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Since Van Halen’s new single came out today, I figured a quick look at the last real Van Halen album (sorry, I am not acknowledging the Sammy Hagar era or “Gary Jabroni” very much, if at all – they lost me after OU812) was in order.
Let’s be real: Listening to this album last night, then “Tattoo” this morning, and thinking back to the “Van Hagar” output, reminded me that there were two key components to the classic Van Halen sound, one of which was sorely missing for a good twenty-year period.
1984 is Van Halen at both their commercial and artistic peak – which is icing on the cake given all of the gold to be found on the first six Van Halen albums. The group had moved their recording operations into Eddie Van Halen’s newly-built recording studio 5150 and you could already sense the liberation they were feeling compared to their previous output.
Everybody reading this knows “Jump”, “Panama”, and “Hot for Teacher”, so no need to discuss those songs any further. You know they’re diamonds, I know they’re diamonds, so let’s cut to the chase and deal with the rest of the album.
“1984″, the opening title track – all Eddie on synthesiser, sounding as majestic as John Entwistle’s overdubbed horn parts on most of the Who’s albums. I can’t imagine the album starting with anything other than this – it’s a perfect opener.
“Top Jimmy”, which resonated with me a little more than most people because I knew exactly who David Lee Roth was singing about from day one – the lead singer of the legendary Los Angeles punk-blues band Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. I had seen Top Jimmy and his band play several times on the late night cable program New Wave Theatre and wished I had been able to obtain whatever recorded output they had – but alas, even though they did one album that I know I have, all I have is memories of those TV appearances and this tribute. (And if recent recollections from Henry Rollins and Joey Shithead Keithley have been any indication, Diamond Dave was already more than interested in what was going on in the punk rock underground at the time.)
“Drop Dead Legs” – said to have originated from an idea Eddie had sung or played into a tape recorder in a hotel room closet while then-wife Valerie Bertinelli was sleeping – is a typical VH rocker with shades of both ZZ and Zep that would have just as easily fit anywhere else in the Van Halen back catalog at the time. Not to say that the boys were on autopilot. only that they had their basic style downpat and could get tracks like this down without a sweat.
“I’ll Wait” – a minor hit compared to the “Jump”/”Panama”/”Hot for Teacher” troika – does in retrospect point towards a ballad style that Eddie Van Halen would undertake as a composer early in the Van Hagar era. Unlike the Sammy Hager-spawned cheese of tracks like “Love Walks In” and “Dreams”, Dave’s lyrics and vocals here reek of sincerity and poetry, rather than Sammy’s half-assed greeting card doggerel.
“Girl Gone Bad” is something most band would kill for as far as song quality goes. Every time I listen to it, I lose track of how many different sections of music there are in it. This isn’t just verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge stuff.
“House of Pain” – first originated publicly as the b-side of the “Jump” single – is again typical of Van Halen’s deep cuts and could have fit anywhere on their early albums – probably because the song itself originated back in the band’s salad days.
This album is what I’ll be almost invariably comparing A Different Kind of Truth to when it comes out next month. If “Tattoo” is already any indication, Dave, Eddie, and the rest of the gang may already be on the right track.