Van Halen
Photo: Warner Bros. / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Van Halen’s ‘1984’ Represents the Past, Present, and Future

The era of hard rock and metal Van Halen ushered peaked and fell when the 1980s ended, but comes back again as classic rock for today’s 13-year-olds.

Van Halen
Warner Bros.
9 January 1984

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

George Orwell, 1984

“Dig that steam, giant butt, makes me scream.”

Van Halen, 1984, “Drop Dead Legs”

In 1949, George Orwell published his novel 1984, reversing the digits of the year he spent working on it to signify The Future. From then on, “1984” became the symbol of an ominous, surveillance-driven dystopia, and the term “Orwellian” was born.

Science fiction writers keep picking futuristic-sounding years—say, 1984, 2001, or 2012—as the settings for their work, but unfortunately—or, really fortunately, given the alternative—the present keeps catching up. For 35 years, 1984 represented the future. For even longer—40 years as of this writing—it has represented the past.

Van Halen‘s 1984 (or, as the cover refers to it, MCMLXXXIV), released on 9 January 1984, celebrating its 40th anniversary, was the first album I bought with my own money. Now, as a middle-aged parent, the phrase “with my own money” sounds pretty funny, but it didn’t then and presumably still doesn’t to contemporary 13-year-olds. But today’s baby teens, with their Spotify and their YouTube, don’t need to make the hard choice that I did: which one album will I plunk down this month’s cash for? I chose 1984, and, in all seriousness, it affected the entire rest of my life. The future lay before me, and unlike Orwell’s vision, it would be good.

This was Van Halen. The future would be fuckin’ awesome.

1984 opened with the instrumental “1984”, consisting of what can only be called futuristic synthesizers, despite its humble origin as the intro to Michael Anthony’s live bass solo—quite an upgrade, with apologies to bassists everywhere. Blade Runner, released a little earlier, in 1982, featured similar synths to signify much the same.  

“1984” wasn’t Van Halen’s first instrumental. But, unlike “Eruption”, there were no smashing drums and certainly not, say, the coolest guitar solo of all time. Like “Intruder”, the intro to their “Pretty Woman” cover from Diver Down, and even more like the misleadingly-titled “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” from Fair Warning, it felt ominous, maybe even unsettling.

“1984” led right into “Jump”, suggesting that, having finally arrived, the future would not be unsettling. It might be just fine after all. Eddie Van Halen wanted to record a version of “Jump” for years by then, but professional blond/karate kicker/occasional singer David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman thought it was the wrong sound for a hard rock band famous for its eponymous superstar guitar, with apologies to drummer Alex, who technically shares the name.

They were living in the past, man. “Jump” was the future. It would hit #1 on the charts.

“Jump” still had that stunning, squealing, syncopated, out-of-nowhere guitar solo, filled with fast runs and finger-taps, as if to remind the lister of the genius behind strings. Eddie, though, was not just a genius guitarist. He was simply a genius. He had already reinvented electric guitar playing, even reinvented the electric guitar itself with his famous homemade Frankenstrat. Eddie was both the scientist and the monster. Now everyone knew he was the songwriter, the producer, the engineer, and the innovator whose first instrument was, in fact, the piano.

Yet the “Jump” video—inextricable from the song itself—eschews the futuristic and techie for a lo-fi stage performance, with Eddie playing the guitar for the entire song despite the big keyboard sound, except for a split screen for the synth solo where Eddie, or Eddies, handle(s) both. It’s notable and memorable for Roth’s high kicks and the band’s goofy relatability. This future was not Orwell or Blade Runner.

The future would be fun. The future might even look a lot like the past.

Roth has always been cagy about his lyrics—this is the man who sang “I take a moople at a lookie for a moop meet” (or something; I listened to the line ten times for that elegant transcription) on “Everybody Wants Some”. He suggested that “Jump” was about suicide after seeing a story in the news about a man jumping from a building. Separately, he said it about a stripper. Both seem entirely plausible, in keeping with the band’s semi-concealed darkness, as I wrote previously about Van Halen’s debut, and mostly unconcealed lightness. “Ah, might as well jump” is equally the hymn of hope and hopelessness.

The future is… uncertain?

While “I’ll Wait” reuses the synthesizers, it has the opposite feel and message from “Jump”—don’t jump. “I wrote a letter and told her these words…. I never sent it; she wouldn’t have heard.” It’s not very Roth-like in its implication that this affair—with an image of a woman, rather than a real one, like in Def Leppard’s “Photograph”—can never be realized.

Other songs, like “House of Pain”, were based on Van Halen’s past unreleased material. It turns out that, in retrospect, much of the rest of 1984 hearkens back to the past rather than looking into the future, although maybe not as far back as the almost medieval courtly love of “I’ll Wait”. “Panama,” with another live-action concert video and its revving engines, driving drums, and hot-rod guitar, is in the great rock ”n’ roll tradition of comparing fast cars to fast women or comparing chasing women to a car chase or something like that, a la “Mustang Sally” or “Maybellene”: “Here she comes, full blast and top down… Ain’t nothin’ like it, her shiny machine… You’ll lose her in the turn / I’ll get her,” and more.

“Hot for Teacher” is, in contrast, unambiguous and literal, and its video also looks backward, featuring grainy black and white footage, kid lookalikes of each band member, and a coda parodying the end of American Graffiti (flash-forwards from the kids to images of their future, e.g. “DAVID LEE ROTH WENT TO HOLLYWOOD AND BECAME AMERICA’S FAVORITE TV GAME SHOW HOST” etc.). You’d be forgiven, though, for not remembering anything about it except for the video’s teacher/beauty pageant contestant/stripper. Might as well jump. When she first takes off her clothes, the video turns to technicolor, like the kids rode the tornado to Oz. But it’s not Oz; it’s, like, adolescent male sex fantasy Oz. No less than Tipper Gore, who a year later would found the Parents’ Music Resource Center and spur congressional hearings on lurid lyrics, said the video “frightened me” and “frightened my children,” which seemed entirely the point. But it was so over the top that it’s hard not to laugh, then or now.   

In other ways, 1984 was not the beginning or the future but the end. Roth and Van Halen would soon split up. Now, 40 years later, the album is long in the past. But, as Orwell suggested, Van Halen controlled their present and then controlled the past, and not in an Orwellian way. Orwell’s Winston, the protagonist of 1984, would succumb to conformity in an unhappy ending, but I still think Van Halen is fantastic, just as I did when I was 13, all sense of maturity or progress be damned. Proust has his Madeleine, but music is the best time machine for me, and 1984 even comes time-stamped.  

As it turns out, even if I had bought Thriller, it all would have worked out: Eddie played the solo on “Beat It”, too. Yes, Eddie Van Halen would die in 2020. But Van Halen would not and will not. 1984 would be hugely influential to bands and fans alike. The era of hard rock and metal that Van Halen ushered in would peak and then fall when the 1980s ended, but then come back again as classic rock for today’s 13-year-olds, who could easily find it and listen without parting with their money, in the era of Spotify and YouTube. For today’s new listeners, the 1980s became a genre, not an era.

I take back what I said about the time stamp. Despite being titled after a year and a symbolic year at that, 40 years have proven that 1984 transcends time itself. Ah, can’t you see what I mean?