July 14, 1984
By Greg Garrett
Van Halen - Dallas
Van Halen: The People's Choice
About a hundred years ago, Van Halen was nothing but another garage band, covering Zeppelin and the Stones and playing at any gig they could get. They played proms. "We did a catholic high school, we did public high schools, it was great," recalled lead singer David Lee Roth. Although it was a small deal compared to the Van Halen concert extravaganzas of today, David saw similarities: "They had a good time, I imagine. It wasn't that much different than what a Van Halen concert is now."
The group graduated to playing their own music and promoting their own concerts around Los Angeles. All the time of waiting began to pay off. David had spent some time going to tumor college and hanging out until the band could make it big.
And boy did they ever!
Gene Simmons of KISS fame started the hype machine on Van Halen back in the late ‘70s when he flew the unsigned band out to New York to record what turned out to be an expensive demo tape at Jimi Hendrix Electric Lady Studio. When they returned to Los Angeles, the buzz about Van Halen turned into a loud roar. Eventually Warner Bros head honcho Mo Ostin heard the noise and signed the group.
It’s interesting to try and pin down the factors that have mace Van Halen so popular. One of the prime factors has been the amazing guitar playing of Eddie Van Halen. He strikes chords that even amaze vocalist David Lee Roth.
“We’re not goldfish for people and look at in a bowl,” insisted Roth. “then marvel at our abilities. I write Van Halen’s lyrics that reflects what’s going on around us. I’ve always said that hard rock, or big rock music, they kind we play is simply folk music delivered at high velocity – shot from guns. Our music simply reflects what you read in magazines or newspapers; what you have lived and breathed in your life.”
This communication between Van Halen and its fans has forged an unbreakable bond that continues to attract more and more fans. Roth stays away from serious topics in his lyrics because they simply aren’t fun to write about.
“The song ‘Panama’ is about a car,” replied Roth. “I kept on hearing press reports that said, ‘Van Halen, always about girls, cars and late Saturday nights.’ When I heard that, I realized I’d never really written a song about a car. On Fair Warning, I wrote a song called ‘Mean Streets’, but that’s about as close as I got to an automobile.
“This reporter asked me one time, ‘Dave, what do you know about social commentary?’ I thought about it for a moment then told him I wasn’t really writing songs about social changes. I was writing songs about robbing a liquor store. That’s a much more concrete subject.”
Okay, let’s see what we’ve learned about the band today. Van Halen is accessible. Van Halen is down-to-earth and they really like to have fun. Oh yes, the music is high octane fun capable of blasting off at any minute.
Van Halen has rewritten the books on what four-piece rock bands can do when there is genuine talent at every position on the stage. Roth has elevated the position of ‘front man’ to a point he’s become the synonymous with the term. And then there is his ability to lyrically look at the world in a way that’s catchy and fun to sing. Just ask anyone who has sung “Running With the Devil”, “Jump”, “And the Cradle Will Rock”, “Unchained” and “Panama”.
“I like all kinds of music and steal from everyone,” admitted the singer. “Inspiration does not descend through the ceiling while you like in bed. The hand of God does not say, ‘Hey Dave, here’s an idea.’ You have to steal from somebody and learn it just the way it is. Afterwards, you change the music to fit who you are as a band. If you’re going to change the beginning, you might as well change the end. And if you’re going to change those two, then you know you can come up with a better idea for the middle. By the time you put the song on plastic, no one recognizes it.”
Modesty is not a trait Roth takes very seriously. Loud, flashy, bombastic are just some of the terms that have been used to describe his stage presence. Roth believes he’s nothing but a conduit for music that binds people together – Van Halen style.
“I think there is evidence,” said the unpretentious singer, “that Van Halen has changed the face of music in two ways. Number one is easy. There are too many bands out there today trying to emulate what we have already done. Guitarists grow their hair and try to copy everything Eddie does on the guitar, and duplicate Alex’s drum sound. Number two, because the other half is so revolted by our music, our pose, and the way I do interviews, they are forced to come up with alternatives. That’s when you get groups like Duran Duran and Kajagoogoo.”
Van Halen has had a tremendous effect on rock music. More specifically, Eddie Van Halen has had a tremendous impact on today’s guitar players. Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton may be the ‘holy trinity’ of guitar players, but today’s generation is looking up to the finger-tapping guitarist of Van Halen for inspiration.
“We make a record when we run out of doing nothing,” proclaimed Roth. “Then again, it’s also after we have toured like crazy across the country. When it’s time for this band to make an album, we turn on the amps, open up the mic and start rolling the tapes in the studio.
“So many records today are made because of the fat car manager with the gold watch chain and five-piece suit in the executive suite saying, ‘Boys, I need more gas for my yacht. You have to now start sounding like Journey.’ Then these bands run out, purchase some ‘70s Doobie Brothers and Eagles records, listen to them incessantly, then proclaim they can do it! Well, that will never happen with this band.”
Sarcasm drips from Roth like ice cream off a cone. The band has done its own bit of recycling from the past as well. At one point, they were getting more traction from previous hits they chose to recycle Van Halen style, than the original authors of the music. The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and Martha & The Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” all got the Van Halen make over and became hits long after their shelf life had expired. On the new album, 1984, every song is an original. So is the introduction of keyboards by none other than Eddie Van Halen.
“There are no cover songs on this album,” declared Roth, “because we didn’t need them. We worked up a variety of tunes and a lot of original material that never made it to plastic. They may pop up on the next record, or maybe not. There’s a huge file of material that you’ll never hear ‘til one of us dies.”
The one undeniable truth about Van Halen is the fact they love to bring their music to the people. Calling this band road dogs would be an understatement. This band was built for the highways and bi-ways of America.
“The next Van Halen tour,” emphasized Roth, “should set a mark in the Guinness Book of World Records in terms of size and production. We’re talking monster here.
“You’ve heard of bands that have constructed humongous structures that look like Arco Towers. They set up in Los Angeles and play five straight nights, then dismantle the stage and transport it to New York and play five more dates. They call that an American tour. I’m here to tell you that the world is not L.A. and New York. They are just islands in the sun. It is Ogden, Utah or Bristol, England, ordinary places that deserve to see the best. That’s what we’re going to bring them.”
In the final analysis, people are drawn to Van Halen because there’s just something about the band that says ‘fun.’ Case in point was the band’s music video for “Pretty Woman” that was banned by MTV.
“With ‘Pretty Woman’ I’d say MTV got pretty uptight with us,” laughed Roth. “I don’t know if it was the midgets fondling the girl’s legs or what. They did tell us the midgets actions were an insult to women. The fact is, those legs belonged to a female impersonator, so that right there destroyed their argument. I thought about taking the case before Judge Wapner on The People’s Court, but I couldn’t get anyone from MTV to appear. The little guys in the video, however, they were more than willing to state their case.”
Van Halen – the people’s choice indeed!