September , 1979
By David Huff
The People Come First
Success. It is an interesting word with as many meanings to it as there are ways in achieving it.
Many people determine success by the amount of money one holds. Others look at success by the achievements and honors one has bestowed on them by society. And then there are some who just don't give a damn about what success is at all. As long as they are happy and can continue with what they have always done, in their own way, they are successful. They are Van Halen.
Van Halen, brothers Alex and Edward on drums and guitar, David Lee Roth lead vocals and Michael Anthony bass, have come to grips with that word success. In just over a year's time, this group from Los Angeles, California has gone from an obscure group on a Warner Brothers label to one of rock n' roll's superstars. You could never tell it if you met them.
Van Halen's philosophy is simple. Take it to the people the best you know how and let them judge the end results. So far, after two gold albums and a hit single, it seems to have worked.
"Our philosophy is to be very natural, take it to the people," said Anthony as he relaxed backstage after a recent performance.
"Even from the beginning we never took a demo tape around to anyone. We have always worked on a following. The people, that's what comes first. They are out there watching you and you realize the moment you are on stage that they come first, more than anything else. More than those new $500 pants you are wearing on stage, a new thousand dollar guitar. The people fucking come first and I think that's the whole thing."
Van Halen is by no means an overnight sensation that took the country by storm with their debut album. As Anthony says, in this day and age, Foreigner and Boston are the overnight success stories.
"I am glad for a comparison with bands like that, but success wise, we grew very slow actually. You could say Van Halen is an overnight success story that took five years in the making. We never thought we would get a single on the radio. We thought we would we'd be a good FM album station band because we had good material. The Van Halen thing just steadily grew," he said.
And steadily grow it did. Last year, Van Halen started on its first tour with Journey and Montrose that was to last six weeks. At year's end, they had been on the road ten and half months and had toured England, Europe, and Japan as well as a major portion of the United States.
After the tour, Van Halen's next album, Van Halen II, was recorded in a lightning quick ten days as compared to the three weeks it took to do the first. The album went gold and it included such hits as "Dance the Night Away", "Somebody Get Me a Doctor", "Beautiful Girls", and "Bottom's Up".
"People think that we are going to AM orientate ourselves because of ‘Dance the Night Away’ doing as well as it has," stated Anthony. "But actually, we write for ourselves. If it turns out to be a 'Dance the Night Away' or 'Beautiful Girls', then it does. It's not like, 'Oh my God, we have to write for AM radio,' and then make it this long or whatever."
Van Halen's style for writing songs in not one for the books by no means. Many times a song is born from a riff on Edward's guitar or a few lyrics that Roth has written.
"The way that we write a song," explained Alex Van Halen, "is that the band will start playing of course. The lead guitarist has the riff and this and that.”
”David will start singing and we start playing. We all do this and that and by the time we get totally finished, it is so different than when we started out, that it actually becomes a group composition. That's why we give credit to all four guys because it's Dave that writes all of the lyrics, but it’s only us who sit there and can say let's change that. If the song is all wrong, like 'Die Young', when it was first done, we thought the lyrics were so negative we changed it completely to a different song. Dave rewrote some of the lyrics and it came out different.”
"We don't play songs that are right songs to be either AM or FM songs or anything else. We just play them and record them. What we do is get all of our stage gear, put it in a big room and play, leaving all of the technicalities to our producer, Ted Templeman. He puts it on the regular vinyl and as far as the 45's, it is up to Warner Brothers really. We play all of our songs in concert and they seem to generally get a fantastic response anywhere from Japan to Australia to South Africa. You name it and we have been there."
The group Van Halen was formed five years ago, Edward and Alex, who hail from Amsterdam, Holland, grew up playing classical music and have always played musically together. They knew of David Lee Roth through one, his local band, and two, he happened to live in the same neighborhood as the Van Halen's. They asked him to join the group and he did.
Anthony's entrance into the group was a little more different. A year after Roth joined the Van Halen brothers, they were playing a concert that Anthony and his band were also performing. Two weeks later, Edward called up Anthony, invited him to join the group, and the rest is history.
"Van Halen are four individuals who love what they are doing," said Anthony. "They don't want to put on any phony act for anyone or get up there on stage and put on just an act. We don't go up there, and like a lot of other bands we play with say `oh, one more set'. We go up there and do the show, giving everything we've got.”
"Every night is different with Van Halen. If I get out there on stage and don't feel like moving, then I don’t move. If I feel like moving, then I move. It's the same with everyone. Sure there are things we might do where we get together and that might be because we do it spontaneously and it looks good. So, we keep on doing it."
If there is any type of a textbook way that shows a band how to secure record contract with a major record label, Van Halen never read it. In fact if Van Halen had ever found it, the' probably would have burned it.
"It's not that Van Halen couldn't have been where they’re at now, three years ago," pointed out Alex, "it was a matter of there were so many groups out there at the time when we were coming out, going around peddling their tapes to different record label and what not, that actually it's just a bad way of doing it. You get lost in the shuffle for one thing, and you could get a bad record deal. And, Van Halen wanted to prove themselves.”
"We thought if we could draw the people, make the people have a good time, and give that feeling to the people we wanted to get across, then we would be discovered, which is what happened.
"We were drawing three to five thousand people at local gigs we put on and it showed us that we were doing something people liked. I mean five thousand people that come in to see a band that doesn't even have a record out. That tells you something. From that point on, we knew if we could do that in the L.A. area, we could do it anywhere else in the world. The places we were playing were normal places with normal people that weren't punked out, not Hollywood type with the strange haircuts. They were just regular, average, beer-drinking, fun-loving people."
From the outset, Van Halen never had a manager, agent or anyone to handle the group. When they put on a show, all of the work came from the band members themselves.
"We use to find all of the shows, all of the clubs, promote our own shows, pass out flyers and do the whole thing by ourselves," recalls Anthony.
"Alex and Dave use to be the guys that would get the job. If we didn't have enough money, Alex would call them and say no show. When we signed with Warner Brothers, we had no manager and we had never taken a demo tape around. We made it very explicit to Warner Brothers that we ran it like this, and we ran it like that and we want to keep on doing it that way.
"Right now, from what you saw tonight, from the production to our record contract, right down to the amplifiers, it is all designed from within the band. Everything comes from within the band. We feel that it is better that we do it that way because if something messes up, a lot of groups might go, 'Well it's the manager that fucked up, our agent didn't dot his, the record company laid back and didn't do that.' All that we can do is point right in the mirror and say you fucked up. Warner Brothers goes along with us on that because they trust us."
Quirks of fate have come in and out of Van Halen's life since the groups forming. One instance revolved around the cutting of the only demo tape the group ever did. The producer was none other than the costumed, blood-spitting bass player of KISS, Gene Simmons.
"It was the first night we played this club in Hollywood, the Starwood," said Anthony, "and it was the last couple of nights we were playing for free because the club couldn't pay the local acts, just the name acts. Paul Stanley of KISS came in and we talked to him, but he actually liked the other band that was playing before us and he brought Gene in the next night to see that band.
"Well Gene stayed and he saw us and he really dug us. By the time we were done and got off the stage, Gene was waiting back there and he took our number. At four in the morning, that morning, when we were through playing, someone came up to us and said Gene just called and wants to meet us. He was staying in Hollywood for the following night.”
"We saw him and he asked us if we had an agent or a manager and we said no. He said well I am starting to get into producing and I would like to try and do a thing with you. So he took us and we did part of a recording in L.A. and we did seven songs in New York, half of which are on our first album. All that it turned out to be though was an expensive demo tape. Right now, that tape is stored somewhere in Hendrick's Electric Lady Studio's in New York, sitting away on a shelf. But, it did get the hype going.”
"A lot of people were saying ‘who is this band that GeneSimmons secretly flew out to New York to produce and album with and stuff like that. People started dipping in here and there and that's when a lot of people actually started coming to see us play and eventually led to people from Warner Brothers seeing us." he said.
There are rock groups, that when they reach the so-called superstar level, almost shut themselves off from the public. They'll produce and album maybe once every year or two, and then maybe go on tour, but you really don't hear that much about them. As for Van Halen, no one can say what the future may hold for them. They don't even venture to guess.”
"Actually, nobody can say how it will be a year, even a year from now, or ever the way we feel," said Anthony, a native of Chicago. "Hell, if I want to, I'll go out in the back parking lot and have a few beers with a couple of the people that saw us and talk to them about the show. When I go home, I put on jeans, tennis shoes and a t-shirt.”
"Sure there is money and everything that comes along with it, .but the only thing that makes you a rock star is that all of the sudden enough people love you, all of the sudden they call you a rock star. But with Van Halen, we don't feel like that. A lot of people really trip out because we do interviews and stuff like that whereas a lot of other bands, when they get big, go 'we don't have to do an interview, why waste our time on that.”
"I feel getting to the people, talking to the people and being part of the people is the most important part of being a successful rock group."
As for Alex, he also downplays his role as rock star.
"A lot of people ask us, how does it feel to be a rock n' roll star. We just tell them we are doing just what we like to do. If there is enough people that like what you are doing, they will call you a star. I am no different than I was five years ago when nobody knew who we were. Look at my clothes. I mean do I look any different. I am wearing these sunglasses because my eyes are shot to shit."
Money is a motivating factor for almost anything that people set out to do. Most people that is. Again the Van Halen philosophy defies everyone's concepts of the power of the almighty dollar.
"I'll tell you, we use to play for free, for five dollars, for ten dollars a night," stated Alex. "We did exactly the same things. We'd play the show, come backstage, all of our friends would come backstage, bring some beer and have a good time. That's all there was to it.”
"Now possibly, we are making some more money, maybe we are not. We sure are spending a whole hell of a lot of money to get this show on the road, that's for sure. We are travelling with 22 people and we are sparing no expense in giving the best accommodations wherever they stay."
It isn't likely Van Halen will be declaring bankruptcy in the near future, but they are realistic in what they need their money for and the plan to do with it.
"Sure money enters into it," says Anthony, "but right now, the only real interest that money has to me now is when we come out on tour next year, if I have enough to build another amp stand, or get the basses I want, I can.”
"It's the same with everyone else. I don't care. As long as I have a place to sleep, something to eat, whether its musician's soup which is ketchup and quinine water, I don't care. The total energy is from the start. Even when we did our own shows, any profit went back into the next show .Last year we did.”
"Almost everything that we earned last year went back into this show this year. Actually, when you look at it, it's actually a bigger production, more lights, more sound than any band playing this size house has. The weight of all the equipment that we are carrying is 65,000 pounds. By the size halls that we are playing, normally that would be called overpowering, but we don't overpower with it. We use is to our best advantage to make the show look good. The only special effects we use is smoke. We use no lasers, no bombs, no fancy tricks. Just basic lighting, that's it."
Van Halen gears itself towards the live show. Their albums are recorded live and then put on the LP. If you listen closely to the record, you can tell. There's and applause at the end of Edward VH guitar solo in "Somebody Get Me a Doctor”. There's the sound of a kiss at the conclusion of "Beautiful Girls". That total live feeling has been part of the bands thinking from the beginning and may be an answer to why the group has such a tremendous appeal everywhere that they go.
"I think there are actually two things behind our appeal," says Anthony. "First of all, we tour a lot. We toured our first year ten and a half months extensively all through the world. That's a major factor in helping break an act.”
"Even though you might sound good on record, when people see you live, and you have a really good live show, take the number of people, say ten thousand people see you every night. There's a fraction that's going to love it and they are going to buy the album. The others may not buy the album, but they will remember who you are.”
"You were here tonight, what you see on stage is the extra. We record our albums live and we work very hard on making the best possible live show that we can. You just have to come out and see it. I know that for every good and bad comment, nobody is going to go home and say we sounded worse than the album, because the way we do our albums, the live feeling is there plus there is the show pomp which is very essential. A lot of people don't like it, a lot of people love it. It is there for people to judge."
All of us, at one time or another, have found ourselves singing along to a song we like on the radio. And maybe, inadvertently, we have picked up some object and pretended it was a guitar or bass, pounding away on it doing a solo or maybe just strumming along with the song. We all like to fantasize, and some even fulfill those dreams.
"I know I am living people's fantasy's because I use to always be the person standing out there watching and I living my fantasy right now," smiled Anthony.
"I know that everyone else wants to, and what we do is live that fantasy. I am living mine and I want them to feel like they can live theirs, even for that hour, hour and a half they are watching us. To be able to be loose. I don't care if they wish they were Dave or Ed or Alex or me. For that hour and a half we are on stage, if we can make them feel that way, or above anything else, they can have a good time, I have done my job. I have done my show and we have done our part.”
"When we got together, it was just four guys that were really into music. I never knew completely that this is where I wanted to be right now. It was always a dream of mine, it was a dream of everyone in this band. We felt that if we do it and the people like it, what else matters. People come to see you and it's just doing what you love doing. I am not going to come right out and say, yeah, I knew I would be where I'm at right now because I am really into it or whatever. But, I knew Van Halen would be something. No matter what it is, if we weren't signed today, we'd still be playing whether it is doing bars in Las Vegas or doing bars wherever."
An even greater insight to the philosophy or ideas that prompted the forming of Van Halen in the first place are the very songs themselves. Before the group cut their first LP, 95 per cent of the material on that album Van Halen had already been performing. Some of it four or five years ago.
"This may sound corny," went Alex, "but I think that there is a lot of Van Halen in everybody. We feel the way everybody else feels, it seems that the way they feel is the way we feel and back and forth. We are not pretentious. We don't talk about religion, we don't talk about space and the stars. It's just everyday things that people can get into.”
"As I said, we don't try to be deep or religious, disco or anything. Take for instance the song, 'Feel Your Love Tonight'. If you can remember as far back as when you were in high school and it's a Friday night and you are out of school. Alright. You have the whole weekend, you’re feeling good now, you know where the parties are going to be. You have got your car, you shower, clean up and get ready. You have taken the car, you drink a beer, you get to the party, you can't wait to meet some chick and when you meet her, you say 'I can't wait to feel your love tonight, bitch," laughed Alex.
"But seriously, do you know what I mean. I use to do it all of the time. But instead of doing it Friday and Saturday nights, I use to do it Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Just around the clock. Of course a lot of times you strike out, but that's the feeling, you know. I can't wait, bottoms up, somebody get me a doctor. I am sure you went to a party and you got too fucked up. You feel like this and your friends carry you off and you say blah, somebody get me a doctor. It's just stuff that people can relate to. Have a good time with."
"What Van Halen is saying is that we are not into politics, we are not expanding to the moon, sky or other planets. I like to go out on a weekend and I get fucked up, go out with a girlfriend, whatever. That is what Van Halen writes about. People out their work hard, pumping gas, working outdoors, whatever they do for their money. On the weekends they pay money to see us in concert and they don't want to know about that stuff and neither do we," said Anthony.
"There is something in every song that we do that somebody at one point has done in their life. I don't want to sing about transcending to the sky, politics or anything like that. Entertainment. A lot of people have forgotten about that and what it is. Entertainment. We are in a field where people don't want to know about bad times, they want to be entertained. The whole point of it is for them to forget, to forget the everyday hassles of the week, to have a good time, to do whatever they want. To fantasize about anything they want and just have a good time."
A live album is a very real possibility in the future for Van Halen. Already they have filmed a couple of their live concert dates, and some of those songs will be appearing on the Midnight Special and other TV shows.
And the live album, Anthony guarantees it will be a live album like no others.
"We don't want to put out an album which is a documentary of past hits," he said. "It is going to be something fresh, something new. We don't want it to be something people will say like, 'Oh, they have a live album out now.’ They won’t say it's another live album, they are going to say it is Van Halen."
Already the group is planning their next tour, but otherwise they are just leaving things up in the air as far as to what they want to do.
"The only plans that we have right now are that we're looking forward to the next tour and to see what we can do to keep up the attraction," says Anthony. " We aren't saying that two years from now we are going to do a full length feature film, or next year we'll do a live album and do this and that, etc.”
"People change every day. One day this girl right back here may be totally into us. Tomorrow she may hate our guts. In a sense, you flow with the people. I am not saying that we are really trending. Actually, the thing to do is to set your own trend. Not so far away from everyone else, but just a step ahead of everyone else. That is what Van Halen is."
They certainly are.