Van Halen I – (Album Review)
October 26, 2020
While I was in the thought process of figuring out which album to review next, a tragedy had recently hit the music world. When this review gets released, it will roughly be about two weeks since the death of Eddie Van Halen, whose death has struck the world of rock. In case you don’t know who he is, or who the band “Van Halen” are, let me give you a brief run down.
This influential and innovative band came out of Pasadena, California in the late 70’s and are often credited with restoring hard rock to the forefront of the music scene thanks to their self-titled release in 1978, along with the exceptional guitar work by Eddie Van Halen, whose guitar methods have revolutionized the way individuals approach guitar and introduced a new method of playing called tapping. This technique has made Eddie Van Halen a renowned guitarist and considered to be one of the best players in rock history. Their sound from the late 70s to the mid-80s has been kept distinct but with added changes over the years, moving from a hard rock, punk sound to more pop and radio-friendly. The self-titled album is where it all started and shows the raw talent of Eddie and the other musicians in a time where popular music had been taken over by disco over the entire decade and the music scene needed something fresh.
As far as the level of meaning goes for any Van Halen song, in my opinion, there’s not much to look at, most of their songs are about women and…. other things on the subject matter. They’re not much of a band to have really deep and thoughtful lyrics, but their electrifying, instrumental sound and memorable, simple lyrics make up for what’s on the surface. A great band for parties, barbecues, and Generation X adults that desperately miss their teenage years. With that, let’s get into the album.
You would probably expect the album to start off with a track that goes in blazingly with the guitar solos, but in fact it’s the opposite. You’re mysteriously brought in with these blaring car horns and a simple bass line, eventually leading to these ringing power chords, this is the groundwork for the first track, “Runnin’ With the Devil,” a simple but really well known song in the bands discography. This track doesn’t show all of the bands talents but you definitely get an idea of the range of vocalist David Lee Roth with his dramatic high pitched wails and his sad bluesy vocal deliveries. “Runnin’ With the Devil’s” verses talk about having a reckless life, while the chorus only uses one simple line which is the name of the song. The overall line and title of the track fits perfectly for the theme. The line, “running with the devil,” in my opinion seems to mean that, in a cheesy way of saying it, you sell your soul to the devil and get to live this freelanced life cut from any sort of responsibility in the world BUT at the cost of having your own life come crashing down before you because of your actions, these actions being something like indulging in any sort of excess or temptation, it makes you reckless or “sinful and by the time everything is lost you have no one but you and the devil himself. “I live my life like there’s no tomorrow, and all I’ve got, I had to steal, ‘least I don’t need to beg or borrow, yes i’m living at a pace that kills.” –Runnin’ With the Devil (lyric).
In less than two minutes Eddie Van Halen became the new god of guitar, the second track of the album titled, “Eruption,” is the soul aspect as to what made Van Halen such a well known band in the beginning, and for Eddie to be praised for his stellar guitar work. This track still has yet to disappoint anyone when listened to thanks to Eddie’s technique of playing that is now considered revolutionary. Again, this technique was called tapping, and it made the guitar sound completely alien with these really fast triplets that would make you think the guitar is making millions of notes in a single second but collectively sounding really good. It’s hard to describe what the sound is like, but to me it’s like watching a ball on a screen changing into millions of different colors in seconds and the ball only continues to get bigger. Think about it, all it took was about a minute and a half of guitar noodling in order for the method of guitar to be changed forever. The crazy part is that this track was almost kept off of the album, but thanks to the insistence of the bands producer Ted Templeman it was kept on the album, so you can thank him for making the band give us this masterpiece of guitar work. Nothing has come close to this on a scale of being revolutionary. This short track was quickly followed by a cover of “You Really Got Me,” which was originally by an English rock band called the Kinks. This cover showcased the bands ability to twist others songs into their own flashy and more grittier version, which overall worked really well for them, as this was the first single off the album. The band has continued the production of these flashy covers in later albums which also proved to be successful.
Supposedly one of the “lamest” songs that was ever written by Eddie Van Halen happened to be one of their most successful songs. This is, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” Don’t take my word for it, because that’s what Eddie had claimed. The main riff was far too simple for him since it was only two chords. The whole song was made as a joke in the first place, trying to be a parody of punk but doesn’t even come close to sounding like the genre. The whole song was put together in a single day. Even though this song wasn’t really liked by the band, it became a concert staple and fan favorite for them, it is overall one of their most successful songs. The track overall is pretty simple, you have the chorus with its simple riffs and memorable chants. The melodic parts are overdubbed with an electric sitar which gives the track a new musical depth. Roth talks about dirty love and how his love life is much more wild than how anybody else would want it to be. It is one of the first of many fun tracks to listen to on this album, as the rest of the album provides much more variety than you may think. “I’ve been to the edge, and then I stood and looked down. You know I lost a lot of friends there baby. I’ve got no time to mess around.” –Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love (lyric).
The rest of this album seems to shift very rapidly between different style blends within their songs. The song, “I’m The One,” completely turns around the flow with a swing-like, doo-wop styled song, but overall keeping the same flashy and heavy style of the band. This track is one of David Lee Roth’s ultimate performance pieces, Roth utilizes his charismatic showmanship to show his variety and style in performing this piece, while the rest of the band gives the song their own sound and style. “Jamie’s Cryin” became another fan favorite from the band with the classic style of hard rock with memorable chorus lines. It was even sampled almost a decade later by rapper called Tone-Loc on his song “Wild Thing” which went on to become a chart topping hit at number two. We’re provided with more fruity guitar work from Eddie as well as a mythical themed punk song on the song “Atomic Punk” whose lyrics talk about being a ruler of an underworld and how this kid was a victim to science. “Feel Your Love Tonight” is another typical Van Halen song of young lust, this particular song would go on to inspire other alike songs such as Poison in “Unskinny Bop” and Ratt in “Lay It Down.” One of the earliest power ballads came from Van Halen with their song “Little Dreamer.” While it doesn’t sound like most of the string-tugging power ballads of the 80s, it layed out the groundwork for most of them, as bands were heavily influenced by this particular song. This song also goes to show the significant amount of influences that band had while writing this track. It is the most complex and surprising thing on the first album. “Ice Cream Man” is another ode to young lust but with a twist of acoustic in the beginning and the song overall having a more bluesy feel, this song fits into the Van Halen aesthetic without a doubt. Then the album closes off with the blazing track, “On Fire.” Probably one of the bands most heavy songs almost pushing it to heavy metal with driving riffs, and an intense vocal performance from Roth. It brings this stellar album to an epic close.
The significance of the Van Halen I is something that goes underappreciated now these days, the band itself brought back the popularity of hard rock music from the late 70s to the decade of the 80s. Eddie Van Halen revolutionized methods of guitar playing by inventing a new style and influencing hundreds of guitar players with his signature sound. His sound goes unmatched still to this day as well as his revolutionary guitar work. The album went on to inspire hundreds of other bands into the 80s and early 90s looking to carry on a more flashy or heavier sound, and to discover this new method of playing. This was only the beginning of a young and ever-growing band that only continued to rise in the scene eventually reaching to the top. Eddie Van Halen also went on to perform one of the most memorable guitar solos for other artists too, which only expanded his catalogue of sheer explosive guitar solos. This album for me, is an entire diverse palate of diversity in sound sonically in the world of hard rock.
Favorite tracks: Runnin’ With the Devil, Eruption, I’m The One, On Fire