Van Halen - S/T
“So, what about Van Halen?”
This has been one of the central questions on my mind over the past few weeks. It has been a strange winter, that's for sure. It all started when I read an interview with Eddie Van Halen from 2015. It made me think about how a band like Van Halen does not and cannot exist in today's pop culture landscape due to the overwhelming sense of artifice that permeates their aesthetic. Today people want to feel like they could be friends with the performers they admire, or that the music they listen to is connected to a higher moral purpose, and there is nothing about Van Halen that says this is either a band for the people or that they stand for anything beyond their performance. This led me to pose a question to the other guys here at the shop one night after work; “Is there anything redeeming about this band?”. I received a more firm and assertive answer than I could have imagined so a reevaluation commenced. The needle dropped on their 1978 self titled album, and everything changed. And Therein lies the essence of this record – it is a document of evolution; a focused and sharply tuned petition for change.
Most arguments against Van Halen are really conversations about things much larger than the band itself. These are things such as the excess of the 80's, the superficiality of “hair metal”, a bloated and out of touch music industry, rock chauvinism, etc. But if you are able to isolate the first Van Halen LP and treat it as a singularity, forgetting about every awful band spawned by their existence, what's left is an album that is simultaneously alien from anything that came before it and yet determined to connect the dots to that same history that it rails against.
I imagine that the reaction to hearing Van Halen for the first time in 1978 was not too dissimilar to the reaction when people heard The Ramones for the first time. Yes, I just said that. A combination of confusion, intrigue, and laughter is what these kinds of evolutionary leaps induce. Before Van Halen metal was a pretty serious and alienated affair. The idea of having fun, feeling good, and being “heavy” was not commonplace in the culture, just as The Ramones mutant hybrid of pop sensibilities, speed, and immediacy was hard to process when it was first unleashed. Van Halen was built with those exact same intentions – to prove that their idea of intensity deserved to be taken seriously. This record is about walking the line between hedonism and nihilism. Van Halen didn't want to self destruct, what they wanted was to live in eternal pleasure. It's informative and indulgent, ahead of its time yet a product of its time and it deserves to be treated seriously and seen for what it truly is - a new musical language.
Van Halen's modus operandi is blatantly clear on this album. Where Robert Johnson once expressed guilt and remorse for selling his soul to the devil, and where the Stones had become sympathetic, Van Halen is unapologetically conspiring with and acting in the name of the devil or rather a lifestyle that is characterized as morally corrupt ("Running With The Devil"). "Eruption" is where things start to get weird. Compositionally speaking, it's a bizarre and totally unique combination of rock guitar dexterity wrapped around a classical music motif. Much in the same way that the early Moog pioneers were forced to prove themselves as legitimate musicians by placing their technology into the context of Classical Music, Eddie Van Halen has chosen to do the same. From there they re-contextualize a song that could be argued as one of the earliest examples of distorted rock and roll within the popular music realm ("You Really Got Me") in an effort to draw a line between a previous evolutionary step of intensity and their new version of it. "Ain't Talkin Bout Love" may be the strangest lyrical composition on the record where David Lee Roth implies that what he has to offer is not love but something more incendiary. Atomic Punk is an anthem of nihilism where Roth insists that the punk scene as he saw it was actually not extreme enough, and the people parading around as the counter culture comes nowhere near his level of subversion. I could go on, but my point is that there is a message encoded in the fury of this record: the future is here.
The cycle of popular culture is as predictable as a clock striking the coming hour. Someone does something inventive which is then mass produced and developed into a trend ready to be consumed by the general public only to fade away once there is nothing left to feed on. But this is just simply the problem with good ideas in general. One good idea can lead to a thousand bad ones, but can you blame Hamburgers for the popularity of McDonalds? Should I blame Eddie Van Halen for Joe Satriani? I suppose I could, but my time would be better spent runnin' with the devil, and I suggest you do the same. (Adam)
Check out a track here.