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 also mixed the album at 5150. Was that a challenge?
The funniest story about the whole record was near the end, when Donn and I were mixing it. Ted seemed to think that we were already done, and we had a deadline to meet.
The original plan was to release the album on New Year’s Eve of 1984, but Donn and I weren’t happy with everything on it. Donn and I would be in there mixing and the phone would ring. It would be Ted at the front gate to my house, wanting to come in.
To this day, I don’t think that Ted knows what actually went on. My whole driveway is like a big circle. So Donn would grab the master tapes, put them in his car, go out the back gate, and wait as Ted was coming through the front gate because Ted wanted the tapes. He’d ask where Donn and the tapes were, and I’d say that I had no idea.
This went on for about two weeks. Little did he know that Donn was sitting outside the back gate, waiting for him to leave. We had walkie-talkies and I would tell Donn when Ted was leaving. Then Donn would drive down the hill and come back in through the front gate, and Ted never saw him as he was going out behind him. It was a circus!
Nobody was happy with Donn and me. They thought we were crazy and out of our minds. Ted thought that Donn had lost it and was going to threaten to burn the tapes. That was all BS. We just wanted an extra week to make sure that we were happy with everything. Ted just didn’t see eye to eye with the way I looked at things. That was my whole premise for building the studio. I wanted to make a complete record from end to end, not just one hit. As soon as “Jump” was done, he looked at the rest of the album as filler. It wasn’t that to me. It’s a good record because it was different.
It’s ironic that the only thing that kept 1984 out of the Number One spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which you also played on.
We had the Number One single, but he had the Number One album. Of course everyone blamed me. They said, “If you hadn’t played on ‘Beat It’ that album wouldn’t be Number One.” We’ll never really know who helped who more. I do know that when I played on his record, it helped expose Van Halen to a different audience.
Some of the best-selling rock albums of all time never made it to Number One on the charts, like AC/DC’s Back in Black, Led Zeppelin IV and Boston’s debut album. Peak chart positions aren’t always an indicator of success.
We were projected to go to Number One the week when Michael Jackson was filming that Pepsi commercial and burned his hair [on January 27, 1984]. Then that happened. Everyone was going, “Oh, Michael burned his hair! We’d better go buy his record.”
A similar thing happened with [Van Halen’s 2012 album] A Different Kind of Truth. It was supposed to debut at Number One, but it was released the same week as the Grammys when Adele won a bunch of awards, which suddenly spiked her album’s sales.
I knew that was going to happen. We sold close to 200,000 records, which would have made the album number one almost any other week of the year. But being number one doesn’t really mean jack fuck all. We sold twice as many records as other records that year that landed in the Number One position. 1984 and Van Halen are among a very small group of albums that have won RIAA diamond certification for selling more than 10 million copies. Neither one of those records ever went to Number One.
The 1984 tour was also one of the band’s biggest tours ever.
Our live show for the 1984 tour just could not get any bigger, but it was so over the top that we never made any money from it. We had 18 trucks hauling the stage and equipment. That was unheard of. The standard lighting rig had 500 to 700 lights, and we had over 2,000. We could never have topped that. We had the banners with the Western Exterminator guy on them [an illustrated character with a top hat, sunglasses and a large hammer, used in the company’s marketing]. We filled the entire place with equipment and lights. Great memories.
Was the Frankenstein still your main guitar in the studio on that album?
I had actually retired the Frankenstein by then. I’m pretty sure I used the Kramer 5150 guitar the most on that album—“Panama,” “Girl Gone Bad,” “House of Pain,” the solos on “Jump” and “I’ll Wait.”
You used a ’58 Gibson Flying V on several songs as well, particularly “Hot for Teacher” and “Drop Dead Legs.”
You are very right. The ride out lick that I play on the last minute and a half of “Drop Dead Legs” came afterward. We had already finished recording the song, and then I came up with that part, which I thought would sound great at the end of the song. I’m not sure how Donn put it together, but we recorded it separately and added it to end of the song, even though it sounds like it was recorded at the same time. That ride out solo was very much inspired by Allan Holdsworth. I was playing whatever I wanted like jazz—a bunch of wrong notes here and there—but it seemed to work.
Your solos on the entire record are some of your most innovative playing ever. You really were going outside of your comfort zone and playing new, unusual lines, especially on your solo to “Girl Gone Bad.”
Allan really inspired me. There weren’t any other guitarists out there who were blowing my mind at the time other than him. I don’t think anyone can copy what he does. He can do with one hand what I need two to do. How he does it is beyond me. But sometimes his playing is so out there that people don’t get it.
I got Allan a record deal with Warner Bros., and I was supposed to co-produce the album with him, but he wouldn’t wait two or three weeks for me to get back from tour in South America, so he did it himself. I really wish that he would have waited. I believe I could have helped him a lot.
He had this one riff on his demos that I heard completely different than how it ended up on his record. That lick could have been a monstrous Zeppelin-style riff, but instead it turned into a lounge song. I feel bad for Allan because the album could have really been something good for him. I did everything I could to help him. It wasn’t his only shot, but it was a hell of a shot. If he only would have waited a few weeks, things could have turned out very different.
What is creating the chorus-like sound on the intro to “Drop Dead Legs”?
I really don’t remember. That was all Donn, although Donn never added any flanging or phasing to my guitar. I think I may have used a little MXR Phase 90 on that. I played through the Eventide Harmonizer all the time back then, but I used it mostly to split my guitar signal so it came out of both sides. Back then I didn’t play in the control room—I was always out in the main room—so I never really knew what Donn was doing while I was recording tracks. I wouldn’t hear it until we were done playing, and I usually liked what I heard.
Your tone got drier on each successive album. On 1984, I really only hear reverb on “House of Pain,” “Panama” and parts of “Girl Gone Bad.”
That came from my dislike of that EMT plate reverb that our first album is bathed in. It had its time and place, but it strikes a bad nerve with my brother and me.
You didn’t get caught up in all of the production gimmicks that were prevalent during that period in the Eighties. As a result 1984 doesn’t sound dated like most other albums that came out back then.
I’ve never been in touch with what is going on in the world because I rarely ever listen to anything else. I think that the record did well because it was ahead of its time and it was simply different. It was even different for Van Halen, particularly because it had two keyboard songs on it. Having built 5150, it was a very special time in my life, and that shows in the music.
Photo: Neil Zlozower/Atlas Icons
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