Eddie Van Halen Revisits Van Halen's Landmark '1984' Album
What inspired you to build your own studio at your home?
I used to have a back room in my house where I set up a little studio with a Tascam four-track recorder to demo songs. I really wanted to record demos that sounded more professional than what I was doing.
I used to spend so much time getting sounds and writing. I have a tape of me playing in the living room at five A.M., and you can hear Valerie [Bertinelli, Ed’s ex-wife] come in and yell that she’s heard enough of that song. That was another reason why I built the studio.
The bottom line is that I wanted more control. I was always butting heads with [producer] Ted Templeman about what makes a good record. My philosophy has always been that I would rather bomb with my own music than make it with other people’s music. Ted felt that if you re-do a proven hit, you’re already halfway there.
I didn’t want to be halfway there with someone else’s stuff. Diver Down was a turning point for me, because half of it was cover tunes. I was working on a great song with this Minimoog riff that ended up being used on “Dancing in the Street.”
It was going to be a completely different song. I envisioned it being more like a Peter Gabriel song instead of what it turned out to be, but when Ted heard it he decided it would be great for “Dancing in the Street.”
Fair Warning’s lack of commercial success prompted Diver Down. To me, Fair Warning is more true to what I am and what I believe Van Halen is. We’re a hard rock band, and we were an album band. We were lucky to enter the charts anywhere.
Ted and Warner Bros. wanted singles, but there were no singles on Fair Warning. The album wasn’t a commercial flop, but it wasn’t exactly a commercial success either, although for many guitarists and Van Halen fans, Fair Warning is a hot second between either Van Halen or 1984. The album was full of things that I wanted, from “Unchained” to silly things like “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” I like odd things. I was not a pop guy, even though I have a good sense of how to write a pop song.
How did 5150 go from being just a demo studio to a fully equipped pro facility?
When we started work on 1984, I wanted to show Ted that we could make a great record without any cover tunes and do it our way. Donn and I proceeded to figure out how to build a recording studio. I did not initially set out to build a full-blown studio. I just wanted a better place to put my music together so I could show it to the guys. I never imagined that it would turn into what it did until we started building it.
Back then, zoning laws disallowed building a home studio on your property. I suggested that we submit plans for a racquetball court. When the city inspector came up here, he was looking at things and going, “Let’s see here. Two-foot-thick cinder blocks, concrete-filled, rebar-reinforced… Why so over the top for a racquetball court?” I told him, “Well, when we play, we play hard. We want to keep it quiet and not piss off the neighbors.” We got it approved.
Donn was involved with the design. I certainly didn’t know how to build a studio. It was all Donn’s magic. We built a main room and a separate control room. When we needed to find a console, Donn said that United Western Studios had a Bill Putnam–designed Universal Audio console that we could buy that he was familiar with.
We went to take a look at it, and it was this old, dilapidated piece of shit that looked like it was ready to go into the trash. Donn said, “Let’s buy it,” and I was going, “What the hell are you thinking?” He said that he could make it work, so we paid $6,000 for it and lugged it up here. He rewired the whole console himself using a punch-down tool. Donn used to work for the phone company, so he was an expert at wiring things.
We also needed a tape machine, so we bought a 3M 16-track. Slowly, the studio turned into a lot more than I originally envisioned. Everybody else was even more surprised than I was, especially Ted. Everybody thought I was just building a little demo room. Then Donn said, “No man! We’re going to make records up here!” When Ted and everybody else heard that, they weren’t happy.
It sounds like Donn wanted as much creative freedom as you did.
Oh, definitely. We had grown really close and had a common vision. Everybody was afraid that Donn and I were taking control. Well…yes! That’s exactly what we did, and the results proved that we weren’t idiots. When you’re making a record, you never know if the public is going to accept it, but we lucked out and succeeded at exactly what my goal was. I just didn’t want to do things the way Ted wanted us to do them. I’m not knocking Diver Down. It’s a good record, but it wasn’t the record I wanted to do at the time. 1984 was me showing Ted how you really make a Van Halen record.