Is it worth a listen? Van Halen

The debut album for California rockers Van Halen

Album cover for Van Halen 1 (Featured in the image Eddie Van Halen upper left, David Lee Roth upper right, Alex Van Halen bottom left, and Michael Anthony bottom right)

Elliot Gilbert

Album cover for Van Halen 1 (Featured in the image Eddie Van Halen upper left, David Lee Roth upper right, Alex Van Halen bottom left, and Michael Anthony bottom right)

On February 10, 1978 the world was introduced to the hard rock band, Van Halen. Their debut album was self titled, and in the time since it has been nicknamed ‘Van Halen I’ by fans. Van Halen had David Lee Roth as the vocalist, Eddie Van Halen the guitarist as well as one of the backup vocalists, Alex Van Halen the drummer, and Michael Anthony the bassist as well as the other backup vocalist. 

Within these walls that surround us there are those who walk amongst us that this album meant something big to them. For social studies teacher Mr. Voll, this is one of the first albums he ever bought. What stuck with him the most was the album cover, “I just remember that VH, their insignia on it when it first came out … just picking that album up and seeing that and of course I’d heard of them before. And that’s pretty cool. You know what for whatever reason, this stuck out.” 

The album cover is rather striking, the members of Van Halen striking their fun poses as they hold their respective instruments or in the case of Roth holding his microphone, as that logo VH unites them. Voll voiced his opinion of “Van Halen I, you know, the original to me is that’s what I always think of. I think it kind of set the tone for them.

I think that’s what allowed them to go on and do what they did, you know, to get big and do what they did.” That’s something I for sure agree with, a good debut album should work as some sort of manifesto for a band. It should set the tone for what your music will be about. 

So what was that tone for the band? Van Halen scholar, as well as social studies teacher Mr. Zipfel, provided his insight, “Van Halen vacillates between kind of serious and dark and then just whimsical light in almost impish type songs so obviously this ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ song is dark. It’s one of their you know it’s on their darker side.” 

Cover art for the single ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’ with ‘Eruption’ being the B-Side for the U.K. release. (Warner Bros. Records )

Van Halen is one of those bands that the image of them is this party, all fun type music. You look at songs like ‘Jump’ or ‘Hot for Teacher’ but as was touched on there is a darker side, a more mature side to Van Halen. In the song ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ it starts off with an eerie sound of the car horns of the band members, as the bass starts thumping. This song is more about living this dangerous lifestyle, I wouldn’t exactly call it glorifying, but it brings light to “the underbelly of rock and roll stardom in the 70s and out Southern California.” Zipfel brought it out to me during our discussion regarding Van Halen I. 

To contrast with this darker side of Van Halen, they turn it up with ‘Eruption’ which really shows off the guitar skills of Eddie. This is where the question of “Can you play ‘Eruption?’” originates. “Eddie was a great innovator, like he told you he was almost a savant. And a genius. And the thing he innovated on the guitar, you know, he was obviously showing off on that song. That’s become the standard … they measured themselves on how they could emulate the guitar solo, ‘Eruption.’” 

Guitar hero Eddie Van Halen doing his signature tapping on his iconic Frankenstrat. (Larry Marano )

This was the song that created the modern image of a guitar hero, the long haired rocker that plays these bombastic, fast riffs and solos. It’s all about showing off, and trying to show up others by playing faster. 

While the majority of the songs on this album were originals from them, there is one that sets itself apart from the rest, and that is ‘You Really Got Me’ originally by The Kinks. There are two kinds of covers: those that try to do their own spin and set themselves apart from the original or the one that just wanted to emulate their heroes. That’s what this cover is to me, it’s almost like a love letter to their inspirations rather it being this girl that’s really got them, it’s this music that got them. Zipfel added on “it’s a greater form of tribute that they didn’t really change it like they just wanted to emulate the you know, The Kinks, Davies brothers, and the fact that it really sounds the same.” 

Cover art for the single ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.’ (Warner Bros. Records )

The big song that comes from Van Halen I, is the anthem ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.’ To me this is the best song off the album as well as one of my favorite Van Halen songs. When it comes to the lyrics of this song it feels like what you would expect from Roth’s writing. This song has this swag to it, and the usual motif of sexuality, but as was touched there is this darker, kind of more vulnerable side to the song.

Roth informed us that he had “been to the edge And there I stood and looked down. You Know I lost a lot of friends there baby I got no time to mess around.” 

I could go song by song but that will just get bloated, so rather I’ll talk about the impact that this album had on those who listened to it. For Voll this was one of those albums that got him into music, and hair metal as well. It led him to bands such as Poison, Mötley Crüe, and Cinderella. For Zipfel this was the album that he had to revisit to get more of an idea of what this band was, he was there for the height of their popularity but he wanted to see where it all began. To listen to the album that made them who they are.

So what do I think of the album as a whole?  

Album cover for 1981’s Fair Warning. The artwork is from Kurelek’s “The Maze.” (William Kurelek )

Well it’s their manifesto,  this is the album that tells you all about who this band is. It’s not my favorite Van Halen album, personally my favorite is Fair Warning from 1981 but I can’t deny that this is the Van Halen album. Everything that makes Van Halen Van Halen is here, the swag, the sexual prowess, the guitar riffs and solos from Eddie that just blow your mind.

The backup harmonies from Eddie and Anthony are so good. Even that darker side of Van Halen with songs like ‘Runnin’ With The Devil’, ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’, and ‘Little Dreamer’. That party rocker type vibe that they are known for is here too with songs like, ‘I’m The One’, ‘Feel Your Love Tonight’. 

You also got those deep cuts that are as strong if not stronger than some of their best songs like ‘Atomic Punk’ and ‘Ice Cream Man.’ You even got some of these sensitive songs you simply wouldn’t expect from a band like Van Halen, such as ‘Jamie’s Cryin.’’ This is simply put a great album, a classic, and what makes it that isn’t necessarily the content or the quality of it but rather the fact it’s still worth discussing. After all, isn’t that what makes something a classic? The fact that we are still discussing it today even after 44 years since its initial release, heck, this isn’t even their best-selling album and yet it’s worth discussion. Really the only song that leaves you without anything is the closing track which feels purely filler, and is extremely forgettable. Really the only thing I remember of that closing track is the “I’m on fire” shouts from Roth. 

I digress, this is an album that is worth a listen and if you don’t like it or you disagree or agree with some of my takes then tell me. I want to hear your thoughts, that’s what is so great about classic albums is that really anyone who listens to them can discuss them. Come to me or others and discuss this music, that way this music and music in general can never die. 

For those who stuck through it, congrats. If you ever see me, give me an album recommendation and maybe I’ll talk about it next. I’m always looking for new stuff to try.