Van Halen (1978)
Van Halen II (1979)
Women and Children First (1980)
After roaring out of the gate with its first two albums of party-fueled Big Rock, Van Halen started doing some experimenting on 1980’s Women and Children First. The album had a darker undercurrent, starting with the overdriven Wurlitzer riff that opens “And the Cradle Will Rock” and the original vinyl came with a Helmut Newton poster of David Lee Roth chained to a fence; I’m betting more than a few of VH’s mostly male fanbase at the time were unsure whether to tack that up to their bedroom walls. Women and Children First marked the first appearance of keyboards (even though 12-year-old me coulda sworn it was guitar) on a VH album and presaged Eddie’s experiments on future albums (next heard on Fair Warning’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” and eventually resulting in 1984’s “Jump”). But there was plenty of heaviness on this album, what with “Everybody Wants Some!,” “Fools,” “Romeo Delight” and “Loss of Control.” David Lee Roth also gets his bozedy-bozedy-bop on with “Take Your Whiskey Home” and “Could This Be Magic?” while Eddie displays his acoustic chops. The band follows up II’s “Women in Love” with a similar midtempo song to close out the album, “In a Simple Rhyme.” As with the first two VH albums, the run time was under 35 minutes, keeping the proceedings quick and to the point. This was Van Halen in its prime, a lean rock machine that knew it could kick any other band’s ass. Although there were no big hits (“Cradle Will Rock” hit #55 on the Billboard Top 100), Women and Children First went triple platinum and paved the way for an even darker, heavier turn on Fair Warning. – Koomdogg
Fair Warning (1981)
With their fourth album, Van Halen’s music took a slightly darker turn. While the band’s previous albums (most explicitly 1979’s II) straddled the fence between edgy hard rock and accessible pop, with Fair Warning the band skewed more to the former side of the musical spectrum. We start off with a grimy stroll through urban slums (“Mean Street”), witness an adult film starlet succumb to prostitution (“‘Dirty Movies'”), nearly-busted infidelity, potential heartbreak and loneliness (“Push Comes to Shove”), and of course, classic DLR-style lust (“Sinner’s Swing!”, So This is Love?”). The noted edginess makes Fair Warning stand out in the Van Halen catalog, and is perhaps what kept the album from reaching the sales heights of the bands other albums in the DLR era. Of course, this comparison is relative – a double platinum album is nothing to balk at, and the album did chart well. Yet although it peaked at #5 on the Billboard Top 200, none of Fair Warning‘s four singles made the pop charts (perhaps evincing the move away from more blatant pop elements). That’s not to speak ill of the quality of music on Fair Warning, however. And while it may not have produced any bona fide hits, it did give us one of the most canonic tracks from the Diamond Dave era in “Unchained.” -Gonzo
Diver Down (1982)
Ah, Diver Down, the red-headed stepchild of the Roth era. Sure it’s a slapdash effort, cobbled together from covers and songs the band had already recorded in demo form back in the ‘70s. The thing is, vintage Van Halen’s lesser material still smoked most other bands’ best stuff.
Eddie and the boys go back to the Kinks well for “Where Have All the Good Times Gone,” which is energetic and fun but hardly stands up to “You Really Got Me.” It’s a slight misstep, but one the band quickly recovers from on “Hang ‘em High,” a reworking of an old demo called “Last Night.” It’s a typically furious VH rocker with plenty of jaw-dropping riffs.
Look, I understand why fans slag Diver Down. I just think it’s unfair. The band didn’t even plan on recording an album so soon after the Fair Warning tour, but the unexpected success of the “(Oh) Pretty Woman” single led to pressure from Warner Bros. to quickly churn out a record. That’s why there are so many cover songs on the album, which seems to be the sore spot for fans.
But let’s forget those and look at just the originals. After “Hang ‘em High” you’ve got two great instrumentals – the spacey Eddie solo track, “Cathedral,” and the snarling, aggressive “Intruder.” Then there’s the sublime pop rock of “Little Guitars” and its beautiful acoustic intro companion. Finally we’ve got “The Full Bug,” the ass-kickingest tune on the record and one of the group’s finest rockers. – Chris Holmes
Massive. Absolutely massive. There’s no other way to adequately describe Van Halen’s sixth studio album, nor their stature in the rock world following its release. Make no mistake – the band was hardly insignificant up to this point in there career. All of their albums up to that point had cracked the top 20, with only Van Halen I failing to cross the threshold into the top 10. But 1984 rocketed the band into the stratosphere of pop stardom, and this is attributable to a few factors.
First, the approach. Van Halen’s catalog up to this point frequently evidenced a stylistic tension between hard rock and pop. On the poppier side, they’d issued songs such as “Dance the Night Away,” “Beautiful Girls,” and their cover of “Oh! Pretty Woman,” etc.). In the hard rock arena (pun intended), there were blistering cuts including “Eruption,” “Hang ‘Em High,” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” and “Mean Street.” Allegedly, the toggling between these two modes was the product of divergent opinions on the band’s artistic direction. Eddie wanted to veer more to the rocky side of the fence, while Diamond Dave sought to broaden the band’s appeal by pursuing a poppier style. With 1984, the band perfectly blended these two approaches to create what is likely their most popular album.
Many tracks on the album saw one of rock’s most in-your-face guitarists subdue his axe in the mix, making it subservient to that alternately beloved and reviled icon of ’80s music, the synthesizer. This capitulation to 1980s pop undoubtedly broadened the group’s fan base, although that’s not to say that they lost their edge. Indeed, thumping rockers like “House of Pain,” “Girl Gone Bad,” and “Drop Dead Legs” serve to remind listeners that at their best, Van Halen did hard rock better than nearly any of their contemporaries.
Equally as important, by the time that 1984 was released, MTV had become *the* barometer of teenage taste in music and fashion. And there was perhaps no greater ham to have as a front man than David Lee Roth. After wowing stadium crowds over the previous six years, Roth’s flamboyant outfits and limber acrobatics were now infiltrating living rooms across the country via clips for “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot for Teacher.” Beyond these hits, 1984 has much to offer. And while many criticized Van Halen for catering to the pop audience, in some ways this actually allowed the band to progress their sound, which really hadn’t changed much across their first five albums. Yet the taste of megastardom that 1984 engendered also splintered the group. Although Roth’s Crazy From the Heat EP (released the following year) was to be a side project, the group quickly disbanded, leaving 1984 as the last will and testament of the Diamond Dave era. –Gonzo