In 1978, rock music took a turn for the better when a little-known band out of LA took to the airwaves and set new standards and styles in guitar playing, the likes of which had never been seen or heard.

We are of course talking about VAN HALEN, a band comprising the extraordinary talents of Eddie Van Halen, the man whose name is synonymous with the two-handed playing technique.

Joined by his brother Alex on drums (when they first started to play music together, he was are the one with the guitar) are Michael Anthony on bass, and the colourful extrovert vocal talents of one David Lee Roth.

Their eponymous debut album is probably best noted for classics such as Ain't Talkin' Bout LoveRunning With the Devil, and of course Eruption, an instrumental that was the result of three takes in the studio, the one that got to vinyl being the one that flowed the best. They also got to play all over the world supporting such diverse acts as BLACK SABBATH and FOREIGNER.  Eddie also received an award for Guitarist of the Year in 1978 from guitar Player Magazine

1979 brought their follow-up album Van Halen II,  the sales of which equalled or even bettered those of its predecessor. It also possessed an instrumental, this time on an nylon-strung 'Ovation' guitar after Ed and Alex had  spent one  New Year's Eve getting drunk at the producer Ted Templeman's house. Apparently Ted had an acoustic sitting in the corner of the room, so Eddie picked it up and started to mess around on it, and Ted said "Wow! You play acoustic guitar too?" He then suggested that Eddie should do something on acoustic for the next album, the result of which was Spanish Fly.  But the critics weren't very receptive when reviewing the new album, the main complaint being that it was a rehash of the first. 

Women and Children First took these acclaimed wildcats into the 80s, and saw them experimenting with sounds and styles on the track And the Cradle will Rock. Eddie drew on his piano playing skills from his childhood, using an old Wurlitzer piano pumped through a Marshall amplifier, although it isn't actually that clear on the song. Plus the rest of the band weren't that happy about him playing keyboards. Ted Templeman also wanted people to hear a different side to David Lee Roth's voice so the bluesy guitar intro to Fools was used as a vehicle for this idea. 

Now by the time 81 had arrived,  there seemed to be a different attitude in their music, a more aggressive side that was represented on the Fair Warning opus. The production had a fatter sound about it, and even included a few overdubs,  a technique they had steered clear off in the early days. 

The first four Van Halen albums

In order to reach notes for the slide melody on Dirty Movies, Eddie took a hacksaw to the Les Paul guitar he was using at the time of recording, and removed part of the body to gain better access to the high frets. Dave even decided to drop in the odd swear word on Sinatra Swing. 

Unfortunately this album also saw the first shadow of a filler track with a dreadful synthesizer induced number entitled Sunday Afternoon in the Park.

Things, in my opinion, didn't get any better with the release of Diver Down in 1982. This album carried four cover versions, one of which Eddie was totally against doing, that namely being Dancing in the Street. But he did manage to get his own way with the cover of the Roy Orbison classic (Oh) Pretty Woman, one of the better versions I've heard.

When it comes to finding inspiration for songs, things pop up from the strangest quarters, as Eddie found out when he walked out of his hotel one day in Memphis during the Fair Warning tour. He was approached by a kid called David Petschulat who had a copy of an old Les Paul. He suggested that Eddie should check it out. This is the very guitar on which he wrote the track Little Guitars.

Two years later, saw the birth of what was to be the last collaboration between the Roth/ Van Halen songwriting camps. Things seemed to be drifting apart, but they held together long enough to give us 1984 (christened on January 1st of that year), an album that produced their first taste of top 10 success in the British singles charts with Jump. This peaked at Number 7, staying in the actual charts for 13 weeks.  They suddenly became a household name.

Jump was recorded in one take with the tape running out to just near the end so that the fade on the final product had to be engineered very carefully. The next single taken from this album was the belting Panama, which unfortunately only hit number 61, then left the charts after two weeks. 

Sadly 1985 saw the departure of ‘Diamond Dave’, who decided to follow a solo career. Also leaving the Van Halen team was Mr Templeman who had stood at the helm of their productions since the first album. He had actually secured commitments with Roth and decided to honour them. 

Dave took to the studio to produce the Crazy From the Heat EP on which he covered the BEACH BOYS song California Girls and then changed tack with the brilliant Just a Gigolo.

Full length debut Eat Em and Smile had him working with ex-ZAPPA guitar genius Steve Vai and bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan in 86. This was to be, in my opinion, his finest hour, which wasn't surpassed by the follow-ups Skyscraper (1988) and A Little Ain't Enough (1991). 

Sammy Hagar Halen

Meanwhile back to 86, Sammy Hagar (former vocalist for MONTROSE) had been recruited to the ranks of Van Halen to fill the gap left by Dave. 

I remember listening to an interview with him on the Radio 1 back in the day and the interviewer asked him what it was like to be stepping into Roth's shoes and he replied: "I'm not, I've brought my own." And so he did, and this latest collaboration brought them a number one selling album in the US entitled 5150, named after the Los Angeles Police code for the criminally insane (this is also the name of Eddie's Home Studio). It hit the zenith after only being in the charts for 3 weeks. A follow-up tour completely sold out, but they haven't actually graced our shores since their one and only appearance at the 1984 Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington Park. The single Why Can't This Be Love reached number 8 8-in the British charts. their highest since jump.

Mick Jones from FOREIGNER oversaw the whole 5150 project and helped to write the track Dreams. He also managed to keep them organised and they nicknamed him 'The Duke.' 

The next four albums

But what can I say about OU812 except 'Where had all the good times gone?' This hung around the British album chart for 12 weeks,  hitting number 16 and produced two singles,  the first of  which When It's Love reached number 28, sustaining a 7-week run in all. The second single Feels So Good died like a fish and slid out again. I bought this album, as I'm sure every other true VH fan did, played it about twice then sold it. You'll have to excuse my lack of interest.

But getting bang up to date with the men in question, they have just knocked out their latest offspring for the Nineties, much to the surprise of everybody, including their record company, Warner Bros. The title of the album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge forms an acronym with all the subtlety of having your teeth removed by a chisel.  Sammy Hagar originally wanted to call it FUCK or Fuck Censorship after the new upsurge of censorship that has swept America. The production duties of this album were taken up by their old friend Ted Templeman and also Andy Johns, the man responsible for producing THE STONES and LED ZEPPELIN (he's the one who produced that guitarists' fav Stairway to Heaven).

On its release in the States F.U.C.K. went straight to number one on the Billboard chart, although the reception from the critics this side of the water was less than lukewarm, to say the least.  Let's hope they will return to their former glory and maybe even grace us with a tour.

Peter Grant
Riff Raff
August, 1991 
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