning is Van Halen’s best record. But going back to 1984 as a 40-something guy I can hear just how far ahead of the curve Eddie Van Halen was. The naysayers poo-pooing about “synths ruining Van Halen” are just stuck in some glory days rut. Now if you’re talking “Dreams” and “Love Walks In”, well I might agree with you. But 1984? Nah. That album was a perfect balance of forward-thinking synthesizers and the Van Halen guitar bluster. It was probably as close to an Eddie Van Halen solo album as we’ll ever get, too. “Jump”, “Panama”, “Top Jimmy”, “Hot For Teacher”, “Girls Gone Bad”, and “House Of Pain” were a solid shot of what Van Halen had to offer, and done up in a “shiny machine” of a record. Diamond status, baby. A real record machine.
Ain’t nothin’ like it.