Something Else! Featured Artist: Van Halen

A long-waited reunion with original lead singer David Lee Roth has Van Halen back in the news … and us digging through some old albums.

Here’s a look back at a few favorite moments with Roth — and yes, Sammy, too — along with updated tour date information, a link to video from Van Halen’s recent small-club date with Roth and an early demo of one of the tracks to be included on the forthcoming A Different Kind of Truth, to be issued on February 7.

Let’s start shredding! …

“RUNNIN’ WITH THE DEVIL,” VAN HALEN (1978): In the late 1970s, I had a job working at a Maine-based drugstore that would end up being swallowed by Rite Aid. One of my responsibilities was to order and stock the relatively small record department. This was great fun, hardly a job at all, really. The only downside was that it was insanely easy to buy albums. I would just sign a receipt, “charging” the item to my account. Unfortunately, this resulted in several paychecks of less than $10 over a two-week period.

When the first Van Halen record showed up at the store, I just knew I had to have it. There was something kind of primal and unhinged about the cover photos. Were they a punk band or something? I had no idea, but I took home a copy that night.

Not more than a few seconds after I dropped the needle and, cliché or not, my jaw hit the floor. I just could not believe what I was hearing. Oh sure, I’d heard plenty of loud guitar before but this was different — when Eddie stepped up for that first solo, he unleashed a torrent of notes that managed to sound both focused and wildly out of control. And while David Lee Roth’s voice roared, the entire vocal sound was sweetened by Michael Anthony’s crucial high harmonies.

After I got home from work, it was customary for me to chat with my girlfriend on the phone. I was so taken with this album that I had to apologize and hang up on her. Probably not the first time that my music obsession has negatively affected my sex life. — Mark Saleski

[READ OUR REVIEW OF ‘TRUTH': In a pre-release review, we called Van Halen’s ‘A Different Kind of Truth’ “a return to form in the most complete sense of the word.”]

“HOT FOR TEACHER,” 1984 (1984): I’ve long held the unpopular belief that Eddie Van Halen may be the most overrated guitarist on the planet. It’s not that I don’t like Van Halen, and it’s not that I don’t respect Eddie’s abilities, which admittedly are far beyond what mine would ever be if I spent every waking minute of the rest of my life in the woodshed. But he was just never that big of an inspiration to me, personally.

While my other guitar-playing friends were worshipping at the altar of Eddie, I was failing miserably at copping Randy Rhoads’ lead licks. By the time those friends had mastered “Eruption,” I had realized that my musical future didn’t lie in flashy leads, and I was studying guys like Tony Iommi and James Hetfield, guys who provided the backbone of a song. Sadly, I failed miserably at that, too.

But there were occasions that something from Van Halen caught my ear, and I’m pretty sure that if you added up all the time I spent trying to nail the licks from “Hot for Teacher” in high school, it would equal months of my life.

It starts off with that pencil-on-notebook style drum groove (or maybe that was just suggestion from the video) by Alex that sets the mood, then Eddie comes in with that incredible tapping run, which was the first thing that caught my attention about the song. I was finally able to figure out a sloppy, stuttering version of that, but those stretches are just beyond what my short, stubby fingers are comfortable with.

The main riff of the song, though, has just as much to do with its success as the showy leads. There’s a definite swagger to that riff. A little metal, a little blues rock and, maybe, just a little show tune — that last bit, of course, accentuated by David Lee Roth’s flamboyant presence — it has all of the attitude that the best Van Halen songs of the original Roth era were known for. Then the tune settles into a quiet, bluesy groove for just a minute on that little clean fingerpicked lick as Roth pretends to be the bad kid in class before revving back up with a version of the same riff on steroids. It all leads eventually to a main solo, which, let’s just say, I never mastered.

To open up the age-old argument, “Hot for Teacher” is a perfect illustration of why I prefer the early version of Van Halen to the Van Hagar years. Sure, it’s not as refined and radio-friendly, but rock ‘n‘ roll has never been about refinement. Rock ‘n‘ roll should be wild, rude and rowdy, and “Hot for Teacher” fits those parameters perfectly. — Fred Phillips

“JAMIE’S CRYING,” VAN HALEN (1978): Van Halen didn’t just become a Rock ‘n‘ Roll Hall of Fame band solely from Eddie’s guitar virtuosity and Diamond Dave’s tongue-n-cheek swagger. This band created plenty of monster riffs and catchy hooks back in its day, and a rapper named Tone Lōc (remember him?) rode both of those things to a No. 2 hit back in ’89.

But the song he ripped off, “Jamie’s Crying,” had more than that and Eddie’s “uh oh” guitar quip going for it. The backing vocals, supplied by their plodding bassist Michael Anthony, made this song complete. Those high, smooth harmonies were never going to take front stage when there’s an all-world axe shredder and front man in the lineup but it helped to push the band beyond the normal realm of hard rock.

Songs from that game-changing debut album like “Jamie” pointed the way early on for how Van Halen was going to reach an audience much bigger than the headbanger set. — S. Victor Aaron

“GOOD ENOUGH,” (5150, 1986): Fueled by the energy gained from a fresh new driver’s license and, well, just being a couple of stupid 16-year-old boys, my friend Josh and I headed out into the sandy washes and flat desert terrain of an old area where my family used to take our ATVs when I was younger. It never crossed either of our minds that maybe it wasn’t the wisest idea, just days after getting my license, to go off-roading. I’d done this before, right, only in something much smaller. I just scaled up my expectations. No problem.

The tape player in the Landcruiser was tethered to a Discman that Josh gingerly held in his lap, fearing bumps that might make it skip or, worse, scratch the disc. He periodically cracked open the flat clamshell top to switch out discs and at some point one disc left for 5150 to slip into its place. Stereo volume still cranked high, Sammy Hagar blasted our ears mimicking the Big Bopper, “HELLO BAAAABY” as Eddie’s guitar squealed in response. “Good Enough”: a wall of crazy guitar figures and insane drums, with a totally ridiculous, over-the-top string of innuendos that I barely comprehended at the time as a narrative of some sort. To dorky 16-year-olds hopped up on the rush of adrenaline, it was probably a bad mixture.

I’m not a crazy driver. In fact, I’d wager I’m probably one of the safer drivers out there, but this one moment will have you thinking otherwise. As we are careening around the sandy soil (“sand” is being kind; this is more like “fine gravel”) I become more brave, taking more chances than I probably should — perhaps doing donuts in a two-ton truck with little driving experience is not really all that wise. We find ourselves back on the long, long stretch of dirt road we took to get down to the good areas, and sense has left long ago. It seemed perfectly fine to fishtail the Landcruiser at a good clip, even though I couldn’t really sense what was going on, not the way I could on the ATV I’d ridden for years — which was so much smaller and built specifically to transmit those sensations to the rider. Here, the big Landcruiser, massive and off-road worthy though it was, felt so numb, and I didn’t feel it get away from me.

Time, age, confusion, I don’t know — whatever it is — things have colluded to mash memories together a bit, and now the whole experience is intertwined with “Good Enough,” and, specifically, the tossed-off line in the bridge where Sammy jokes “Rack of what? Well I’ll have some of that!” It is at that moment that the brain has worked its weird magic, for I’m certain the two events didn’t occur together but I can’t separate them and figure out what went where anymore, so I tell it as I now remember it …

At that moment, I chime in with Sammy and uncharacteristically yell out the words with him over the music, sending Josh into a fit of laughter, and that’s when the wheels break loose, and the rear end swings around, pointing us toward a large berm of dirt built up at the side of the road. I correct, then over-correct, and keep doing so, and suddenly it’s too late — a crash and a lurch and a giant ball of dust. We’re up over the berm, stuck. There is dust everywhere we look, like an explosion, and we stumble out to look at what just happened. In the road behind us, there’s a long trail of S shapes tracing the events in the moments leading up to this. It seems I held on for a long while and almost got us out of it but that last correction was just a tad too much.

[SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: Hear Van Halen’s celebrated small-club reunion show with David Lee Roth, plus an early demo of track to be included on 2012’s ‘A Different Kind of Truth’.]

After some work, and praying, we weren’t stuck, luckily, but just lodged. Putting the Landcruiser into low gear and back into 4-wheel drive (where it should have been the whole time) then rocking the truck back and forth vigorously got us out. We sat for a few minutes, relieved, and maybe letting the shakes subside. We might be able to get out of this without anyone knowing just how stupid we were. It was a fleeting feeling — it turns out the left rear tire was in dire shape and wasn’t going to make it home. But it wasn’t shredded. Instead, a line of pebbles and sand had lodged itself into the seam between wheel and tire, and air was leaking out mighty quick. It might have been a stupid experience but at least I learned something: I got to change my very first tire right there. When I got home, though, there was no hiding anything: Not only was the first tire in need of help, but so was the right rear. I somehow managed to play it off as just getting stuck in some dirt — technically kind of right (we did get stuck, and there was dirt) — so he wasn’t too upset. I have never found out if he figured out what really happened. Not sure even today if I want to know.

I know, I know. All this over Van Hagar? We could have flipped over, maybe even died, over the fill-in singer? Many will nod and deduce it to its core: “Van Hagar. There’s your problem right there, dude.” But at the time, I was committed. Fully committed to the cause that was Van Halen with Sammy Hagar. Why, I don’t know. I had no real prior allegiance to the band other than 1984 being in my tape collection (just like every other budding self-respecting rock fan in America). But for whatever reason, I always seem to root for the underdog, and 5150 fit the bill — though I doubt I really knew that at the time. The thing is, I did genuinely love it and while I can’t say it’s something I would reach for today over the classic Van Halen, especially Women And Children First and Fair Warning (see, I’m still a bit contrarian), once in a great while it’s fun to give it a spin. And then put it away for a long time. — Tom Johnson

“AND THE CRADLE WILL ROCK,” WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, (1980): There’s a split somewhere in the Van Halen fan base about — no, not about Roth vs. Hagar — Eddie’s use of keyboards.

For instance, some of us wouldn’t mind never hearing “Jump” again. That issue aside, my favorite application of keyboards in the entire Van Halen collection comes with the introduction to “And The Cradle Will Rock” Eddie fed his keyboard signal through a flanger and then into a cranked Marshall amplifier.

The sound is kind of sinister & industrial and helps this killer song and Women and Children First achieve liftoff right from the start. — Mark Saleski

“ICE CREAM MAN,” VAN HALEN (1978): The first time I heard “Ice Cream Man,” I thought it was the silliest rock song ever. I was in third grade and just beginning to discover the world of rock ‘n‘ roll when a friend brought the cassette to school. Those were different times, and I actually still thought David Lee Roth was singing about ice cream. I also wasn’t very fond of Roth’s vocals at the time.

A few years later, when I rediscovered the first Van Halen album, obviously I had a slightly different take. Those adolescent hormones had me thinking the lyrics were pretty cool, and by that point, I’d begun to realize that the best rock singers weren’t always the ones that delivered the most perfect vocals, but sometimes the guys that put the right amount of character and attitude. No one can deny that Roth had both in droves. While a lot of my friends prefer the more grown-up sound of the Hagar era, Roth’s zany, goofy antics always appealed to me. One of the first concerts that I ever went to was from David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper tour, and many years later, it’s still a comparison point for shows I see today.

The adolescent hormones are long gone now and I don’t think the song is quite as clever as I did back then, but I still crank up the stereo every time I hear “Ice Cream Man. ” I still love the sense of humor on the early Van Halen albums, with songs like this and their goofy cover of “Happy Trails” from Diver Down. It’s something that was lacking in their later albums, and hopefully, we’ll see a little of it peek through again on the upcoming record. — Fred Phillips

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Here are the announced 2012 tour dates for Van Halen’s reunion concerts with David Lee Roth:

February 18 – Louisville, KY at KFC Yum! Center
February 20 – Detroit, MI at The Palace of Auburn Hills
February 22 – Indianapolis, IN at Bankers Life Fieldhouse
February 24 – Chicago, IL at United Center
February 28 – New York, NY at Madison Square Garden
March 1 – New York, NY at Madison Square Garden
March 3 – Uncasville, CT at Mohegan Sun Arena
March 5 – Philadelphia, PA at Wells Fargo Center
March 9 – Buffalo, NY at First Niagara Center
March 11 – Boston, MA at TD Garden
March 15 – Montreal, QC at Bell Centre
March 17 – Toronto, ON at Air Canada Centre
March 21 – Ottawa, ON at Scotiabank Place
March 24 – Atlantic City, NJ at Boardwalk Hall
March 28 – Washington, DC at Verizon Center
March 30 – Pittsburgh, PA at Consol Energy Center
Apr 1 – Rosemont, IL at Allstate Arena
Apr 10 – Fort Lauderdale, FL at BankAtlantic Center
Apr 12 – Tampa, FL at St. Pete Times Forum
Apr 14 – Orlando, FL at Amway Arena
Apr 16 – Jacksonville, FL at Jacksonville Arena
Apr 19 – Atlanta, GA at Philips Arena
Apr 21 – Greensboro, NC at Greensboro Coliseum
Apr 25 – Charlotte, NC at Time Warner Cable Arena
Apr 27 – Nashville, TN at Bridgestone Arena
May 1 – Tulsa, OK at BOK Center
May 5 – Tacoma, WA at Tacoma Dome
May 7 – Vancouver, BC at Rogers Arena
May 9 – Calgary, AB at Scotiabank Saddledome
May 11 – Edmonton, AB at Rexall Place
May 17 – Winnipeg, MB at MTS Centre
May 19 – St. Paul, MN at Xcel Energy Center
May 22 – Kansas City, MO at Sprint Center
May 24 – Denver, CO at Pepsi Center
May 27 – Las Vegas, NV at MGM Grand Garden Arena
Jun 1 – Los Angeles, CA at STAPLES Center
Jun 3 – Oakland, CA at Oracle Arena
Jun 5 – San Jose, CA at HP Pavilion
Jun 12 – Anaheim, CA at Honda Center
Jun 14 – San Diego, CA at Viejas Arena
Jun 16 – Phoenix, AZ at US Airways Center
Jun 20 – Dallas, TX at American Airlines Center
Jun 22 – San Antonio, TX at AT&T Center
Jun 24 – Houston, TX at Toyota Center
Jun 26 – New Orleans, LA at New Orleans Arena

For more details, go to Van Halen’s Web site.

Something Else!

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • http://blindedbysound.com Josh Hathaway

    Nice work, fellas. Tom, glad you survived the ordeal. Never apologize for liking the Hagar chapter. I’m far more pro-Roth than Hagar as pertains to the band’s catalog but there were some damn fine efforts from the Hagar era as well.

    I don’t know if I’ll be able to come up with the cayshe to get to the Nashville show but I’m sure as hell going to try.