Van Halen: VH1

Originally printed in Guitar World Magazine, April 2008 Thrity Years ago, Van Halen burst out of the Sunset Strip and set the music world on fire with their debut album. This is the story behind the group's rise to success and the making of Van Halen, the record that changed guitar playing - and rock - forever. Thirty years ago, Van Halen arrived when music was in desperate need of them. Belching fire and brimstone and fighting for their right to party while the Beastie Boys were still in middle school, their timing was impeccable. When Van Halen, the Pasadena, California–based group’s debut album, was released on February 10, 1978, there were hardly any stars in American music. The album not only made celebrities of the groups four members—it also gave new life to guitar-oriented rock and made virtuosity a criterion for any guitarist who hoped to follow in the group’s footsteps. From the start, everything about Van Halen seemed to suggest grandness of scale: Their name, which, somewhat surprisingly, singer David Lee Roth had to convince Eddie Van Halen into using in place of the more directly sizecentric Mammoth (Eddie later admitted that his surname was the perfect choice: “It sounds huge, like an atomic bomb.”). Their outsized stage show, perfected at backyard keggers and wet T-shirt contests, and eventually at Sunset Strip clubs like the Whisky a Go-Go and Gazzari’s. And, of course, their energy. Van Halen had swagger, good looks and smiles—that magical show-biz triumvirate introduced and perfected by the Beatles that had somehow become lost over the years. What’s more, they and their music were fun. By the early Seventies, music was beginning to feel like work: the prog-rock movement brought staggering feats of virtuosic musicianship, but the music was full of torturous 20-minute opuses about space travel and Knights of the Round Table. Van Halen seemed to understand that music could be the antidote to cynicism, that it could make you feel alive again. “I think the thing that separated me and the rest of the band from everybody else was the fact that we just loved to play,” Eddie recalled. “That’s the thing: you don’t work music, you play music.” There was also that sound, a ground shaker that matched the audacity of the band’s ambitions. It was based on booming drums and gushers of distorted guitar, jacked up by Eddie’s personally modified guitars and amplifiers (the guitarist famously used Variacs to lower the line voltage of his amps, thereby reducing headroom and causing the power tubes to compress and distort more). Rarely in the annals of rock did a sound serve a band so beautifully: the higher the volume, the larger the canvas, the more inspired the music making. Most important, there was Eddie’s singular approach to the guitar, honed at first by years of obsessively studying the styles of Hendrix, Beck and, in particular, Eric Clapton. Slowing down Cream records to copy the solos to songs such as “Spoonful” brought the young guitarist only so far. By his mid-teens, out of frustration and sheer force of will, he flipped the bird to convention and become a recluse, shutting himself in his bedroom for 12 hours at a time to devote himself to the instrument and the strange and wondrous noises he heard in his head. “I used to sit on the edge of my bed with a six-pack of Schlitz Mall talls,” he said. “My brother [Alex] would go out at 7 p.m. to party and get laid, and when he’d come back at 3 a.m., I would still be sitting in the same place, playing guitar. I did that for years.” When he finally emerged from his room and hit the Hollywood stages with Van Halen (which included Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass and Roth), his breathtaking abilities were nearly fully formed, as was his unorthodox hammer-on-and-pull-off technique. Eddie readily admits that he wasn’t the first guitarist to employ this approach, but the manner in which he brought it to the fore, with a commitment and finesse that transcended mere gimmickry, was seen as shocking, revolutionary and, above all, baffling. “I think I got the idea of tapping watching Jimmy Page do his ‘Heartbreaker’ solo back in 1971,” he recalled. “He was doing a pull-off to an open string, and I thought, Wait a minute, open string…pull off. I can do that, but what if I use my finger as the nut and move it around? I just kind of took it and ran with it.” Still precocious enough to be considered an enfant terrible, Eddie Van Halen incited strong reactions and drew legions of fascinated (and no doubt envious) guitarists to his band’s shows. When performing live in those early years, he played with his back to the audience. While this might have been seen as an act of supreme humility, as if some part of him rebelled against canonization, it was in fact an act of self-preservation. His brother Alex, demonstrating uncanny prescience, had warned him that other guitarists would “rob him blind” if his tricks were exposed before the band could cut a record. It was only after the release of Van Halen that Eddie, secure in the knowledge that his feats of fretboard wizardry had been sufficiently documented, felt comfortable playing facing a crowd. But even before he tracked his first note in a professional recording studio, he was putting serious distance between himself and his peers—and his heroes. Many guitarists have a talent, but to be successful it is not enough to have talent; one must have a certain kind of talent. Hendrix was a shape-shifter of sound in a psychedelic, blues-based idiom. Page was a master of moods, production and arrangement. Beck was a flash stylist. Clapton had tone, taste and knew his way around pop composition. With Eddie Van Halen, all of the above applied. His thing was, he could do it all. And, along with David Lee Roth, he was penning songs that were tight and tuneful—the stuff that hits are made of.

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