Eddie Van Halen Looks Back on Van Halen's Landmark '1984' Album and the Creation of 5150 Studios
Eddie Van Halen looks back on Van Halen's '1984' album and the creation of 5150 Studios.
You really were overflowing with creativity during the period between Diver Down and the middle of 1984. During that time you also recorded “Beat It” with Michael Jackson, the Star Fleet Project with Brian May, The Seduction of Gina and The Wild Life soundtracks, and you and Donn produced a single for Dweezil Zappa.
I had a lot of music lying around, because all I did was write. I remember, we were rehearsing for the Diver Down tour at Zoetrope Studios when Frank Zappa called me and asked if I would produce a single for his son Dweezil.
I also did the Brian May Star Fleet Project then and the session with Michael Jackson. Val asked me to write some music for a TV movie she was doing. Until you mentioned it, I had forgotten that I had recorded the Wild Life soundtrack back then. Now I remember that Donn wasn’t very happy, because he had to mix it on his own. I had to leave to go on the tour that we were doing with AC/DC in Europe that summer.
We also did the US Festival in the middle of recording the 1984 album, and before that we toured the U.S., Canada and South America and played about 120 shows. And I also had to build the studio during that period too! I don’t know how I pulled all of that off.
The US Festival proved that Van Halen were the biggest band in the world at the time.
What’s funny is that we made the Guinness Book of World Records for making $1.5 million for that one show. I remember hearing a DJ on the radio saying that we made so much money per second. What he didn’t realize is that we put every penny of that into the production. We didn’t make a fucking dime when it was all over.
You also spent about a month just preparing for that one show.
There was so much going on. We did that in the middle of making a record and I was doing all of this outside stuff. Then again, the Michael Jackson session only took 20 minutes, so it wasn’t like all of these things were taking that much time.
What is the first song you recorded at the studio?
That was “Jump.” Once Ted heard that song, he was full-hog in. He said, “That’s great! Let’s go to work.” When I first played “Jump” for the band, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it. Dave said that I was a guitar hero and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards. My response was if I want to play a tuba or Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it.
As soon as Ted was onboard with “Jump” and said that it was a stone-cold hit, everyone started to like it more. But Ted really only cared about “Jump.” He didn’t care much about the rest of the record. He just wanted that one hit.
Alex was very supportive of everything we were doing. He wasn’t happy with his drum sound, especially on the first and second records. There was only one room at 5150 at the time, so we were very restricted. Recording drums there was a challenge. It really was a racquetball court, where one third of the space was the control room and the rest was the main room.
Because the space was so limited, Alex had to use a Simmons kit except for the snare. We all played at the same time. I had my old faithful Marshall head and bare wooden 4x12 cabinet facing off into a corner and Al was in the other corner. We set up some baffles to have isolation between my guitar and the drums. I would sit right in front of my brother and play without headphones. All I needed to hear was his drums. There were a lot of limitations.
You wouldn’t know it though when you listen to the end product. The sounds on that record are impressive.
I have to give all of the credit to Donn. His approach to everything was genius. I used the same Marshall amp to record the first six Van Halen albums, but my guitar sound on each album is different. The drum sounds are different too. That was all Donn. He is a man-child genius on the borderline of insanity. He would wear what looked like the same pants, shirt, socks and shoes every day of his life. Then you go to his house and see that he has a closet full of all the same type of clothes. He’s just like Einstein.
Alex and Donn got a lot closer on 1984 as well. “Drop Dead Legs” and “I’ll Wait” were more towards Al’s liking, as opposed to the first record. I remember when Al and I went to Warner Bros. to pick up the cassettes of the very first 25-song demo tape we did for them in 1977.
We popped it into the player in my van and expected to hear Led Zeppelin coming out, but we were kind of appalled by what we heard. It just didn’t sound the way we wanted it to sound. The first album sounds a little better, but it still wasn’t the way we imagined it should sound. It’s very unique sounding. I wouldn’t even know how to duplicate it, to tell you the truth.
Don’t ever venture into an amp or guitar forum. You’ll see page after page of arguments by people who still can’t figure it out either.
The overall guitar sound on the first record isn’t that difficult to duplicate, but the overall package of how the whole band sounded was not what Alex and I expected it would be. There is so much EMT plate reverb on it, which is something I never had really heard before. It still holds up today to a certain extent. It’s not in your face or all that heavy, but the songs are great. If you heard us live, we sounded different. We were much heavier, and that’s what Alex and I expected to hear on the record.
1984 not only sounds different than Van Halen’s previous records but each song also sounds different than each of the other songs on the album.
Someone played me his new record once, and every song on it was the same beat. Most of the songs were even in the same key. You could barely distinguish between the songs. He said, “Once you’ve got them, you don’t want to lose them.” That was so opposite of the way I think. I like to listen to records that go through changes and take you for a ride. I like things that come out of left field and keep your interest, where each song holds up individually and together they make a well-rounded collection. I prefer to make records that you listen to from beginning to end. I’m really not into recording just singles.
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