"I was shocked by how good Eddie was… no-one had seen anybody playing outside of the box like that": a first-hand account of Van Halen's early backyard shows

Eddie Van Halen
(Image credit: Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Earlier this year, Faber announced its upcoming Paul Brannigan-authored Eddie Van Halen biography, Eruption (UK) / Unchained (US)  – a literary piece that seeks to trace the life of the late electric guitar legend from his birth in Amsterdam all the way to his meteoric rise to guitar world stardom.

Below is a Guitar World-exclusive extract from the biography, which finds Mark Kendall – guitarist for hard-rock band Great White – recount Van Halen's formative early years gigs, and recall how the up-and-coming guitarist took his hometown of Pasadena by storm.

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Fin Costello/Redferns)

As is often the case in the music business, this surge of forward momentum for Mammoth was tempered somewhat by an unforeseen setback; specifically, in this instance, another name change being forced upon the band. Roth barely had time to unbutton his satin and velvet stage clothes under the glare of a hovering police helicopter spotlight before a ‘cease and desist’ notice was passed along to the band from an established San Fernando Valley hard-rock act who had been using the name Mammoth for years. 

The brothers toyed with rebranding as Rat Salad, a tip of the hat to the penultimate track on Black Sabbath’s Paranoid album, but Roth argued against it. Mammoth’s early success, he pointed out, quite correctly, was built around recognition of the precocious talent of the group’s guitarist and drummer, so why not go route one and simply title this latest upgrade after the family name?

With this kink in the steel hammered out, Van Halen the band threw all their energies into spreading Van Halen the brand state-wide. A demo tape featuring a selection of fan-favourite covers and two original songs – the harsh-riffing boogie of Gentleman of Leisure and the more progressive-rock-influenced Glitter – was recorded at Dr Roth’s house and distributed to club bookers. 

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Gus Stewart/Redferns via Getty)

While English Cathy timetabled future dates in the Los Angeles area, the quartet blitzed Pasadena to snaffle up every engagement that might conceivably require a live music soundtrack, from backyard keg parties and wet T-shirt contests through to BDSM conventions and high-school carnivals. It seemed as if no Pasadena area high-school student could open their school locker without a fistful of xeroxed flyers for the latest Van Halen gigs fluttering to the floor. 

"They had an amazing work ethic, it seemed like they were playing all the time," says Mark Kendall, who would later find fame as the guitarist of hard-rock band Great White, but back then was a high-school student in Huntington Beach, California. 

"A friend of mine kept telling me that I had to see this band, and then they played in someone’s backyard right up the street from where I was living, three blocks from my house, so my friend was like, 'OK, now you have no excuse!'

"If I remember correctly, Eddie was playing a Les Paul Junior – no tremolo bar, no tapping – and they were playing all covers. This was 1974. David Lee Roth had just joined, and he was jumping around like he just owned the place. When I walked in, Alex was doing a drum solo and Roth was blowing into a tube connected to the drums to make the pitch go up and down. 

I was shocked by how good Eddie was. It seemed like he was pretty special. I don’t think anybody had seen anybody playing outside of the box like that

Mark Kendall

"That was my very first view of them. I was shocked by how good Eddie was. It seemed like he was pretty special. I don’t think anybody had seen anybody playing outside of the box like that.

"I started following them all over the place. I remember that once, on the day on which one of the Zeppelin albums came out, they were already playing a song from it. I was thinking, 'Wow!' And their shows were pretty out of control: I remember someone getting shot one night. The cops would be around by the fourth or fifth song, every time. 

"They really tried to discourage it. There’d be cars parked a mile away, people standing in other people’s front yards, throwing beer cans everywhere. So the neighbours would complain, and then the helicopters would come in...

"It seemed like every time I went to see them, Eddie was better than the time before. I’d be practising guitar in my bedroom for hours on end, and then I’d go to see Van Halen, and he’d have improved too. It was a little discouraging! I don’t remember anyone from that era that had a bigger musician following than Eddie. I’d look into the crowd at their shows and I could see the guitar player from every band I knew watching him. He made us all want to try harder.

Where we grew up Eddie was the Man, he was the King. It was unquestioned

Mark Kendall

"There’s always a lot of local bands and one musician that stands above them all, and where we grew up Eddie was the Man, he was the King. It was unquestioned."

Though the buzz surrounding Van Halen was getting louder across southern California, the quartet were still struggling to lock down regular club bookings in Los Angeles. "There was no room for a bunch of long-haired, platformed, goofy-looking fools!" Eddie told Guitar World's Chris Gill.

"When we used to play clubs we learned just enough Top 40 songs to get hired," he recalled. "At the gig you had to play five 45-minute sets, but most pop songs are three or four minutes long, so that’s a lot of tunes to learn. We figured we could play our own stuff, and no one would care as long as the beat was there. 

Eddie Van Halen

(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

"One day we were playing at this club in Covina called Posh. We ran out of Top 40 tunes, so we started playing our own music. The owner of the club walks up to us while we were playing a song and goes, 'Stop! I hired you to play Top 40. What is this shit?' He told us to get the fuck out of there, and he wouldn’t let us take our equipment. 

"We had to come back the next week to pick up our equipment. It was always that way. It was either 'the guitarist is too loud' or 'plays too psychedelic.' They always complained about me."

"The best club they ever played was a teenage nightclub [the Rock Corporation] in Van Nuys, in the Valley,’ remembers English Cathy. "They loved them there. They’d also play Barnacle Bill’s, which was kinda a dump. And I remember once we played a gig at a club called the Topanga Canyon Corral, a hippy club in the mountains, totally unsuited to Van Halen, but I talked them into letting them play. 

"Before the show Edward said, 'Hey, EC, come and look at this!' He opened his guitar case, and I said, 'Wow, how cool, a copy of a Flying V!' He was so devastated, because he knew that it was a copy, but he was so bummed that I knew it too. I said, 'It’s a cool guitar, Edward, and one of these days you’ll be able to buy a real one.”'

Eruption: The Eddie Van Halen Story book cover

(Image credit: Faber / Permuted Press)

Paul Brannigan's Eddie Van Halen biography is available as of today (September 23) in the UK under the name Eruption. In the US, it will be published as Unchained, and is available to preorder now ahead of its December 14 release date.

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