Van Halen
Photo: Warner / Reprise - 1978

Van Halen Debuted in the 1970s But Represented the Best of the 1980s

The 1980s began on 10 February 1978, with the release of Van Halen’s self-titled debut album, now celebrating its 45th anniversary.

Van Halen
Van Halen
Warner Bros.
10 February 1978

It’s tempting to think that the 1980s began in 1980. I don’t even mean 1 January 1980. Calendars can be capricious measures. I mean 8 December 1980, in the evening, when John Lennon was murdered in New York City. It was just a month after Ronald Reagan, a California hippie hater was elected president. The two events are almost too symbolic, too symmetrical: the dawn of the 1980s and the death of the 1960s.

If historians can have their long 18th century (the 1688 Glorious Revolution through Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815) or their long 19th century (the French Revolution in 1789 to World War I in 1914), give me the long 1980s. And so: the 1980s began on 10 February 1978, with the release of Van Halen‘s self-titled debut album, celebrating its 45th anniversary as I write.

Van Halen proclaimed their own Glorious Revolution. They were faster and heavier, yet funnier and lighter, than Styx, the Rolling Stones, or Bob Seger, the aging titans of the 1970s. Critics, of course, didn’t perceive it. Robert Christgau, one of the most influential music writers at the time, gave the album a C, saying, “For some reason, Warners wants us to know that this is the biggest bar band in the San Fernando Valley.” They were no such thing. They were a pure, uncut arena band, far too bombastic for any bar.

A million words have since been spilled about Eddie Van Halen: his speed, style, and customized super-Stratocaster. The famous tension between his musical genius versus outsized rock-star maniac and occasional singer David Lee Roth. They took the archetype of blond frontman and brunette axeman vying for the spotlight, chops versus showmanship, made famous by Led Zeppelin, but wiped it of its dour Englishness and rendered American fresh.

Today, “Eruption” is arguably the most incredible rock guitar solo and greatest rock instrumental of all time, and it’s barely even a song, one minute and 42 seconds that launched a thousand licks. It led to one of Van Halen’s many killer covers, the Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me”. As a budding rocker in the early 1980s, I heard the original after already knowing Van Halen’s, and there was no way to go back. It sounded so tame, despite not really being that old then. Then again, it was older than me, making it practically ancient. Eddie’s now iconic two-handed tapping, his sustain, his “brown sound”, as he referred to it—it was more than once in a generation. It was once in a lifetime.

Despite Eddie’s seemingly effortless virtuosity, the songs were simple, catchy, and populist. Sure, there was excess. Nothing is more thrilling yet hilarious than listening to David Lee Roth’s over-the-top shrieks and squeals on “Runnin’ With the Devil”. I’ve used the isolated vocal track as a background to exemplify the screams of the damned in a class discussing eternal suffering in Dante’s Inferno. But the bassline is just a single, ominous quarter note, the structure simple. “Ain’t Talking ’bout Love”, despite the arpeggiated riff, delay, phaser, and sitar overdub relies on the elegance of only two chords and Roth’s devastating, casual sexuality and equally devastating, casual put-downs. Has there ever been a worse backhanded compliment than “You know you’re semi-good lookin'”?

The two best-selling albums of 1978 in the US were both soundtracks: the mainstreamed disco of Saturday Night Fever (released in November 1977) and the packaged nostalgia of Grease. (It was a good year for John Travolta.) Meanwhile, punk, the flipside of Saturday Night Fever’s escapism, seemed to overtake the rock dinosaurs with its sneers, attitude, and irony. Van Halen’s party music was an alternative to all of it, and, critics to the contrary, not an atavistic rock throwback but a multi-hued pop vision of the decade to come.

As punks pouted, Grease’s Danny danced, and Saturday Night Fever’s Tony posed, Eddie Van Halen smiled and smiled, and when the 1980s finally chronologically rolled around, fans loved him for it. Yet beneath Van Halen’s rollicking exterior, mirroring what Reagan would soon call Morning in America, was the same animus that fueled both punk and disco.

The Bee Gees sang, “Life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me” in “Stayin’ Alive”. The Sex Pistols scowled, “No future for you” in “God Save the Queen”. While “Feel Your Love” and the cover of “Ice Cream Man”, like much of the album, are in good humor, David Lee Roth yowled to the world in the dystopian “Atomic Punk” that “I am a victim of the science age.” In “Runnin’ With the Devil”, he sings, “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow.” It’s so close to the Sex Pistols’ nihilism and the Bee Gees’ pleas, yet somehow inverted, optimistic, a call to life in wake of possible Cold War death, a proto version of what Prince would later make even clearer in true 1980s spirit in “Let’s Go Crazy”: “We’re all excited / But we don’t know why /Maybe it’s ’cause / We’re all gonna die.”

Eddie died on 6 October 2020 at 65, youngish for a regular person but ancient in rock star years, which fall somewhere between human and dog years. But what I had not fully considered, really not even fully known until reading the retrospectives, was the impact of his early life. Eddie and his brother Alex, Van Halen’s drummer, were immigrants. And not just immigrants but mixed-race, their father Dutch and their mother Indonesian, having met in Dutch-occupied Indonesia. They and their young family were ostracized when they moved to the Netherlands, so they left for the United States, only to be ostracized again for not knowing the language or culture. Eddie and Alex belonged to two worlds, and neither.

Yet, later in life, Eddie expressed only gratitude. “Coming here with approximately $50 and a piano, not being able to speak the language, going through everything to get to where we are, if that’s not the American dream, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Even David Lee Roth, who seems to say and tell everything, also later revealed that he created his stage persona was in part as a reaction against being categorized. Everyone who heard Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” (2008) knows that “David Lee Roth lights the menorah”. But, as writer David Segal summarized, Roth’s memoir discussed how “his style and energy came from fury over anti-Semitism and an urge to crush Jewish stereotypes”.

In retrospect, the 1980s were not exactly known for sensitivity or diversity. Yet, it was the tension and teamwork between the immigrant, mixed-race brothers, and the Jew who would not be typecast (and also bassist Michael Anthony, who knew to stay out of the way) that ushered in a decade of decadence, the sounds that not just defined but created the era. America made Van Halen possible, and Van Halen made America better.

It’s tempting to think that the 1980s ended on 31 December 1989, but my long 1980s ended in 1991, coinciding with Van Halen’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album, with lead singer Sammy Hagar, alongside the more momentous release of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the death of Queen‘s Freddy Mercury, and the election of US President Bill Clinton. But every time I listen to Van Halen I, I hear the best of the 1980s all over again.

Even if it’s 2023. Even though it was 1978.  

Van Halen
Photo: Warner/Reprise – 1978