Forty Reasons Why Van Halen’s Debut Is The Greatest Hard Rock Album Of All Time
Forty years later and we’re still livin’ life like there’s no tomorrow.
On February 10th, 1978 Van Halen released their debut album. Rock and Roll would never be the same again. With Jaw-dropping guitar riffs, mind-bending solos, undeniable hooks and fist-pumping choruses the album delivered on an all-out assault on the ears. Four decades later the album remains the favorite among long-time Van Halen fans while inspiring a whole new generation of rockers. In short, Van Halen's debut is the greatest hard rock album of all time and here are the 40 reasons why:
Numbers don’t lie. In August of 1996 this album was officially certified Diamond by the RIAA meaning it eclipsed the ten million sales mark and it continues to sell.
The greatest rock albums usually have no frills and no added fillers. This album is guitars, drums, bass and vocals….that’s it. No keyboards, no orchestras, no foolin’, this is pure, straight-ahead rock and roll at its finest.
There was a time when mp3s didn’t exist which meant album covers were not just important but they were an art form. On Van Halen’s debut album fans walking through the record store aisles witnessed the birth of one of the most iconic logos of all time. It’s hard to believe that the record label had another band logo in mind for this first album. It was nothing like the classic winged logo Van Halen fans have come to love and cherish.
Van Halen is a band shrouded in mystery, even in a time when social media gives public figures few places to hide. That has both frustrated fans and intrigued them. Some of the credit goes to the band’s front man David Lee Roth who knew early on the value of a band’s enigmatic image. Exhibit “A” would be when the band was promoting this debut album.
For their press bio Roth convinced his bandmates to shave two years off of their age to seem younger. As if they even needed to do that. They were cool as s---t no matter what their actual age.
Speaking of image, the photo of David Lee Roth effortlessly stretching backwards like a rock and roll version of Gumby on the album’s back cover is one that is hard to forget. It set the tone early on that this was not just your average ordinary rock band.
Try and spend a day at the beach and not hear a song from this album blasting from someone’s radio or mp3 player. Even when it’s not summertime just play this album and the beach party begins. I can feel the February cold thawing already.
Edward Van Halen’s most recognizable guitar is his black, white and red Frankenstrat but this album also features the debut of his Ibanez Destroyer “Shark” guitar. You’ll hear it blazing on tracks like “Jamie’s Cryin’”, “On Fire”, “Runnin’ With The Devil” and at the “tail” end of his scorching guitar solo on the album’s debut single “You Really Got Me”.
And now the nod to the aforementioned Frankenstrat. It’s become Eddie’s signature guitar. Look closely at the cover of the band’s debut album and you’ll see the black and white Frankenstrat; one he pieced together from a pile of cheap guitars. Nothing cheap about the way it sounded.
Edward Van Halen not only pieced together his own Frankstrat guitar, he also did some truly innovative things with it. Listen to the end of “Eruption”. That pulsating solar-powered sound was created using a Univox EC-80 echo unit that Eddie housed in an old WWI practice bomb he picked up from a junkyard. Boom! Edward’s about to explode!
David Lee Roth has been known for his showmanship above anything else but he has had his moments vocally and the track “Little Dreamer” is one of them. His whisky-soaked, raspy voice fits in just right with the groove of the song. It’s one he still sounds great on whenever the band adds it to their playlist.
Van Halen’s debut is much more than the singles and “Feel Your Love Tonight” is a great example. Roth would often say in interviews at the time of this album that Van Halen was the sound of the 80s and was he right.
Guitar World said it best: “During the eighties countless hair metal pop hits copied this song’s formula verbatim, from Roth’s horny lyrics to the guitar-and-vocals-only breakdown during the choruses. However, none of the imitations equaled the song’s lurid depiction of teenage lust, which was more effective than a cocktail of Spanish Fly and Quaaludes for luring young lovelies into backseat action.”
Another mind-melting deep track from Van Halen’s debut is “Atomic Punk”. The first time I heard this track I had no idea what Edward was doing with his guitar and how he was doing it. It turns out that that scratchy-sounding riff was done by Edward rubbing his hand back and forth across the strings while stepping on a phase pedal to give it extra reverb. Ah yes, the mad scientist at work.
You would think that an unknown band would play it safe on their first album. Why take chances right? Wrong. How about adding some barber shop vocals to a hard rock song? Why not? That’s what you’ll hear on a song like “I’m The One”. Bop bada, shoobe doo wah! Gotta love it!
By the time Van Halen recorded their debut album they had fine-tuned their skills playing clubs like the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. In fact, Edward Van Halen’s solo “Eruption” came from when he was warming up for a gig there. No American Idol, no America’s Got Talent here.
While we’re talkin’ Whisky, Van Halen promoted the singles from their album by recording videos at their favorite hot spot The Whisky A Go Go. They filmed videos for “Eruption/You Really Got Me”, “Runnin’ With The Devil”, and “Jamie’s Crin’” there. It would give the band – particularly their camera friendly front man David Lee Roth – the creative spark for future videos to come which would come in handy with a brand new T.V. network called MTV.
Van Halen’s debut features some of my favorite David Lee Roth lyrics. Take the track “On Fire” where he sings, “Now I’m hangin’ ten now baby As I ride your sonic wave!” Far out man, I’m waiting for the next wave! This is just a warm-up to an even better Diamond Dave lyric, however. That we’ll get to with reason #22 on the list.
Hard rock is all about bone-chilling high notes and David Lee Roth had one of the best high-note screams in the biz. None are better than the ones he hit on the track “On Fire”. Listening to this song is like watching “Rocky”. You wanna kick someone’s ass as soon as it’s over.
Long before the classic “Hot For Teacher” riff we had Edward Van Halen takin’ us to boogie school with “I’m The One”. Edward was influenced heavily by the boogie rock guitarists like Alvin Lee of Ten Years After (listen to “I’m Going Home”) and Jim McCarty of Cactus (listen to “Parchman Farm”).
On “I’m The One” he takes his influences and creates his own unique hard-driving riff which would became an integral part of the early Van Halen sound.
I talked about David Lee Roth’s clever lyrics already but he has to get a second lyrical mention on this list. It’s on the song “I’m The One” where Dave sums up the entire vibe of classic Van Halen: “We came here to entertain you Leaving here we aggravate you Don’t you know it means the same to me”. Love ‘em, hate ‘em….Hell, love and hate ‘em…It’s Van Halen!
How many guitarist out there will tell you they wanted to learn to play like Edward Van Halen? How many kids have dressed up like David Lee Roth for Halloween? I think you get my point but, just in case you need an example, take Billy Joe of Green Day. He once said one of the first songs he learned to play was a Van Halen song. “I listened to a lot of early Van Halen and I learned to play ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’, which is like near genius,” he said. Green Day fans – your welcome.
Where to begin when it comes to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love’? How about Edward Van Halen’s use of an electric sitar on his solo? As it turns out Edward didn’t even know the instrument he was using was an electric sitar. He told Guitar World, “It could have been a Coral, but it looked real cheap. It looked like a Danelectro. I never really knew it was an electric sitar, because it didn’t sound like one. It just sounded like a buzzy-fretted guitar. That thing was real bizarre.” Who said sitars were only for hippies and gurus?
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is a rock classic but Edward Van Halen never intended it to be that. He wrote the song as a punk rock parody, a way to poke fun at the emerging punk rock bands of the late 70s. I guess you could say Edward had the last laugh.
Back in the day David Lee Roth’s parents’ home was used for band rehearsals. It was during one of those rehearsals Edward Van Halen wrote “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”. In fact, he wrote it in just one day in Dave’s basement. Think about it, a song written in one day has been played on radio stations pretty much everywhere every day for the last 40 years.
The last nod to “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” goes to its ability to unite rock fans like no other song could before it. Night after night Van Halen would play to bigger and bigger audiences all pumping their fists in unison chanting “Hey! Hey! Hey!” at the end of this song. Van Halen Nation had officially begun.
Producer Ted Templeman’s influence on this album cannot be understated. He was known for producing Doobie Brothers records when he witnessed Van Halen playing in a club. Immediately he knew there was something special but he also knew that there were no guarantees when it came to capturing that live vibe on tape. The results speak for themselves but probably the best example of Templeman’s influence comes in the song “Jamie’s Cryin’”.
David Lee Roth put down the cigarettes and booze for a day before recording his vocals thinking a smoother delivery was the way to go. Disappointed in the results, Templeman had Dave go back to the formula that worked. Dave smoked a doobie (pun intended), downed a soda and a cheeseburger and proceeded to nail his vocals in the next take.
Big rock needs big drums and Alex Van Halen is the go-to guy. On “Jamie’s Cryin’” Alex leads us into the track with what would became the prototypical big-rock drum roll. It has become almost as familiar as the song itself. Buh-du-duh-duh-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum!
Van Halen’s debut album is an album featuring many firsts and the inclusion of the track “Ice Cream Man” led to what you could refer to as the very first “Brain Freeze Face”. You’ve seen it done by rock stars many times over the years but it may very well have begun with David Lee Roth when the band toured to support their debut album.
During “Ice Cream Man” Dave would strum a chord and make a scrunchy face akin to one made after biting into a frigid ice cream sundae. The flavor of that sundae? Take your pick, all of Dave’s flavors are GARE-un-TEEEED……To satisfyyyyyyy! Ow! Jump to the 8:12 mark of the video below if you'd like to witness the aforementioned "Brain Freeze Face".
Speaking of “Ice Cream Man”, did you even know that this a cover song? Not many do. We’ve heard many great cover songs over the years but this may be the best of them all since few even knew it existed before David Lee Roth and Van Halen made it famous.
The song was written and performed by a blues artist named John Brim back in 1953. The song was introduced to David Lee Roth by a high school friend whose parents had the 45 record. Soon after Dave added his own flavor to the song and started playing it at backyard parties in Pasadena. Not too long after that he would be be playing it in arenas around the world.
“Ice Cream Man” wasn’t the only cover song on Van Halen’s legendary debut. You know all about “You Really Got Me”. Now there was no mistaking who recorded this song before Van Halen. The Kinks had made it a hit back in 1964 but Van Halen injected some rock and roll steroids into their version. It became the song responsible for breaking the band into the big time. But that almost didn’t happen. See reason #11.
There are many things that have to happen for a band to make it to the big time and great timing is one of them. Take “You Really Got Me” as an example. Edward Van Halen made the mistake of playing the tape of Van Halen’s first album for another musician before it was released. He played it for Barry Brandt, the drummer of a rival band called Angel, in late 1977. Just one week later Angel was recording their own version of “You Really Got Me”. Ted Templeman and Warner Bros. found out and knew the clock was ticking. They rushed to get Van Halen’s version of the song to radio just in time. The single took off quickly rising into the top 40 and Van Halen never looked back. What if Angel released it first? We’ll never know.
A little ingenuity can go a long way and in the case of Van Halen’s debut album it’s no more evident than on the classic track “Runnin’ With The Devil”. Nowadays you can digitally simulate any sound you want for added effect but back in the late 70s it was a different story. With a shoestring budget these guys would have to get creative if they wanted to go beyond the sound of their instruments. The screaming horns heard opening this track comes from recordings of Alex Van Halen’s Opel Kadett along with Edward Van Halen’s Volvo, a Mercedes Benz and a Volkswagen. Now that’s using your imagination.
You haven’t made it as a rock band until you are accused of worshipping Satan. In the case of Van Halen it’s the track “Runnin’ With The Devil”. Early on religious organizations accused the lyrics of promoting the devil himself. The lyrics have nothing to do with Satan. For more on that you’ll have to read reason #8 on this list.
While those in the religious community viewed “Runnin’ With The Devil” as satanic others kept an open mind thankfully. In actuality the song is an example of the unique cocktail of the band’s background influences. While Edward and Alex Van Halen came from the Hendrix, Cream, Deep Purple school of rock David Lee Roth was influences by R&B, soul and funk. In the case of “Runnin’ With The Devil” his lyrics were inspired by the Ohio Players song “Runnin’ From The Devil”.
As with the track “On Fire” (see reason #24 on this list) David Lee Roth reaches way up high to deliver what is now one of the most recognizable screams in rock history on “Runnin’ With The Devil”. Those iconic wails would become as popular as the song itself years later thanks to the advent of the internet. It was sometime around the early 2000s when the isolated tracks of Dave’s vocals from this song surfaced on the web and it quickly went viral. Now just about everyone has heard Dave’s high notes. They were even recently used in an Acura car commercial.
What sets Edward Van Halen apart from many other fast-fingered guitarists that would follow in his path is his ability to shift gears when he needs. Take “Runnin’ With The Devil” as an example. Its riff and solos are far from the displays of technical wizardry he displays on tracks like “Eruption”, “I’m The One” or “On Fire”. It was and still is all about the song as a whole and Edward has come through time and time again with classic riffs.
Here’s what Guitar World had to say about “Runnin’ With The Devil”: “With its basic chord progression and melodic guitar ‘solos’, ‘Runnin with the Devil’ is one of the simplest songs Van Halen ever recorded, but like ‘Smoke on the Water’ and IIron Man’, a big part of its power comes from that simplicity."
To be considered the greatest hard rock album of all time you can’t just have hit singles. With Van Halen’s debut every single track kills it. We’re talkin’ eleven smokin’ hot tracks: “Runnin’ With The Devil”, “Eruption”, “You Really Got Me”, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘About Love”, “I’m The One”, “Jamie’s Cryin’”, “Atomic Punk”, “Feel Your Love Tonight”, “Little Dreamer”, “Ice Cream Man”, and “On Fire”. Pick any track you want, any day of the week, any time of day.
In 1978 disco was huge. Legendary rock artists were starting to infuse disco in their music just to get radio airplay. Then comes along this band out of Pasadena who flew in the face of musical trends and defiantly worked their way to the top of the rock heap. Rock and roll seemed to running on fumes but with the success of Van Halen’s debut we would see the eventual end of disco and the emergence of guitar rock for the next decade. Few bands could cause such a seismic shift in the music scene, Van Halen was one of them.
You can’t talk about Van Halen without mentioning the amazing three-part harmonies created by Michael Anthony, David Lee Roth and Edward Van Halen and it all started with this album. They sweetened up the crunching guitar riffs perfectly providing just the right balance of sweet and salt. There has been no band before or since that has been able to duplicate Van Halen’s harmonies.
Take a close look at the liner notes of Van Halen’s debut and you’ll notice the lead singer’s name is David Roth. A fairly simple name given to a man who was anything but simple. It wasn’t long after the release of this album that fans around the world were witnessing a front man like no other. The stage swagger, the toe-touching leaps, the between-song banter. He was part rock star, part superhero. Just like Edward Van Halen inspired so many guitarists who would follow, David Lee inspired a generation of front men. But let’s face it, there were those who would imitate him but nobody would, could or ever will duplicate him. There’s only one Diamond Dave.
The speed, the precision, the ingenuity, the fierce energy that came from within Edward Van Halen had jaws dropping in the winter of 1978 when the band’s debut was released. And it’s with “Eruption” that people were simply left speechless. To think it all came about one day in the studio during what Edward called a “warm up” session for an upcoming gig at the Whisky A Go Go that weekend. Producer Ted Templeman happened to walk by and heard his guitarist shredding, tapping and manipulating the strings like no one he’d seen or heard before. Templeman insisted that Edward record it for the album and the rest is rock and roll history. Long live King Edward…