Exciting times. Van Halen have a new album out today. I just saw a TV advert for it on Channel 5. One wrinkle though. The tune on the advert isn’t on the new record. The tune they played on the advert was “Jump”.
Jump was one of the first songs I taped off the radio. It was the perfect blend of synthesisers with a rock song- a confident rebuttal to the suspicion of all rock fans that keyboards were for girls, or the Pet Shop Boys.
Knowing nothing else about Van Halen, hearing the accompanying album (1984) was a shock. In a good way. Although no other songs contained that keyboard sound it was packed with great hooks, mad drumming and amazing guitar. Panama. Hot For Teacher. Classic stuff.
In the same way I remember the death of Princess Diana or Dustin Gee*, I also remember where I was when I first heard the song “Eruption” by Van Halen, from their first (1978) album. It’s half guitar instrumental frenzy, half magic trick (“how the hell does he do that?”).
I was fourteen or fifteen and as we often did my friends and I had been playing records in my room and talking rubbish. We had moved on from subjects such as whether Pink Floyd had crashed a real aeroplane on stage at a concert (Nonsense, I said- my mate Pete insisted it was true) and had been having a debate about who was the best guitarist in the world. Deep Purple-loving Stuart insisted it was Ritchie Blackmore. Pete suggested the guy from Dire Straits. With a pitying look, I played them Eruption, which I had just heard myself after another friend had taped Van Halen 1 for me. When it first started, they affected to look unimpressed. “He’s fast, but lacks the emotional depth of Blackmore” declared Stuart rather sniffly.
Then the second bit started with the finger tapping arpeggios (not that we knew what one of those was). Jaws hit the floor. The Mark Knopfler fan admitted defeat early. “Bloody hell – that is fast” were his exact words. Stuart was also impressed but was unwilling to give up ten years of slavish hero worship. We had to wait for Blackmore to turn into a weird folk-pixie and to release his Blackmore’s Night albums for that to happen.
Van Halen were discovered by Gene Simmons of Kiss in 1976 but gave him the boot when he tried to change their name to “Daddy Long Legs”. Their first album was a breath of fresh air for rock fans at a time when punk had made Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath sound bloated, plodding and old-fashioned.
They were also responsible for increasing brand recognition for M&Ms in the UK at a time when Smarties had a monopoly on chocolate covered button sweets (see Blue Peter).
The reason for this was the famous story of Van Halen’s tour rider. Amongst other outrageous demands, the band insisted on a bowl of M&Ms – with all the brown ones removed…
Unbelievable. A clear sign of rock star excess. Everyone knows the brown ones are the nicest…
Record #6: Eruption by Van Halen.
Beginners guide to Van Halen:
Do listen to: Any album with the numbers 1 or 2 in the title.
Don’t listen to: The last three studio albums. Seriously. You’ll hate yourself.
The new album is called “A Different Kind of Truth“. It’s their first with David Lee Roth for nearly 20 years: A first listen suggests it’s a different kind of record to the last three…it’s actually listenable…
* Dustin Gee Footnote: I was at my friend Richard’s house. His little sister ran into the room, looking shocked and devastated and blurted out “Dustin Gee is Dead” in a most shocked and devastated tone. I’m sorry to say we looked at each other, and at the serious look on her face – and burst out laughing. Sorry Dustin…