Big Trouble with Van Halen on Election Night

Last Wednesday as I desperately tried to find some enlightened talking heads to guide me through the statistical quagmire that was the U.S. election, my frustration level finally hit the boiling point and I decided to take a break from the TV networks for a spell and listen to some music while the TV stayed on CBC with the “mute” button firmly on. I rummaged through a pile of CDs with the intention of reviewing some of the new stuff that I had been sent recently but took a complete left turn when I came across “Women and Children First” by Van Halen and popped that on the CD player instead. With the throbbing jungle beat of “Everybody Wants Some” blaring in a pair of headphones I resumed my channel surfing adventures, flicking from CBC to NBC, CTV, CBC, ABC, BBC, CNN, Fox (for about 20 seconds) and finally back to CBC. As I continued listening to the CD a smile slowly grew on my face as I hadn’t listened to this album in years, perhaps even a decade and forgot how much fun that “classic” Van Halen could be.

Now I have made no secret of my distaste for the current goings on in the Van Halen camp. I have no problem with bands re-uniting and continually touring despite the fact that some people feel they are perhaps well past their prime but Van Halen to me were always different. We all know that this reunion is a load of crap with no real artistic merit and this has only been confirmed by Sammy Hagar’s mumblings that after this tour it is pretty much done for him and the Van Halen brothers (although recently Alex Van Halen has claimed that after a short rest Van Halen will be recording a new album with Sammy Hagar behind the mic). The thing that is so sad is that all this is completely destroying the reputation of Van Halen as one of the greatest, over the top, fun, dumb, wham bam thank you mame rock and roll bands of all time. Sure there were bands that made perhaps better “music”, or who had better vocalists or who could write better lyrics but Van Halen were fun dammit, something that is still sadly lacking in rock and roll to this day (although the Darkness are desperately trying to bring it back thank goodness). And despite the fact that I do like some of the Sammy era Van Halen stuff, the real Van Halen to me has always been the Roth era. As I thought about all of this I decided to hit the computer, fire up iTunes and listen to some election coverage on Pacifica radio while hitting Google to see what I could come up with on classic Van Halen. It was an eye opening journey. There are tons of Van Halen websites out there and a lot of them are great but I ended up on Classic Van and spent about an hour reconnecting with the Van Halen of my youth.
The Van Halen that existed from 1974 until early 1985 was rock and roll personified. We all knew instinctively that David Lee Roth was an asshole and that Eddie Van Halen was the first new legitimate guitar god since perhaps Jimi Hendrix but together with Alex and the low key Michael Anthony it all worked. Great, melodic rock and roll with a thin veneer of Hollywood trash, killer back-up vocals, over the top stage set-ups and a party attitude that reminded you of “Animal House” on the Sunset Strip all added up to a satisfying whole. For six glorious albums (well actually five and Diver Down!) they managed to add and build on their rock and roll legend but it all unfortunately came crashing down in early ’85 for various reasons that are not really that important anymore. The various on again, off again attempts at a reunion with Roth went from a hopeful sign that the “old” Van Halen might be back to the resigned “who really cares anymore” as fans got fed up with the whole sad never-ending saga. Van Halen had their time in the rock and roll sun but the friction primarily between the Van Halen brothers and Roth was just too much for the band to take and they split after “1984” with Roth going on to a so-so solo career (I loved the “Eat ‘em and Smile” line-up but not much after that) and Van Halen continuing on with Sammy Hagar (again “F.U.C.K.” was good and “Balance” seemed to see the boys approaching old time energy levels again but a lot of their Sammy stuff was too “pop” for me). Ever since the split fans have been divided but it always seemed to me that you had to work that much harder to get into the Sammy era version of the band. It all didn’t seem to be as much fun anymore and many of us began searching out greener rock and roll pastures. But believe it or not, there is still some classic Van Halen left for all of us that pine for 1982 all over again, or at least until the inevitable box set comes out in a couple of years. You see, the original line-up recorded quite a few songs that didn’t make it to record and sites like Classic Van Halen allow you to re-live that feeling of what it was like to listen to a new Van Halen album for the first time. “Big Trouble”, “Honolulu Baby” and “Babe Don’t Leave Me Alone” are all great, unreleased Roth-era Van Halen songs. Sure the quality is a bit dodgy on some of these tracks but you can still identify that signature “Van Halen sound” that to me is so lacking on Sammy era stuff. And it is not just Roth on vocals that makes the difference. Listen to the aggressiveness of Eddie’s guitar. Not only does he sound hungry on these tracks but he sounds like he is having….fun, something I think that has been sadly missing from his recent musical adventures.

I will always maintain that, first and foremost that rock and roll should be fun. This isn’t jazz or classical music, this is rock and roll. Everything else that rock and roll brings to the musical table is directly related to this simple fact. Clinical by the numbers rock and roll with no whiff of adventure will never really be what gets me up off the couch, which is why I will always prefer let’s say the Shazam, the Ramones or Oasis to Foreigner, Loverboy or Styx. The original line-up of Van Halen made fun an integral part of the experience. Sure they put out some crap (“Pretty Woman” anyone?) but overall they managed to embrace that “Spinal Tap” parody of rock and roll that deep down you knew was silly but which you accepted whole-heartedly because you were just too busy partying to really care. It is probably too late for the reunion that we all know everybody wants to happen, but with sites like Classic Van, at least we can relive the days when David Lee Roth had hair, Alex didn’t need a neck brace and Eddie smiled his goofy grin while blasting out good time, party rock and roll with wild abandon. “Could this be magic?” I’d like to think so.