Counterbalance: ‘Van Halen’

(Dedicate one to the ladies...) This week's Counterbalance found the simple life ain't so simple, when it jumped out on the road. We're taking a look at Van Halen's 1978 debut album, which we're told is living at a pace that kills.
Van Halen
Van Halen
Warner Bros.

Mendelsohn: The one thing I liked about working from the Great List before the Counterbalance revamp was the weekly marching order. Didn’t matter what it was, whether or not we liked it, we were going to listen to it and have a little back-and-forth. Sometimes it was a drag. But mostly, the Great List offered up some interesting listening material. Looking down the list, it was pretty easy to tell who was going to stand behind specific albums. We are nothing if not predictable. But every now and then we would get to an album and more than anything I just wanted to know what you had to say about it.

While looking at the Great List one day I noticed Van Halen’s self-titled debut sitting at no. 262. I’m not a big fan, but I have the utmost respect for “Diamond” David Lee Roth’s flying splits and Eddie Van Halen’s widdily-woo finger tapping. Also, I was born and raised in the Midwest and all Midwestern classic rock radio stations are required by law to play a Van Halen song at least once every 30 minutes — so I am well-versed in the ways of VH, despite my best intentions.

But Van Halen has always inhabited a weird space in my head. By the time I came of listening age in the 1990s, Diamond Dave had split (again), Sammy Hagar was on the way out and the band was about to try the ill-fated reboot with Gary Cherone, cementing their status as laughing stock has-beens. As a youngster I was never able to reconcile to critical acclaim and commercial popularity of a band that had so obviously fallen from some of the great heights to complete non-factor.

So here it is, Klinger — what do you think about Van Halen? Specifically Van Halen circa 1978?

Klinger: What’s not to like? It’s surprisingly tuneful, it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it just flat-out rocks. And while my own style of dance has been called “unorthodox” and “distracting”, I’m pretty sure I could bust a move to number of tracks here. From a critical perspective, I could see where the album took its time to make its way into the upper reaches of the Great List, since 1978-era critics were apt to be dismissive of groups that were insufficiently interested in making grandiose statements (not to mention bands that were too popular with young people), but Van Halen was making the smartest, canniest party rock around.

And yes, we must discuss Eddie Van Halen’s distinctive and (possibly unfortunately) trend-setting guitar stylings, but you have to realize how much of a complete bafflement his playing must have been to unsuspecting listeners back in the day. I’d also like to spare a thought for the less-heralded input of bassist Michael Anthony. Not so much for his playing, which is generally hailed as serviceable, but for his remarkable gift for harmony. What is that note he keeps bringing into the proceedings? Is that a 6th? It sounds like a 6th. Musicologists out there might confirm that. Anyway, it makes a massive difference throughout the album, adding a tone that most rock bands don’t go for all that often. I’ll refer you to “I’m the One” and its shift between regular great harmonies and that hilarious Four Preps thing they break into in the middle.

Anyway, I’m curious why you selected this album, since you aren’t necessarily much of a fan. What are you getting out of this now you’re forcing yourself to listen?

Mendelsohn: For all the years we’ve known each other, the topic of Van Halen has never come up. Honestly, I just wanted to know how you viewed Van Halen — as someone who grew up during the band’s heyday in the 1980s. This isn’t the whole “Beatles or Stones” personality quiz. I’m just curious. As I mentioned earlier, by the time I started listening to music, Van Halen was a laughing stock and the people who still counted themselves as fans were at least two musical generations removed from my crowd and generally viewed as not to be trusted. Yes, we would engage them in conversation and nod politely as they extolled the virtues of prime Van Halen, but our interest abruptly ended as soon as they handed over the beer we had asked them to buy for us.

Knowing that you have an appreciation for this record makes it a little easier for me to come out and say I’ve enjoyed every second of the last week. My everyday activities have been most epic, backed by one hell of a rocking soundtrack. And while this record rocks in some very hard ways (see “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”), it is also strangely eclectic (see “Ice Cream Man”). Eddie’s guitar solos border on the fringe of classical music, riffing like some mad Mozart hopped up on cocaine and leaded face powder. And then you have Diamond Dave’s vocal performance that is more lounge act than rock howl. But when it comes to needing a rock howl, it seems like an effortless shift from campy crooning to high octave screaming. It’s really impressive. This album is really impressive, Klinger. I never thought I’d ever say that.

Klinger: I’m going to say that it’s even more impressive when you consider that producer Ted Templeman recorded them using as few overdubs as possible. I think that’s what accounts for the remarkably live sound of the vocals. It’s not the blended sound you might expect from such a slick band, which tells me that there’s not much sonic airbrushing going on here. You’re also right that Roth seemed surprisingly self-aware at that time — his hilariously over-the-top stab at glammish vocals on “Atomic Punk” is proof of that. So yes, impressive. And I’m not necessarily Van Halen’s target audience (except in the demographic sense, of course).

Growing up, Van Halen was pretty well ubiquitous, as you said. But I for whatever reason was dismissive of them. Maybe it’s because they were popular with the type of guys I thought were jerks. And anyway I had already made my decision for Elvis Costello. (And it was, of course, Roth who said that most critics liked Elvis Costello because they looked like Elvis Costello, which I’m sure bugged at the time because it was both spot-on accurate and pretty damn funny.) Of course, part of growing up means letting go of the petty grievances of the past, and while I still think those guys are jerks, I’ve gone a long way toward accepting Van Halen. And maybe it’s no surprise that the Critical Industrial Complex has done the same.

Mendelsohn: That’s oddly reassuring, Klinger, because the album is incredible on a level that deservedly garnered them lots of attention. But at the same time, I don’t think our past (or present) derision of the band is completely unwarranted. Van Halen imploded in spectacular fashion thanks to the rock diseases of overindulgence and unchecked ego.

After their self-titled debut it was pretty much all downhill. There was a little uphill when they released 1984, but for being the biggest band in the world for those short years, they never regained the form of their debut. Eddie went on to reveal himself to be an unmitigated drug addict. Diamond Dave outed himself as crazy and was unable to walk the line between good crazy and just plain old crazy. And that’s a shame because between the two of them (not to minimize the importance of Anthony or the other Van Halen brother) they had that unrepeatable brilliance that made Van Halen damn near perfect.

Klinger: Well, I maintain that it was a much less precipitous drop from this debut to the mediocrity that was Van Hagar (and by any account Van Halen III is clearly the band’s Cut the Crap), and I’m less of a fan of 1984 than a lot of people. You certainly had diminishing returns over the course of the next several albums (with the tossed-off Diver Down being a particular demonstration of the group’s apparently increasingly lackadaisical approach), but there are a lot of bright spots on all the Roth-era records. And even I’m finding myself taken aback by my effusiveness regarding this album, but then again I used to posit the ultimate rock conundrum — Van Halen without David Lee Roth is largely useless, and David Lee Roth without Van Halen is largely useless. But you put them together and there’s just no point in arguing. Especially with Van Halen, which still has that whole joy of discovery that ends up being what completely wins you over.

But here we are. You spend enough time loving rock and/or roll, and before you know it you’re starting to realize that whatever gets you to move is something to shout about. You stop worrying about who else might love this record or whether somebody out there hates this record. Critics, as we’ve learned from such slow burners as Cheap Trick, are often the ones who are most guilty of this sort of thinking. But what the hell. This album rules.