Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)
Welcome back to YDCS where, this week, we’re taking a look at a debut album from a hard rock act out of Pasadena, California that ended up shaping rock music for decades. Comprised originally of brothers and Alex and Eddie Van Halen on drums and lead guitar respectively, Michael Anthony on bass, and David Lee Roth on lead vocals, Van Halen has gone through multiple band iterations through their nearly forty-year history. Most notably, the first and second lead singers David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar were affiliated with the band at different periods due to personal conflicts with bandmates. Many Van Halen fans tend to have a preference for which lead singer/era of the band they prefer, primarily for stylistic differences; either the earliest and latest iterations of the band with David Lee Roth that featured tracks like “Jump,” “Hot For Teacher,” and “Panama,” as well as all of the songs on this debut or Hagar-era songs which include “Right Now,” and “Why Can’t This Be Love.”
After failing to land a record deal off of a mixtape financed by Gene Simmons of KISS in 1976, the band continued playing the club circuit in their native Los Angeles until they were recognized at a concert by executives from Warner Bros. The execs pulled the band in and landed them their first contract, resulting in the 1978 debut album, Van Halen. This may be one of the most culturally significant hard rock albums of the late 1970s that went on to define what rock music would sound like through the 1980s. I believe that without this album, hair metal would have been significantly stunted and the early acts like Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, while trailblazers in their own rights, would have faced a much more uphill battle. I absolutely love this album and there’s not a single song that doesn’t rock! Many of the band’s biggest hits came off of this debut (not to discredit the rest of their discography). This one is one for the ages and shows how well a rock record can come together when done properly. Nothing here is pretentious or tries to tell a bigger story, but it has a purpose; TO ROCK! Enjoy the album!
Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown
Runnin’ with the Devil: We start Van Halen with what would become one of the band’s signature songs, “Runnin’ with the Devil.” This track has a great balance between a thunderous, drumming chorus and mellowed verse. “Runnin’” is also the listener’s first introduction to the Eddie Van Halen guitar solo which would be featured most prominently, not just on this song or album, but across the band’s entire discography. There’s not a whole lot else to say here other than this is an awesome hard rock track. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Eruption: This is indisputably one of the best guitar solos of all time, Eddie Van Halen didn’t even think it was originally worthy of including on the album! While tapping wasn’t a new way of playing guitar and many had done it before Eddie, he popularized the technique with the second half of the solo and expounded on his ability with a follow up solo on Van Halen II called “Spanish Fly.” Eddie has been oft-quoted as saying that he mis-played a note at the top of the song so try to find that if you can! Despite the misplayed note, if there were ever an instrumental that deserved a 10/10, it’s this song. Welcome to the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award” club “Eruption!” Dad’s Rating 10/10
You Really Got Me: When “Eruption” is played, it’s typically followed by a cover of the Kinks song “You Really Got Me.” While completely stylistically different from its source material, this is a fantastic cover that, because it’s so different from its source, actually feels like a different song all together. I think that lends credit to the band’s ability to be innovative and shows that they have chops, chops that would prove to be invaluable to their staying ability through the 1980s. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love: I find it difficult to justify giving two songs perfect scores on the same album, because an album can’t be THAT good can it?! Yes it can, and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” proves it. This is a great rock song because it doesn’t pull any punches, is unabashedly loud, but has its soft moments where it shows dynamic musical talent in between shredding guitar solos. This is certainly worthy of the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award.” Great effort and great song from a great band. Dad’s Rating 10/10
I’m the One: On a first listen, “I’m the One” somehow sounds different from the other songs on the album, even though there was no change in instrumentation or personnel. I believe that “I’m the One” suffers slightly from being placed after four mega-hits, and on any other Van Halen record, this would be one of the lead singles. That just goes to show the staying power of this album and the band in my opinion, when you can have an album full of recognizable tracks, and one of the “worst songs” on the album might be one of the best on another. Kudos where it’s deserved! Dad’s Rating 8/10
Jamie’s Cryin’: I love “Jamie’s Cryin” and it’s one of my favorite Van Halen songs. This is probably the most slowed down rack on the album and is immediately recognizable as “Jamie’s Cryin’.” While some of the band’s other songs can be mistaken for one another on a cursory listen, the unique guitar riff, drum fill to start the song, and the howling backing vocals through the chorus are unmistakable. I think my favorite part is how the lead guitar howls similarly to the backing vocals, pulling the song together. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Atomic Punk: You have never heard an opening guitar solo like the one on “Atomic Punk.” Eddie Van Halen was famous for experimenting with different sounds and using different tools to make different sounds come from his guitar, most famously taking a power drill to the strings to create the effect heard on “Poundcake.” To create the scratching effect heard here, he rubbed his hand across the strings while using a phase-shifter! “Atomic Punk” is also notable because it features no backing vocals, a feature that is so prominent on the rest of this album and Van Halen II. This track pulls no punches and is a perfect example of the self-indulgent rock that the band was known for. Dad’s Rating 9/10
Feel Your Love Tonight: “Feel Your Love” is a more stereotypical Van Halen track. It received critical acclaim as the band grew in popularity but never quite held a candle to some of the other powerhouse tracks on the album. To me, this song feels boring when put next to other songs. The guitar solo on this song is actually a redeeming factor though and helps keep the rating up. Dad’s Rating 7/10
Little Dreamer: “Little Dreamer” is the slowest song on the album and still manages to rock out! I’m not quite sure how the band managed to pull that one off, but the guitar riff on this track is superb and doesn’t overshadow the somehow gentle lyrics before exploding into one of the best solos on the album. Dad’s Rating 8/10
Ice Cream Man: If this is your introduction to “Ice Cream Man,” then everything is not as it would appear. “How could a three-chord blues song on acoustic guitar fit on a rock album?” you may be asking yourself. Well, I’ll tell you that this seemingly simple song has so much more to offer. It shows musical range in the transition from acoustic guitar to electric guitar, two solos that rock legends are made of, and rocks as hard as any of the best. There is nothing that could make this a better song, and for that reason I’m giving this the third perfect score and, in the process, the first album to receive three “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Awards.” Absolutely tremendous. Dad’s Rating 10/10
On Fire: I’ll be honest and say that I’ve rated this album very highly and I’m pretty sure I’ve said “This is my favorite song on the album” more times than I should, but holy moly because “On Fire” is the rocking deep cut that this blog was out to search for in the first place. This song is a strong finish to an already strong album and rocks with the best of the songs on the album. I particularly like how piercingly the bass comes through with the almost shrieking vocals on the chorus of this frenetic song. If you want to conclude a rock album, this is the kind of song you need to do it with. Dad’s Rating 9/10
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