Eddie Van Halen Revisits Van Halen's Landmark '1984' Album
This story originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Guitar World.
When rock music fans first heard Eddie Van Halen’s radical, innovative tapping technique at the end of “Eruption,” many mistakenly thought that they were hearing a synthesizer.
Six years later when Van Halen released their 1984 album, there was absolutely no doubt that a synthesizer was generating the majestic and mysterious sounds that they heard this time around. In fact, the first note of Eddie’s guitar wasn’t heard until two minutes and 10 seconds into the album’s first two songs.
With the album’s initial single “Jump,” Ed proved that he could play keyboards every bit as well as he could play guitar, but even more importantly he also showed the world that he could craft a pop song that was as good as, if not better than, anything else out there at the time.
Van Halen’s use of a synth on “Jump” ushered in a new era of appreciation for the instrument, which previously was associated mostly with new wave bands and electro pioneers like Kraftwerk, Gary Numan and Tangerine Dream.
Almost overnight, sales of synthesizers increased exponentially, similar to the revolutionary boost in guitar sales that Van Halen influenced after the first Van Halen album made its debut and fortuitously coinciding with the introduction of the first affordably priced polyphonic synths. Music store keyboard departments were soon filled with the sounds of aspiring musicians playing ham-fisted versions of “Jump,” much the same way that guitar departments were subjected to novices attempting to play “Stairway to Heaven.”
But there is much more to 1984 than “Jump,” which incidentally was Van Halen’s first and only song to reach the Number One spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. While three of the album’s nine songs are dominated by synths, the entire album features some of Eddie Van Halen’s hottest and most impressive guitar playing ever.
The pumping groove of “Panama” and the heavy-hitting “House of Pain” rocked as hard as anything the band had offered on its five previous albums, while “Top Jimmy” and “Drop Dead Legs” introduced entirely new territory that paved the way for the band’s next chapter.
Ed’s dazzling guitar solos even elevated the keyboard-dominated songs “Jump” and “I’ll Wait.” The showstoppers from a guitar perspective are “Hot for Teacher,” with its hot-rodded blues boogie shuffle, and “Girl Gone Bad,” featuring Van Halen’s signature harmonics, a dynamic progressive rock structure and a blazing solo filled with Allan Holdsworth–style legato runs.
The fact that every song on the album was as strong as anything else in Van Halen’s catalog up to that point in time is also impressive. In total, the album delivered four singles—“Jump,” “I’ll Wait,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher”—which all remain staples of classic-rock radio today. 1984 went on to become one of Van Halen’s all-time best-selling albums, matched only by their debut album, which also sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. alone.
1984 is further notable for being one of the best-selling hard rock albums of all time, sharing lofty heights with company like AC/DC, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, Led Zeppelin and Metallica.
But perhaps the most noteworthy attribute of 1984 is that it is likely the only Diamond-certified (sales of 10 million or more) album that was recorded entirely in a home studio. [Boston’s debut album is a close contender, but one of its songs was recorded in a pro studio.] Of course, the facility now known as 5150 Studios is not the ordinary home studio. From the very beginning, 5150 was a fully professional facility, starting off as a 16-track studio equipped with classic gear that, while it seemed outdated during its time of installation in 5150, was more than up to the task of capturing Ed’s ideas in a polished, finished state that was suitable for release.
1984 was the first album to come from 5150 Studios, and the studio has remained Van Halen’s home base for all of the albums the band has recorded since then. The studio was built during a particularly fertile period of creativity for Ed that was also marked by his desire to protect his creative vision and oversight of how Van Halen’s records should be made. Fortunately, engineer Donn Landee, who had recorded all of Van Halen’s previous five albums, saw eye to eye with Ed’s thinking and played an instrumental role both in building 5150 Studios and recording the 1984 album.
Landee even came up with the studio’s name, adopting 5150 from the California Welfare and Institutions Code for involuntary confinement of a mentally instable person deemed to be a danger to himself and/or others. Donn overheard the code number one night while listening to police broadcasts on a scanner, and Ed and Donn jokingly called themselves “5150s” after many around them said that they were crazy to build their own studio. Both agreed that 5150 was the perfect name for their new “asylum.”
Although Ed has never recorded a solo album and apparently never plans to, 1984 may very well be the closest thing to a Van Halen solo album that the world will ever get, as the record is overflowing with his creative input and inspiration. While 1984 is still a band record, distinguished particularly by Alex Van Halen’s powerful drumming and David Lee Roth’s street-poet lyrics and inimitable vocals, it also offers one of the most pure visions of Ed’s musical talents and breadth that he’s ever produced.
1984 may have been released 30 years ago, but Ed Van Halen still fondly remembers many fine details of the album’s creation. The fact that Ed was able to complete this achievement during a tumultuous period that ultimately led to the band’s initial lineup breaking apart is somewhat miraculous, eclipsed only by the album’s phenomenal success.