2012-08-12

A Van Halen Retrospective

Van Halen is one of the first bands to which I was exposed as a child. My father was a big fan of their Roth-era radio hits, a communicable condition that easily spread to me. As a child of about 4 or 5, I was very much aware of the band called Van Halen, and what they sounded like. For me, "Panama" and "Jump" were how I identified that band, and this impression stuck with me throughout my early years.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I heard the radically different "Poundcake" on the radio at age 11, and promptly dedicated an entire day to waiting to hear it again on the radio so that I could record it with my tape recorder. I had no idea what band had produced that delightful piece of music, but I was determined to find out. I finally succeeded in getting it on tape, and triumphantly raced over to my sister's room, played it for her with a huge smile on my face and begged her to tell me what band it was. Surprised by my enthusiasm (and clearly not as enthusiastic about the song herself, much to my young chagrin), she somewhat disappointedly told me that it was Van Halen. I couldn't believe it.

But, if there is one lesson to take away from a dozen studio records, a live album, two compilations, and many hours of guitar-driven hard rock and roll, it's that there are essentially three Van Halens - and, no, I'm not referring to the lead singers.

Listening to every album produced by a single artist, start to finish, in sequence always provides a fascinating contextual look at the many parallel musical stories going on in an artist's repertoire. Naturally, Van Halen is no different in this regard. So, let's take a closer look at some of the parallel musical stories going on in these many fantastic albums.

I readily concede that the story of Van Halen has been told and re-told, again and again, in press and by fans, hundreds of times. What's different about this telling of it is that I refuse to get bogged down in comparisons of singers, speculations about members' egos, and bitter laments about my own particular choice of their golden age. No, this time it's about artistic evolution.

By my conception of it, there are a few parallel musical evolutions taking place in Van Halen's music over time, in a few categories. Those categories are: heavy metal, party-band rock, Eddie's voice, and guitar tones.

Heavy Metal. No, Seriously. Heavy Metal.
It seems almost incomprehensible in the year 2012, but the fact of the matter is that there was a point in time when Van Halen was called a heavy metal band. This aspect of the band has made itself an undercurrent of every Van Halen album ever released, although few "real" metal fans would ever identify it as such.

Perhaps Eddie's jazz-and-blues roots and upbringing prevent the heavy aspect from ever really seeming like heavy metal per se. Or, perhaps Alex's comparatively busy and grooving approach to drumming doesn't lend itself to the rhythmically flat and metronomic aspects of a heavy metal rhythm section. Maybe the singers just couldn't pull it off. Whatever the reason, Van Halen has consistently been exploring the heavy metal genre throughout its 35+ year career without ever really delivering what purists would call heavy metal.

While that may disappoint heavy metal purists, to me it's simply another spice that combines to create the Van Halen flavor.

And it is an important flavor, lending the band a hefty solidness that other bands from the 70s never captured, not even the really heavy ones. Lots of bands were doing heavy metal by the time Van Halen broke in 1978: Judas Priest, Rainbow, Nazareth, UFO, Rising Force, The Scorpions... you know, that whole scene. But when you listen to those bands, they sound like the 70s. The guitar tones are thin, the drums sound flimsy, and the overall sense we get from that music is sort of the sonic equivalent of lambchop sideburns, and cheap pornography. It feels dirty, shabby, it's missing something.

Van Halen may never have delivered true metal, but the heavy girth they injected into their tones, production, arrangement, and songwriting elevated them to being something much more than another 70s rock band, and established them as the archetypical eighties rock band. It started on the first album with "On Fire" and "Atomic Punk." Then came "Light Up the Sky" a year later. It's all over the first side of Women and Children First. 

But Van Halen's music isn't about dabbling in genres, it's about a brilliant convergence of musical stories. It's about evolution. The band's metal undercurrent evolved from the crude 70s chugging-E-string of "On Fire" into a collection of songs that would set the standard of guitar playing for decade. Ask any 80s guitarist what album best represents incredible guitar playing, and a good majority of them will cite what is perhaps Van Halen's most sinister album, Fair Warning. That album features the almighty pinnacle of rock guitar playing, the incomparable "Mean Streets," most male fans' absolute favorite song - particularly the guitar players.

Fair Warning was truly groundbreaking among metal albums, and it is perhaps because it was so far ahead of its time that the band waited until 1984 to return to post-apocalyptic lyrics. And it is true that many of the band's guitar-playing fans cite this as the last VH album to feature brilliant guitar work, I couldn't disagree more.

Clearly, I'm building to something here. The heavy metal component of Van Halen's playing is truly what carried it into the Sammy Hagar phase. From the opening notes of 1986's 5150, the listener is forced to understand that Eddie's playing had developed from being an explosion to being an explosion of guitar pyrotechnics that involve far more than just tritone tapping. Sporting some more modern guitar tones and an active-pickup-equipped Steinberger guitar, Eddie hit the Van Hagar years ready to declare a new stage of his musicianship, and the roots of that musicianship were metal, at least in the same sense that "On Fire" is a heavy metal song.

Nor did the world at the time argue about it. In 1986, no one was splitting metal into subgenres or sneering at Van Halen for being an imposter to metal, while a band like, say Iron Maiden represented "true" metal. Listening to the breakdown and guitar solo from "Hot Summer NIghts" makes the case perfectly; it's hard to hear that grinding, guitar-driven fury as being anything other than what it was, eighties metal, driven by an incredible guitar player.

This makes the advent of the Peavey 5150 guitar amplifier all the more logical as a development. Even today, this amplifier (now called the 6505) is one of the most sought-after amplifiers for real metal on the market. It has a deep growl and an unmistakable grind that refuses to get fizzy. It is, furthermore, one of the easiest amps to play I have ever encountered. It simply oozes tone. That such a proud metal machine would appear during the band's Van Hagar years is not at all surprising. It was merely a master guitar player growing into the heavy metal aspect of his playing.

During the "transition periods" of the band, Van Halen consistently deferred to its metal roots. On the first album, it was there in spades. When they took on the Van Hagar years, it came roaring back in contrast to Roth's boogie-crooning. When they took on Gary Cherone, fired him, and released a couple of new tracks with Hagar on the Best of Both Worlds album, there was the metal again. Simply stated, metal is the band's comfort zone, the place to which they return when they feel confused.

A powerful, grinding edge is an important and iconic aspect of what some have called the greatest American rock band in the world. But hundreds of bands feature a masterful grind. If this were the lone defining feature of the band, we'd be talking about Iron Maiden or something. Clearly, there is more to Van Halen than just metal. This brings me to the next aspect of the band.

The Party Band
One of the biggest surprises from my beginning-to-end spin of Van Halen's discography is a song called "Romeo Delight," from the Women and Children First album. While I vaguely recall enjoying this song when I first got the album, its bluesy-metal composition and yelping Roth melodies didn't stick with me as being "classic Van Halen."

That kind of bluesy, hard-rock-yet-somehow-swing kind of songwriting is perhaps the most celebrated aspect of Van Halen the band. Cheery and mischievous, the band churned out hit after hit, classic after classic, featuring a bombastic, swinging rhythm section, the explosive fire of Eddie's lead guitar work, and Roth-penned lyrics and melodies that cannot help but bring a smile to the face.They've been called the greatest party band in the world, and hearing the Roth-era rock/swing fusion makes it easy to see why.

They hit the music scene with this well-honed artistic development already well-defined, with such brilliant songs as "Feel Your Love Tonight," "The Ice Cream Man," "Little Dreamer," and "I'm the One." This latter piece featured the intricate, mature, full-band vocal harmonies and overlap that would set the standard for all major rock bands of the 1980s. Incomprehensibly, the band opted not to release any of these songs as singles. They would go on to correct this omission on Van Halen II with the release of one of my personal favorites, "Beautiful Girls."

While the band's singles may not have been the swing tunes, there is clearly something in these songs that speaks to fans of 80s rock that goes far beyond the guitar solos. The rhythmic arrangements are extremely tight and grooving, the vocal harmonies are spot-on, and something about them just makes a person yearn for the beach, the sunshine, and a cold beer. Somehow, Roth-era Van Halen managed to distill the essence of a man's carefree and scandalous early 20s, with Roth himself cast as the Chief Rascal and primary narrator.

Nor did the band merely pen a few of these classics and move on. "I'm the One" is an unquestionably crude effort when put up against the likes of "Little Guitars" or "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)," both from Diver Down. The group was obviously not satisfied to leave their early efforts be, but rather continued developing and refining the sound, venturing into acoustic blues, gypsy swing, and the almost experimental likes of "Hot For Teacher."

"Hot For Teacher," though would be 1984's lone venture into scoundrel swing. It was their last real venture into that territory until they re-hired Roth in later years (first for the Best Of, Vol. 1 album, and later for the A Different Kind of Truth album). The other party-rock songs on that album were dominated with the blossoming harmonic vision of the band's guitarist, which brings me the band's next major parallel artistic plot.

Eddie's Voice
This aspect of the band probably first reared its head on the song "In A Simple Rhyme," from 1980's Women and Children First, although there were clear hints of it in Eddie's guitar solos on the previous two albums. EVH has always had a rather unique sense of harmony, creating cadences that are as much a part of Van Halen as the guitar pyrotechnics and wild antics. Indeed, part of what makes EVH's playing so unique is not his attitude, tone, or technique, but rather his harmonic choices.

So, while his harmonic composition techniques were readily evident in 1978's "Eruption," right there from the very beginning, the band itself didn't really include EVH's delightful cluster chords and piano-like cadences until "In A Simple Rhyme," the last song of their third album. It was, perhaps, a hint of things to come.

We hear it again on Fair Warning, in the flanging intro to "Hear About It Later," and throughout "Push Comes To Shove." That latter piece is arguably one of the most important "flagship" songs of the band's output, clearly demonstrating the best each member of the band has to offer - from Roth's infatuation with big band tunes to the command of dynamics that Alex and Michael Anthony's rhythm section has always had, to the topic of this section, Eddie's brilliant harmonic compositional style, "Push Comes To Shove" has it all.

By the time 1982's Diver Down was released, Van Halen was delivering songs with Eddie's personal harmonic flair with cool confidence, as demonstrated by "Secrets," a companion-piece of sorts to "Push Comes To Shove." From 1984 onward, this would become the iconic aspect of the band's songwriting - at least, in my opinion - perhaps peaking with the super-duper smash hit "Right Now."

While many VH fans cite the departure of David Lee Roth as the main difference between "old" Van Halen and "later" Van Halen, I myself would argue that Eddie's harmonic maturity had reached a point in 1984 that could no longer support the good-time-boys antics of a 70s rock outfit. You can hear it loud and clear in the chordal riffs of "Best of Both Worlds." These are more than pentatonic riffs and power chords. There is real intelligence here.

Maybe this personal musical growth that EVH was undergoing is what pushed the band into greater keyboard/synthesizer territory. Certainly, many interviews with the maestro himself give that impression, but Eddie is all business when he's giving an interview - as he is when on stage. So it's hard to get the real, unabridged story reading the interviews.

In this case, though, I feel the interviews do tell the real story. Listening to the keyboard voicings, you can hear the same sort of movement going on with the synthesizers that you hear in the guitar work. With each album, it commanded more attention, and with a growing self-confidence to boot. By the time For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge dropped, it was starting to impact even the guitarist's most straightforward riffs. First we got a hint of it in the song "Black and Blue" one album prior. But compare that relatively lighter influence to the song "Spanked." What could be simpler and more straight-forward than the riffs in "Spanked?" And yet, harmonic development is not quite as standard as we might initially expect. There, the trademark EVH harmonic voicing screams forth in all its glory.

This developing harmonic voice would naturally come with two musical co-conspirators: a blossoming palette of more mature guitar tones (more on those in a moment), and a progressively more complex song structure. This perhaps became most obvious with "Cabo Wabo," but by 1988's "In 'N Out," it was in-your-face. Just compare a riff like the one in "Unchained" to the riff in "The Seventh Seal." Night and day, right? The backbone was still that bluesy party rock that gave the band so much commercial appeal, but it was being pushed in so many new and utterly progressive directions. It was no longer merely lengthy guitar solos that pushed Van Halen songs into 7-minute territory and beyond. There were adventurous intros, heavily orchestrated outros, full-band jam bridges, sweet-and-quiet breakdowns, and - yes, of course - lengthy guitar solos. Few mainstream acts have been able to push themselves into territory that complex while still keeping a thumb on the pulse of the arena-rock crowd. Van Halen managed to do this in spades.

All About Tones
Another parallel story told in Van Halen's discography is the evolution of Eddie's guitar tone. From the first album, we hear that gorgeous, can't-miss-it EVH tone. It's chock-full of power tube compression, lending a soft, squishy edge to his clear, crisp overdrive. It's stuffed with treble, but somehow manages to sit comfortably in the sonic midrange. It's deep and manly with not even a trace of mud. It's pure and conventional, but yet spaced-out with deep phasing and flanging.

And yet that incomparable guitar tone also hasn't stagnated during Van Halen's career, either. The Roth years gave EVH a chance to develop his guitar tone progressively. It didn't so much change as it did mature. Whether this maturation represents Eddie's developing ear, or the engineering refinement of Ted Templeman is anyone's guess. Whatever it was, by the time the band released Diver Down, the "classic Eddie" brown sound had become as much a part of the band as the man playing the instrument. It sparkled with clarity and crackled with heat. EVH could hit any note and it would ring out with a shimmering gorgeousness that no other player has ever managed to capture.

To my ears, this early Van Halen tonal journey peaked with the 1984 album. For fans of melodic hard rock and lead guitar, one would be hard-pressed to identify an album showcasing better guitar tone. All of the EVH hallmarks are there - the power tube overdrive, the clear and focused pickup tone, the shimmering high end that somehow refuses to fizzle, the phase and the flange. Clearly, this was a tonal recipe honed to perfection and prepared to serve as the tonal standard for the next two generations of guitarists.

Then, incredibly, it changed. It had to change, though. By 1986, the band had been releasing albums for nearly a decade, they had fired their iconic lead singer, and they needed to stay relevant.

I am no encyclopedia of guitar gear and classic albums, but to my ears, 5150 opens with a Soldano's snarl. Gone was the Phase 90, gone was the flanger, and gone was the drenching plate reverb. Instead, Eddie chose a deeper tone, further down in the midrange, tastefully articulated through an analog chorus of some kind. It was still Eddie, of course, but modernized, and the effect was brilliant. Here was a whole new "big guitar sound" for fans of the instrument to wrap their ears around.

As I noted above, the advent of the 5150 amplifier would soon follow, lending Eddie a deep new grind with which to define his tones. Ever the tinkerer, though, the post-1986 albums would feature a new trademark of the EVH tone: thick layers of clean-toned and direct-to-the-console clean guitar tones. In interviews, he would reveal that this effect was accomplished using a complicated six-amplifier recording process. Like Frank Zappa, Edward Van Halen was recording the same guitar tracks dirty, clean, and direct, and mixing them as he saw fit.

While many Van Halen aficionados prefer the simpler and perhaps more honest tones of the early days, there can be no argument that Eddie's tone was growing bigger and more refined. Listening back through the catalog, I wonder how much chorus effect is actually being used, versus how much natural chorusing is coming through from the multiple-amp/multiple-mic recording process. Whatever the truth, the result is a tone as large and fabulous as the band itself.

Conclusion
Whatever your view of the band's antics and drama over the years, Van Halen persists as one of the most iconic American musical groups in history. Their hedonism, joy, virtuosity, bombasticness, and artistic depth are emblematic of everything good in American culture. Sure, there may have been a few missteps along the way - maybe even a lot of missteps. The fact remains, there is enough in their catalogue of music to keep a person curious and entertained for years. Indeed, this post took me several weeks to write, simply because I was so busy listening carefully to each one of the band's albums, digesting every note and every aspect of the band's evolution. I will always love this band.