Van Halen- Van Halen (1978): 6 May 2019

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

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.

Dire Straits- Dire Straits (1978): 1 April 2019

Dire Straits – Dire Straits (1978)

Welcome back to YDCS where this week we’re taking a look at a blues-rock act out of England that shaped rock throughout the late 1970s and 1980s. Dire Straits was an act formed by Mark and David Knopfler, John Illsley, and Pick Withers who worked hard to get to the top of the rock scene. This group of gents went about promoting their mixtapes the old-fashioned way, by going into record agencies and pitching their music. After being initially turned down, the band struck gold when a radio show in London picked up on what would become their smash hit, Sultans of Swing. From there, the band was offered a full record deal and went into the studio to record their debut album which would spawn two iconic singles, Sultans of Swing and Water of Love.

This self-titled debut album is defined by its blues rock sound that is especially reminiscent of Eric Clapton’s Slowhand that we covered earlier. Musically, Dire Straits follows traditional blues rock with dual guitars and heavy usage of I-IV-V chord progressions (the most common blues chord progression). I would add that Mark Knopfler’s ability on the guitar and picking technique, both on this album and in future releases, is one that can’t be overlooked and arguably puts him on the short list of greatest rock guitarists of all time. In my opinion, this is a defining album for the band, most notably because they found their sound early on and didn’t go through multiple albums to get there. Throughout their career, they were known for producing blues rock inspired tracks and this album certainly leans heavily into that and is a premier example of what the genre has produced. I hope you enjoy the album!

Dad’s Thoughts- The Breakdown

Down to the Waterline: A perfect 10/10 on the first track. The blues rock that the band was known for was present in full force on this first song. What I like most about Down to the Waterline is how tight the band sounds and the funky guitar riff through each of the verses. This upbeat, bluesy track should be mentioned in the same breath as Sultans of Swing, and is arguably better than the other single issued for this album, Water of Love. Down to the Waterline is a better example of the band’s musical capacity and is more musically complex than other tracks on the album in the same way that Sultans stands out for its musicality. Waterline is a track that can best be experienced by putting on a pair of headphones and listening to how every instrument melds together. This track is decidedly worthy of the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award.” Dad’s Rating 10/10

Water of Love: Released as one of the singles for the album, I actually don’t find that much special about Water of Love. I like how the band seems to be on the same page and the vocals and instrumentation fit together nicely, which I would argue is not the case on some later tracks. To counterpoint, the instrumentation in particular feels too restrained. There are other slowed down tracks on this album that still allow for superb musicianship to filter through, but I don’t think is one of them. Dad’s Rating 5/10

Setting Me Up: This is just a classic blues rock track with a great guitar solo, and not much else to write home about. The instrumentation is above average and the band feels as tight as they do on some of their best pieces. There’s not much to fault here except that it does get lost in the band’s repertoire because it doesn’t stand out. Dad’s Rating 7/10

Six Blade Knife: We heard how Water of Love left some to be desired in a slowed down song, and Six Blade Knife fulfills everything I wanted in the former but didn’t have. The musicianship in the “call and response” between the lyrics and guitar shows that the band has some chops that they’re trying to display and the hushed vocals really fit with the tone of the song. This song brings to mind images of bands playing in smoky, low-lit bars while the patrons groove along to the band. Six Blade Knife is how you make a slow-tempo blues rock song. Dad’s Rating 8/10

Southbound Again: I really like Southbound Again, and it’s a really fun track to listen to! The song has a bluesy groove to it and the more drive than most of the songs on the album, but my problem with it comes from its lack of musicality. The band doesn’t do anything here to show their instrumental proficiency and it’s honestly a good thing that the song is so short because it would otherwise drone on. Listen to this then listen to any other track on the album and you’ll see that the band just isn’t reaching their fullest potential with this song. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Sultans of Swing: Was Sultans of Swing going to be anything other than a perfect score? No, no it wasn’t. The band is incredibly tight in their delivery on this track, and Knopfler’s picking during the second guitar solo is nothing short of legendary. I would argue that Sultans is a song that starts strong with that ever-recognizable guitar riff and gets stronger the longer the song goes on before finishing at the second guitar solo. Though I will rate this song a 10/10, I believe that Waterline accomplishes the same thing Sultans does in incorporating a highly technical solo, a captivating and groovy guitar riff, and tight playing from the band in a song that’s almost 2 minutes shorter. Regardless of my personal opinion, this song cemented the band’s place in the halls of classic rock’s most well-known artists with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 and deserves the “They Don’t Make Music Like This Anymore Award.” Dad’s Rating 10/10

In the Gallery: In the Gallery is a great example of a deep-cut that never got much traction but deserves a listen! I’m particularly fond of how the lead guitar seems to wander during the verses, almost providing an exclamation mark or appositive statement to Knopfler’s lyrics. To a negative point, I will criticize the vocals on this track, they were difficult to understand and I actually had to look up the lyrics to understand all of them. This is a good track to listen to from a purely instrumental point of view, but good luck with the lyrics. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Wild West End: The Dire Straits show their smoother, calmer side on Wild West End. Musically, the band is just as strong here as on their more well-known tracks and they don’t feel restrained by slowing things down. There’s the same “call and response” between the lyrics and the guitar here that we heard on Gallery as well. I’m going to criticize Knopfler’s vocals again though, I actually find them grating enough on such a peaceful track that it takes me out of the song. Dad’s Rating 6/10

Lions: I much prefer Lions over West End or Gallery for the fact that the song actually feels like it fits together. Previously I’ve criticized the harshness of the vocals, but they’re more restrained here and I believe that improves the song. The musicianship that we’ve heard from the band on the rest of the album is equally present here as it is through the rest of the album. This is a deep cut that’s worth listening to! Dad’s Rating 7/10

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.