Famed Van Halen founder and guitarist Eddie Van Halen has passed away at 65 following a battle with cancer. His son Wolfgang announced the news on Twitter Tuesday:
— Wolfgang Van Halen (@WolfVanHalen) October 6, 2020
Rolling Stone‘s Andy Greene has an excellent obituary looking at Van Halen’s life and career, and it’s well worth a read. To go along with that, here are 10 remarkable songs from Van Halen’s career, which illustrate different aspects of what he brought to the band. It’s an exploration rather than a ranking, so these are in chronological order only:
1. “Runnin’ With The Devil” (1978’s Van Halen, track one):
As Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony told MusicRadar’s Joe Bosso back in 2010, that 1978 label debut album came together very quickly; the band had been playing gigs around Pasadena, California for a while, but hadn’t written a ton of songs, so “We basically just took our live show and all the songs we knew and went for it. The whole album took a couple of weeks. [Producer] Ted Templeman wanted to make a big, powerful guitar record, and he had all he needed in what Eddie was doing.” And that’s clear right from the album opener here; other tracks on this album (some of which we’ll get to) may feature more finesse, but “Runnin’ With The Devil” brings the raw power, starting with a selection of car horns (from the band’s own cars!), then a short bass and drum intro, and then Van Halen’s heavy and iconic guitar riff. There are some more subtle notes later, especially in the guitar solos after the second and third choruses, but this is largely a great over-the-top thumper announcing how this record’s going to go. And it does a tremendous job of that.
2. “Eruption” and “You Really Got Me” (1978’s Van Halen, tracks two and three):
Yes, it’s slightly cheating to put these two as one entry, but the combination (the end of “Eruption” goes right into the start of “You Really Got Me”) is incredible. And this stretch helps illustrate how well side one of this album flows together; the first seconds of the “Eruption” track are a short drum bit that fits nicely to separate this from “Running With The Devil,” and then the rest of the track is essentially just a minute-and-a-half guitar solo from Van Halen. And it shows off a frenetic playing speed, but also a notable sense of composition and progression. And that’s really incredible when you consider Anthony’s comments on how it happened, from that aforementioned 2010 MusicRadar piece: “Eruption wasn’t written out or anything. Eddie was just noodling around before a session, but once Ted heard it he said, ’Stop everything. Ed, we’re rolling tape on that.’” Templeman was certainly right to do that, giving rock an iconic guitar solo in the process.
And the “Eruption” to “You Really Got Me” transition is fascinating, as it sees Van Halen dive back out of a technical solo and immediately plunge into a hard-charging power riff. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen in various lead-to-rhythm guitarist switchoffs, perhaps especially with AC/DC’s Angus and Malcolm Young, but it’s Van Halen playing both roles here. And “You Really Got Me” is interesting for other reasons; originally a song by The Kinks, it’s one of many covers Van Halen would find great success with, and this one particularly showed their ability to make someone else’s song distinctively their own. Both the original and the cover have their merits, but this cover was an excellent illustration of how Van Halen was going to dramatically rework songs that had come before.
3. “Ice Cream Man” (1978’s Van Halen, track 10):
Speaking of covers, this one (a cover of a John Brim blues song initially recorded in 1953, but not released until 1969) is a particularly notable departure from the rest of Van Halen’s first record. It starts with just over a minute of David Lee Roth playing acoustic guitar and singing, and then the whole band comes in with a couple of power chords. The tale-of-two-halves structure makes it a lot of fun. And the second half shows off Van Halen’s ability to mix rhythmic power chords and some remarkably technical high-range guitar noodling (particularly on the bridge). The whole song’s only 3:18, but it covers a lot of ground in that time.
4. And The Cradle Will Rock (1980’s Women and Children First, track 1):
1979’s Van Halen II had some interesting tracks, perhaps especially “Dance The Night Away” (one of the first indications of some of the dance influences Van Halen would take on) and “Beautiful Girls” (which had been on the band’s demo even before their first commercial album), but 1980’s Women And Children First is a more notable album for the purposes of this post. It has some more straight-forward bangers with “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Loss of Control,” but the first track “And The Cradle Will Rock” is particularly interesting, especially as it was the first single to show off Van Halen’s keyboard/piano talent. The iconic start here sounds like a guitar, but it’s actually a Wurlitzer electric piano fed through a MXR Flanger pedal and cranked by a 100-amp Marshall guitar amp. Here’s more on that from Van Halen himself, as relayed in a Van Halen News Desk post from 2015:
“This was also the first time I played keyboards in the studio. A lot of people don’t know that because it doesn’t really sound like a keyboard. I had an old Wurlitzer electric piano and I pumped it through my Marshalls. I just pounded on my lower registers, and Ted [Templeman] said ‘Wow. What the hell is that?’ ‘Oh, nothing, just me screwing around.'”
Well, that’s quite the epic result from “screwing around” (and Van Halen notes that he actually worked on the main riff here for two weeks with brother Alex, the band’s drummer). And this would set up some of the band’s later keyboard experiments.
5. Cathedral (1982’s Diver Down, track 3):
Like “Eruption,” “Cathedral” is another short (under two minutes) instrumental that wound up very high on an album. And like “Eruption,” it deserves it. While “Eruption” feels frenetic, “Cathedral” feels structured, and it uses some remarkable audio effects. Van Halen told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player in 1982 that the track’s effects actually gave it its name, and it wound up being a difficult one for his guitar’s volume knob: “It sounds like a Catholic church organ, which is how it got its name. On that cut I use the volume knob a lot. If you turn it up and down too fast, it heats up and freezes. I did two takes of that song, and right at the end of the second take, the volume knob just froze, just stopped.”
6. (Oh) Pretty Woman: (1982’s Diver Down, track 6):
Here’s another cover that Van Halen definitely made their own, taking the Roy Orbison/Bill Dees song and cranking it up to 11. Like “Ice Cream Man,” this has a long intro before it gets to the meat of the song (almost two minutes in this case), but instead of Roth singing and playing acoustic guitar, this is more two minutes of instrumental jamming with heavy guitars from Van Halen. And the instantly-recognizable intro chords ahead of the lyrics (around 1:45) really show how Van Halen could drastically alter a song with different sounds for the same chords.
(An honorable mention from this album goes to track 10, “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” a cover of a 1924 song by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen. That one notably features Jan van Halen, Eddie and Alex’s musician father, on clarinet, and it’s another interesting Van Halen take on an older song.)
7. Jump (1984’s 1984, track 2):
As with “And The Cradle Will Rock,” “Jump” has a memorable keyboard part from Van Halen, but it’s very clear that it’s a keyboard part. And it was a remarkable stylistic change for the band, which had often been known for heavy guitars rather than keyboards. In fact, as per Van Halen’s 1995 comments to David Wild for a Rolling Stone piece, he wrote the synth line in question in 1981, but couldn’t get the band to do anything with it until 1983. It wound up being Van Halen’s only song to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And while it’s wildly different from many of the band’s other big hits (although not all of them; there are similarities to the likes of 1982’s “Dancing In The Streets”), and isn’t always loved by those who prefer the more guitar-oriented rock tracks, it’s a notable illustration of Van Halen’s range as a musician.
8. Panama (1984’s 1984, track 3):
Speaking of range, following “Jump” with “Panama” is quite the flex. Both get a lot of classic rock radio play, and both have memorable riffs, but “Panama” is a hard-charging, guitar-focused rock song recalling the early Van Halen efforts, and it’s everything people criticized “Jump” for not being. So it’s quite funny that they came one after the other.
9. Dreams (1986’s 5150, track 4):
And on the subject of debates over what Van Halen should be remembered for, just mention “Sammy Hagar” in a room of music fans and step back and watch the ensuing brawl from both sides. But the debates over if Roth or Hagar were “better” are perhaps somewhat missing the point, as they’re wildly different. And there really doesn’t seem to be an alternate timeline where Roth continues with Van Halen after the 1984 album, as the internal tensions were already notable and prominent at that point.
From this corner, the more notable thing (especially at this moment) is that Van Halen found another talented singer in Hagar, that they let him be himself instead of trying to make him a Roth clone, and that they created some interesting stuff in the process. And they found a lot of success with that, with all four of their studio albums with Hagar hitting #1 on the Billboard pop charts.
And “Dreams” is a good example of that. If Roth disliked the amount of synth on “Jump,” this is going even further. And it’s hard to see Van Halen putting out this song with him involved. But it’s a cool song (especially with the Blue Angels used in the official music video, seen above). And it helped show off some of the stuff this band could do with Hagar. Yes, it’s wildly different from what they had before. But it has its own merits.
10. Best of Both Worlds (1986’s 5150, track 4):
“Best of Both Worlds” is worth some discussion here to wrap this up. While it’s not as radio-famous as some of the earlier Van Halen work, it’s maybe an illustration of how overlooked 5150 (really a solid album overall) and some of the band’s material with Hagar can be. And this track is perhaps particularly interesting given how it could have slid into a bunch of earlier Van Halen albums; it’s less poppy than “Dreams” or even “Summer Nights,” and yes, its vocals are playing to Hagar’s strengths rather than Roth’s, but this features some Van Halen guitar riffing right out of the earlier days. And yet, the track is a bit of a bridge between the Roth era and the Hagar era; it’s maybe not quite as raw, but it’s no less heavy.
And it’s notable that Van Halen kept doing interesting stuff for a long while. Further albums OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and Balance (all with Hagar), Van Halen III (with Gary Cherone), and A Different Kind Of Truth (with Roth back in the fold, and with Wolfgang Van Halen replacing Michael Anthony on bass) all have some merits of their own, and there are plenty of musically interesting things throughout. And Van Halen himself brought some innovation to even how to play, as shown by the patent he got:
Eddie Van Halen has died. Many more eloquent than me will discuss his musical achievements, so I'll just note that he was owner and inventor of the patent with the baddest-ass diagram in the history of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office https://t.co/R1ueaXNEsw pic.twitter.com/svLbBs3qK8
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) October 6, 2020
Rest in peace, Eddie.