Wednesday, July 18, 2007

"100 Greats" #062: Van Halen: 1984

Synthesizers, invented in the 1950s but only widely employed in rock from the 1970s, had by around 1980 become associated with some of the worst, most pretentious excesses of art-rockers like Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes, as well as the sterile and rather antiseptic dance beats of 80s New Wave and disco. And so they were discredited for anybody who wanted pop music that was a little more visceral. Eddie Van Halen was the first musician since Pete Townsend (who virtually invented rock synthesizer with his definitive parts on Who’s Next) to understand that synths could rock: that—plugged into a Marshall amp and turned up to 10—they could deliver just as much visceral power as a Gold-top Les Paul.

At the same time, his virtuoso guitar style vastly expanded the potential of a technique known as two handed tapping, which in turn exploited the heavily-amplified electric guitar’s sensitivity and responsivity. Guitarists for decades had employed the techniques called ‘hammer-ons’ and ‘pull-offs’, in which the fretting-hand’s fingers would tap down upon the strings, or pull them sideways, thus providing two or more notes for each pick stroke. Eddie was the first metal guitarist to massively exploit the possibility of both hands tapping down on the fingerboard. This in turn let Eddie—a trained pianist who had grown up playing Bach and Mozart—to play very fast, two-part, widely-spaced, cascading, ‘classical-style’ solos at screeching volume. In his speed, imagination, ability to construct totally memorable guitar riffs, fantastic command of guitar tones, and telepathic communication with drummer/brother Alex, Eddie was unquestionably the most influential hard-rock guitarist of the late-70s/early-80s.

Van Halen happened at the place where speed-metal and punk-rock met; they were underrated by critics because they were too virtuosic and because Dave was too pretty for punk rock, and by metal fans because they were visibly having too much fun for speed metal.

The power-trio archetype that works is the one where guitarist and drummer are soldered together at the hip and are able to fill the maximal amount of sonic/orchestral space, while the bass player holds down the time. It worked magnificently in Hendrix's Electric Sky Church, where the great Billy Cox understood the value in playing the fuckin’ groove while Jimi and Mitch Mitchell went crazy. It worked less well in the Band of Gypsies, because despite Billy and Jimi's presence, Buddy Miles, while a great groove player, was not the orchestrator that Mitch Mitchell was. It worked pretty badly in Cream, because Jack Bruce’s ego was just too big for him to be satisfied with holding down the bottom end—he just “had to” compete with Clapton, who he should have left to duel it out with Ginger Baker. It worked in inversion in the Who, in which band, really, John Entwhistle ("The Ox") was the lead “guitar” and Keith Moon the orchestrator, while Townsend held down the grooves. It failed, heartbreakingly, in the Hendrix Experience, because frustrated guitar-player Noel Redding couldn’t be bothered to play fuckin’ time. It worked in the Police, because Sting, as a songwriter, knew enough to underplay and create a ethos of space around the song—and because of Andy Summers’s sense of ambience, and Stewart Copeland’s bad-tempered but virtuosic command of reggae drumming.

In Van Halen, the glue was the absolute, shoulda-been-identical-twins fraternal telepathy with which Eddie and Alex Van Halen played together. There is no substitute for that kind of joined-at-the-hip musical experience, which only comes from decades of playing together (and usually only from playing together beginning with one’s earliest musical experiences. It’s the telepathy of Buddy Holly and JI Allison, who learned to play, together, in Buddy’s parent’s garage just a few blocks from where I’m sitting: on 1984, see the Eddie/Alex interplay captured on “House of Pain.”

All the previous VH albums had contained great moments, from the very first 1978 eponymous disc, which included the pattern of overpowering covers (“You Really Got Me”) and which reached its apotheoses with Diver Down’s “Dancing in the Streets” and the fantastic “Pretty Woman”; of titanic guitar solos (particularly in the archetypal unaccompanied “Eruption” from VH1, a boundaries-smashing catalog of Eddie’s innovations); and of David Lee Roth’s consciously Cro-Magnon lyrics (one of the great weaknesses of heavy metal and hard-rock has always been the tendency for the guitar riffs to be written first, and the lyrics composed as afterthoughts, usually by the lead singer, to the existing musical tracks. This has typically led to great riffs and dumb lyrics. Van Halen, and Dave’s lyrics, certainly conform to this pattern.)

In Roth’s “Tony-the-Tiger”-esque cartoonish persona, the band had their ideal foil. Roth—who no one mistook for a powerhouse singer—nevertheless understood the real job of the rock front-man. Which is, quite simply, to be the coolest guy in the room, the baddest motherfucker at the kegger or in the stadium. A trained acrobat and kickboxer, with a swaggering sense of self-parody (and a knowledge of pop singing that went all the way back to Al Jolson), Roth, as lyricist and lead singer, would always counterbalance the ferocity of the band, coasting along on the top of their grooves just like the expert surfer that he was.

Dave’s primping went beyond the worst excesses of bikini’d Malibu beach bunnies and vacuous Valley Girl monologists, but he offered it with a grin-and-a-wink: it’s even mocked in the “Panama” video (which catches him adding still more mousse to his hair onstage during an Eddie solo). And it was grounded by the fact that, no matter subsequent VH singer Sammy Hagar’s adolescent chest-pumping, Dave was three times tougher than any other posturing metal front-man (black belt in muay thai, extreme sports, rock-climbing, you name it—you just knew that if you put Dave in a locked room with any three of these guys, he would be the one who walked out under his own power). It’s exemplified in this video, after Eddie’s great guitar solo and the Bach-on-steroids synthesizer passage, by a slow-motion shot of Dave executing a textbook high spinning back-kick, and with clips of him performing a beautiful Northern Shaolin broadsword form. Part of what made VH so much fun in concert, in addition to the overwhelming instrumental firepower, was the onstage choreography and acrobatics that Dave, the eternal showman, forced the others to learn—and which made them even greater. These were not shoe-gazers—it was always a show.

Dave’s post-blackface “Jolson-on-steroids” shtick (which, being a nice Jewish boy, he came by honestly, which was charming in DD’s “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now) and absurd in his solo takes on “California Girls” and Jolson’s own “Just a Gigolo”) is captured most perfectly in the video to “Panama,” which intercuts shots of Dave on stage, sliding down firepoles, and being hauled, wearing only a towel and obviously drunk off his ass, out of a dressing room by a trio of LA cops. Later on, he became a parody of himself (that is, a parody of a parody), but in the '80s he was an authentic badass.

1984 is the classic Van Halen record, the one that manifested all their collective strengths and minimized their collective limitations.

There’s the Kinkisan power of “I’ll Wait” (one way in which the VH boys disqualified themselves from the cool-to-the-critics speed metal and punk clubs was their gleeful appropriation of past rock styles);

The brilliant insouciance of both the drum/guitar solo that opens the blues-on-overdrive of “Hot for Teacher,” Dave’s brilliantly knuckleheaded lyrical take on adolescent testosterone (guilty pleasure: the video which accompanied the song, which simultaneously realized every junior-high-boy’s fantasy of the hot-librarian substitute teacher who flips out and strips, and for the casting of four 11-year-olds who were a really remarkable comic match for Eddie, Alex, Michael, and Dave), and the flaming-hot double-time guitar riff;

The beautiful, unmistakable California-rock-out-of-the-Beach Boys vocal harmonies of “Drop Dead Legs” (and which show up again in the metal-cred-shattering—but undeniably beautiful—vocal parts on “Why Can’t This Be Love?” from the followup 5150, which also boasts the astonishing Buddhist heavy metal of “Right Now”);

On “Hot for Teacher,” the kicked-in-the-gut (or gonads) “Ooof!” with which Dave sets up Eddie’s second guitar solo, Alex's staggering double-bass-drum sixteenth notes, and the perfect, Valley-esque “Oh my Gaaaahhhd!” with which Dave closes that track;

The beautiful cascading ostinato, played by Eddie in harmonics and powered by Alex’s great ride-cymbal patterns, and the sinuous guitar squeals that open the hyped-up rockabilly of “Top Jimmy”, a remarkably generous tribute to LA stalwarts Top Jimmy and the Rhythm Kings;

The old-school balls-to-the-wall 4/4 thunder of “Panama,” which boasts yet another fantastic Eddie riff, an magnificently singalong-able hollering chorus, and a great, old-school, blues-rock solo from Eddie—and the riotous accompanying video, simply a compendium of clips of the band goofing around on stage (Mike flying across the stage drinking Jack Daniels’, Dave’s backflips and pouting, Alex’s sweat-dripping ferocity).

Not quite so successful are “Panama’s” minor-key bridge, containing the nitwitted faux-noir of Dave’s road-trip monolog (“Yeah, we’re running a little bit hot tonight…”), and the odd, Keith Emersonian belching chords of Eddie's synth prologue “1984.” Which latter isn’t terribly interesting, but in which, once again, you can hear Eddie’s childhood piano lessons in Bach and Mozart coming through;

But which leads into 1984's second track, which along with “Shelter from the Storm” (Dylan), “Like a Rolling Stone” (Hendrix at Monterey version), “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” (Hendrix again), “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who), “The Weight” (The Band), “Lola” (The Kinks), “Eight Days a Week” (Beatles), “Honky Tonk Woman” (Stones), “History Lesson (Part 2)” (The Minutemen), “Sweet Jane” (Lou Reed), "Whipping Post" (Allman Bros.), and maybe a few others [feel free to suggest your own favorites in "Comments"], is one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded.

There were two great songs called “Jump” released in 1984. One was the Pointer Sisters’ fantastic, sexy, grownup dance-hall hit called “Jump (For My Love)”, which though it employed all the thumbprints of Richard Perry-produced disposable ‘80s dance pop (mindless drum-machine, live conga-playing to sweeten the mechanism of the rhythm tracks, Yamaha synth pre-sets--all the things that gave a sheen of sonic competence to '80s Madonna, who was anything but), yet drew upon the grit, sass, and angelic sibling harmonies of Ruth, Anita and June—and its video, the simplest one-day-wonder of the three girls dancing and lip-synching, interspersed with archival footage of great black track & field athletes,--to depict all the artistic strength and hard-won self-confidence those beautiful strong women exemplified.

And then there was this one, "Jump," a virtually perfect compendium of everything that made Van Halen great, from the sublime to the banal.

Some music can be spiritual without intending to be. This song, in the pure beauty of its musical construction, is one such, and reminds us that one of American pop music’s great teachings has been that the sacred and the profane are not separate, are not antithetical, but are two sides of the same coin of human experience. There is no such thing as "good, lasting music which high-class people listen to" or "bad, disposable music which only stupid, low-class people listen to." If music moves people, if it speaks to and for them, it's good music. As Ellington said: "if it sounds good, it is good." In the simplest, most materialist, most profane pop music, there is still the possibility of transcendence. “Jump” may be Dave Lee Roth’s knuckleheaded writing-to-order over the powerhouse Van Halen sibling tandem—but when I hear Eddie's gorgeous, pedal-point, Mixolydian opening synth riff over Alex's clean-as-an-ax-stroke snare, it makes my heart leap.

Not everything about the 1980s or about MTV was rotten (well, OK: Ollie North, Ronald Reagan, and Iran-Contra all were, and Poison, Winger, Ratt, and innumerable other hair bands were all pretty bad): particularly in its early golden days—say, just after they started programming black artists (and Eddie Van Halen had a hand in that too: Jon Landis direction and million-dollar-budget notwithstanding, Eddie's off-the-cuff guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s 1983 “Thriller” is the best part of that video, the first by a black artist to appear on MTV), and the rise of ‘80s synth-pop and metal hair-bands (both idioms that depended much more upon quality visuals than upon quality music)—it could also provide artists with actual imagination (say, Kate Bush, or Thomas Dolby, or even—guilty pleasure—Men Without Hats’s great Renaissance-themed “Safety Dance”, complete with Morris, Maypole, and "Mad Girl") a parallel medium in which to convey the music’s intent.

That’s what VH’s “Jump,” and the “Jump” of the Pointer Sisters, actually do. They’re art, and they both do what art is supposed to do: to expand your sense of what is possible to do and to feel.

One of the most amazing pieces of spontaneously brilliant performance I've ever seen—one that recognized that the performance is not just the music, but also the visual and communal experience--was at the end of a concert of Renaissance “loud-band” (e.g., outdoor festival) music by the great wind ensemble Piffaro, in the brand-new big Auer Recital Hall at Indiana University, around 1995. They had given a lengthy master-class, and closed the weekend with a great concert of virtuoso wind-band music.

But as the finale, they did what “loud-bands” have done ever since the Renaissance: they played a set of simple dance tunes, and dragged some volunteers out of the audience onto the stage to dance. They played these simple, repetitive, hypnotic dance tunes, faster and faster, their volunteers dancing in a circular line after them, until they came to the final crashing cadence, back in the center of the stage, and at that last chord, Adam Gilbert hurled his bagpipes forty feet straight into the air above the stage—and I, and I think most of the people in that audience, felt my heart leap.

That’s rock ‘n’ roll. That’s what the music of Piffaro, and the Pointers, and of Eddie, Alex, Michael, and Dave, and, indeed, everybody on the "100 Greats" list, did for me.

That’s what great music should do to us: it should make your heart leap.



This post is dedicated with admiration to the memory of Sister June Pointer, who left us too soon, but who, in her life and music, absolutely lived up to the legacy of the great women and great musicians who preceded her.


hellmitre said...

Yea for the Van Halen post.

CJS said...


Tom Nagy said...

Hi there,

I'm really enjoying your series. This one hit a number of my favorite 80s tunes.

BTW, I noticed a couple of discrepencies:

First off, is the opening of VH's Jump really Mixolydian? It's very Ionian-sounding to me (especially the opening Cma9), with the possible exception of the Gsus4 that ends the phrase.

Also, "Thriller," the song, doesn't have a guitar solo. Eddie VH contributed his art to "Beat It," which does appear on the *album* "Thriller".

Nice work on the series; more, please!


Chris said...

Good ears, and thanks for your comments!

Yes, the Gsus chord was the source of Mixolydian reference; to me, even the Cmaj9 fits within that general mixolydian context.

Duh--yes, of course, "Beat It" was the song I meant and should have referenced. Thanks for catching that!

Am working on some new "100 Greats" posts, including Ives, Hamza el-Din, Martin Simpson, Monteverdi, Paco de Lucia, Richard Thompson "Watching the Dark", Shakti, Springsteen, and the Meters--those are all in some degree of draft status. I just got slammed with this book proposal and have had to prioritize the travel, research, and writing for that.

Am hoping to resume "100 Greats" right around the first of the year. Thanks for your interest!