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Sunday, February 10, 2008

WANNA FEEL OLD? VAN HALEN'S FIRST ALBUM TURNS 30 (!!!)

(cue John Bligh's obligatory "Van Hurtin'" comment)

Today is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of Van Halen's eponymous first album. Yes, you read that right, thirty fucking years, so dust off your vinyl, drop the needle to the groove and rock out with yer cock out to "Jamie's Cryin'," "I'm the One," and the superlative "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love." And fan of the album though I may be, let me state two things:

1. Van Halen's cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" is a prime example of a cover version adding absolutely nothing to a song that was perfect the first time out of the gate, and their cover is just an excuse for flagrant guitar wankery. I know that can be said of much of Eddie Van Halen's stuff, but it's appropriate in songs generated by his own band; hell, over-the-top "big" rock is kind of their thing, but it goes on a seminal Kinks piece in exactly the way that tits don't belong on a trout.

2. The following year's VAN HALEN II is a superior effort in every way, and is by far my favorite in their discography.

Admittedly, I came to the Van Halen party fairly late, disdaining them when they first came out because they topped the list of contemporary artists that many of the douchebags I grew up with worshipped, and, not liking much of what they enjoyed, I figured Van Halen simply had to suck by association. I felt David Lee Roth was a douche of the highest order — a fact later borne out by his tailor-made-for-the-young-MTV, nauseatingly "Ain't I cute?" early solo work, especially his add-nothing-to-the-original version of Louis Prima's "Just A Gigolo" — who embodied every obnoxious "cock rocker" cliché,

David Lee Roth, carried aloft by his mighty fart powers.

Michael Anthony was a colossal “who cares?” on bass — an opinion I still hold, by the way; he’s the luckiest guy in rock this side of Ringo — , hound-faced Alex Van Halen providing drumming that was merely adequate at best, and Eddie Van Halen, hailed by many of my contemporaries as “the world’s greatest guitarist," always seemed to me to be a guy who only got into such crazy guitar noodling because he couldn’t achieve the same sounds with his dick.

Eddie Van Halen and his six-string penis.

In short, I thought they were pointlessly overrated and a total fucking joke. Just another flashy pop group to make the boys pump their adolescent fists while indulging in testosterone-glazed male fantasies, while the girls screamed and dreamed of having their fresh out of the box eggs fertilized by these long-haired pagan music gawdz.

Then the fall of 1986 rolled around, beginning what I now refer to as my “lost” year, a time where all I did was shamelessly drink, crank some righteous tunes, get stoned out of my mind, and have some strange pussy writhing atop my face all day rather than going to class like I was supposed to, as well as serving as some sort of a responsible role model in my capacity as an R.A. (Resident Assistant). During that year (and a bit of the previous one) my musical horizons were expanded by the influence of several people, one of whom was a freshman stoner I’ll rename as “Michael Ellis,” just in case he’s holding public office these days (highly unlikely); if you were there at the time and knew the male denizens of my hall you’ll know exactly who this guy was, especially if you remember his close association with Phil the Ska-Man.

Michael could have been the living embodiment of the California surfer burnout if he’d come from the west coast, but I think he hailed from Long Island, and his musical sensibilities definitely reflected what suburban teenagers on the East Coast had listened to since the mid-1960’s, a post-acid era grab bag of stuff passed down from parents and older siblings, as well as what few obscurities they discovered on their own. Michael’s playlist of faves consisted of familiar standbys — the Beatles, the Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors (a band from whom I can tolerate perhaps six songs) — and I grew used to the sounds emanating from his shared dorm room coming off like what would happen if you let a very stoned high-schooler deejay on a “classic” rock station (which in effect is what it was).

Then one afternoon, after taking a few serious pulls from my bright purple bong, I heard some particularly tasty guitarwork kerranging out of Michael’s room and walked in to ask what it was. Bleary-eyed, he looked at me like I’d just grown an extra head — which, to be fair, from his perception may have seemed the case — and exclaimed, “Dude! You don’t know Van Halen? Van Halen??? Dude, I cannot fucking believe that a music guru like you does not know Van fuckin’ Halen! Aw, man, we gotta smoke some bowls and correct this error!”

Michael spastically rummaged through his stash drawer, fumbling through an impressive array of well-used pipes, replacement bong bowls, an assortment of large and glueless rolling papers, before finding a marble-sized chunk of very dark hashish. He skillfully crumbled some into a nearby wooden dugout pipe, covered the claylike treat with some skunky bud that was as bright green as Kermit the frog’s pond-dwelling balls, and then sparked up the psychedelic wonderment.

Not a word was said until we’d finished the bowl and allowed some its bounty to take effect, and when it did Michael picked up the turntable’s needle and dropped it onto a track that instantly played off of the very good high that was wending its way through the convolutions of my brain. The abrupt and nervous opening licks of “Light Up the Sky” were like being at ground zero during a NASA space launch when the ignition began, and then the pregnant pause as the man-made holocaust of exhaust fuel thrust a phallic vehicle into the waiting sky, on a course to penetrate the firmament and journey into the unknown with its metaphorical nuts trailing behind.

The sheer power of the piece evoked colorful and violent mid-air or deep space dogfights between impossibly swift vehicles, each discharging payloads of plasma, missles, blaster beams, what have you at one another, raining flaming debris onto unlucky onlookers who’d rather perish than miss such a mind-blowing display. Eddie Van Halen’s crazy guitar virtuosity seemed to have been put upon this Earth to paint such a tableu, while Roth’s alternately shrill and sotto voce delivery lent just the right balance of hysteria and ancient storyteller’s point of view to the song, and I wondered aloud how this awesomeness had eluded me. Michael simply asked, “Was it the favorite of your town’s assholes and loadies? Well, that explains it.”

We listened to the rest of what I found out was VAN HALEN II and then backtracked to the first album, where I discovered the three gems I mentioned at the start of this piece. Since that time I’ve come to have a great fondness for some of the songs from band’s early period — roughly VAN HALEN through FAIR WARNING — and even enjoy the frat boy obnoxiousness of “Hot For Teacher,” but after that David Lee Roth left (or was kicked out, depending on who you listen to) due to tension between himself and Eddie Van Halen, and embarked on a pitifully clownish solo career, thus utterly excising the entire point of Van Halen: the Dave and Eddie show, a blessed fusion/pissing contest of two hyper-masculine, overly-theatrical rawk gawdz at their peaks.

David Lee Roth expresses his opinion of Michael Anthony's skills with a rectal methane salute, while Eddie nears "the vinegar strokes."

So that’s my two cents on VH. Any of you got some stories you’d care to share?

9 comments:

John Bligh said...

Was "Michael Ellis" (heh...) the guy who shit your sink? Or was the perpetrator of that foul act never officially uncovered?

martin said...

It took me ten years longer than you to develop an appreciation for VH (probably because I didn't have help from weed) for exactly the same reasons you had: horror. For some reason, I'm most partial to their third album. I always looked at the You Really Got Me cover as an extension of Eruption: a sort of nerdy technical introduction to the sound. The biggest surprise for me was how effective Roth is on record, in spite of being an embarrassing clown.

Bunche said...

John Bligh said...
"Was "Michael Ellis" (heh...) the guy who shit your sink? Or was the perpetrator of that foul act never officially uncovered?"

For those readers wondering what the hell John's talking about, there was one day when (presumably) when of my wasted charges from my hall left a serious bowl-winder in one of the bathroom's hand sinks. The residents had rendered the communal bathroom unusable to the point of trace radiation being the only thing missing from the ambience, and as a result I ended up showering and such in the next hall's facilities. I figured fuck 'em; if they aren't grown up enough to treat the bathroom like something fit for humans to use, then I sure as fuck wasn't going to hold their hands, lecture them, or clean up after them.

But then came the day when one of the residents came to my door to protest there being as freshly laid turd in one of the sinks. I beheld this horror for myself and, taking into account the fact that the janatorial crew gave up on this bathroom about three weeks earlier, I manned up and took care of it myself.

And, for the record, other damages inflicted upon the lavvy included drunken grafitti covering nearly every square millimeter of the walls — this was the year when grafitti perpetrated by white kids became popular — broken mirrors, toilet paper dispensers torn from the stall walls and stolen, and the stalls themselves dislodged from their moorings, meaning that if you intended to take a dump in one of them you'd be leaning to one side to avoid a divider crushing you, or you'd be sitting there growing a tail with no door or privacy whatsoever.

One of these days I'm gonna have to write a piece about that hall and let it serve as a cautionary tale to both college freshmen and first-time R.A.'s.

Anonymous said...

30 years. FUCK!

See, my impression of VH-I is totally the opposite from yours, but for the same reason, reversed. I heard the album a few months after it came out, long before Van Halen became the asshole parade of the 1980s.

At that time, I had grown up on typical 70s pop radio. The hardest bands I'd heard up till then were probably Kiss, Heart and Aerosmith. (Maybe one or two Zepplin songs, too.) I had yet to have my gob smacked by The Ramones, The Plasmatics or Judas Priest, and although the bands existed, no radio station in my town was playing Motorhead, Black Sabbath, AC-DC or the Sex Pistols. I would discover most of those bands within a year of that fateful Van Halen revelation, but at the time... well, I hadn't heard much that spoke to my 13-year-old heart.

And then, one day my classmates and I were talking about bands we liked. Two or three of them mentioned Van Halen. The teacher said we could play the album one of them had brought.

The descending tone of a psychoholic spaceship echoed through the speakers, followed by:

BOMP. BOMP. BOMP. BOMP. BOMP. BOMP. BOMP. Raow-chicka-REEEEW -

Holy Fucking. Shit.

I had NEVER heard anything like that first Van Halen album. Not even the fury of Kiss Alive II or Aerosmith's "Draw the Line" or Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" could hold a candle to the bright "fuckit!" of Van Halen I. It was one of the first albums I bought with my own money (the very first was probably Kiss: Destroyer), and my adolescent ego rejoiced when one of Dad's friends commented dourly on the phallic placement of "Dave Roth's" microphone on the cover shot.

Like Kiss (my early favorites, who fell from grace around that period with Dynasty and a shitty concert I saw soon afterward), Van Halen was a band for ME. Not my parents. Not the pop deejays. Not the magazines. ME. Gods, I loved it.

Later, when the ubiquitous VH logo dotted every stoner lounge and the frat boys took the band over, I defected for the still-disreputable likes of Judas Priest, Sabbath and the Pistols. (All of whom became asshole-magnets as well.) To this day, though, VH-I remains one of my favorite hard rock albums. None of the band's other releases comes close, except perhaps Women and Children First - a better album musically, but not nearly as much fun. That, for me, remains part of the band's appeal. Sure, they were hard... for their time, anyway. At their best, though, the original Van Halen was FUN.

Oh, and as someone who saw the original lineup live three times in their glory days: It all worked, Trust me. It was stupid and cheesy, but gods, did it RAWK!No amount of road-worn faces or guitar wankery could take that sense of wonder away from me.


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PS: Michael Anthony was a better bassist than most folks give him credit for. Listen deep in the mix. He's actually doing some pretty cool shit, especially on songs like "A Simple Rhyme," "You're No Good" and "On Fire." He's not showy, but with the other three hotdogs, you need a good foundation. Without being boring, he provided one.

Anonymous said...

Eek! David Lee Roth looks like a Wetta reject!

Anonymous said...

Eddie sounded amazing when that album first came out because - aside from a few Jazzheads - nobody knew how to play like he did. He really kinda DID re-invent Rock guitar. A few years later, though, every asshat with a fingerboard was wanking like Pete Shelly with a Christmas cake candle. Pity that Eddie didn't do like most truly great players and grow beyond his signiture style! Now he just sounds tired.

Matt said...

The early Kinks stuff was incredible. "All Day and All Of The Night", "You Really Got Me"...you can totally hear the Sonics, the Wailers, and all the great american garage rock to come in those distorted notes. I love it.

Senter said...

Was it "Micheal Ellis"or Phil the Ska Man who drank the tall boy of Skoal spit?

Anonymous said...

Heh - I wonder if Van Halen's current groupies are now in their 50s as well...