By Greg Kennelty, February 12, 2018
Van Halen's 1978 debut self-titled album checks off quite a few boxes.
- • Guitar riff that every budding guitarist aspires to play? Eruption.
- • Classic song opening with a timeless chorus that you'll still hear on the radio today? Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love.
- • Outstanding cover song that eclipses the original? The Kinks’ You Really Got Me and to a lesser extent, John Brim's Ice Cream Man.
- • Song you'll still hear at arenas and just about every bar karaoke in existence? Runnin' With The Devil.
In other words, Van Halen is essentially a greatest hits album disguised as a debut album.
Van Halen was released on February 10, 1978 and went Gold on May 24 before going Platinum in October. Van Halen would continue to sell phenomenally over the years, hitting Diamond status (10 million units sold) on August 7, 1996.
Guitarist Eddie Van Halen's finger tapping and gratuitous use of the whammy bar on Eruption was mind-blowing at the time, while on Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, Eddie cranked up the flanger giving his guitar an alien-like sound. Heavy metal might've come around in full force in the early 1980s, but Eddie Van Halen was setting the bar 1978. Eddie's guitar playing is so influential the band got its own Guitar Hero video game in 2009, featuring nine of the 11 tracks from the debut album.
In 1976, before there were endless accolades and multi-million dollar sales, Van Halen demo'd the songs for their debut album with KISS frontman Gene Simmons. The demo was ultimately shelved because of Van Halen's displeasure with the recording and Simmons' lack of availability due to his touring commitments. As Simmons would tell the Three Sides Of The Coin Podcast in February 2018, "I also produced that first Van Halen, 24-track demo that I imagine got them signed. I tore up the contract because I didn't have enough time to work on it — we were going back out on tour."
In late 1976, the band played a show with the punk band Venus at the Whiskey-A- Go-Go in West Hollywood. Venus guitarist Roni Lee told journalist Greg Renoff she and the band just didn't get why Van Halen was playing a punk club. "Nobody knew who they were. These guys? Their pants are too tight. They weren't wearing black. They were showing their chests. They were still into the glam rock stuff, and they weren't in the Hollywood scene." In attendance were Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman of Warner Bros, who the band would sign with shortly after.
Van Halen hit Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood in October 1977 for three weeks to record their debut album for a cost of $40,000. Producer Ted Templeman captured the band live in the studio, adding overdubs afterward. The cover of the album features photos taken from the Whiskey, and the guitar Eddie Van Halen is holding is currently housed at The Smithsonian Institution.
Van Halen was a successful debut, despite scathing reviews, such as the one from critic Robert Christgau, who called Van Halen "the biggest bar band in the San Fernando Valley." Rolling Stone added that Van Halen’s secret is simply "not doing anything that's original while having the hormones to do it better than all those bands who have become fat and self-indulgent and disgusting [like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin]."
Van Halen turns 40 years old in 2018 and has stood the test of time in the same fashion David Lee Roth stood on stage the year of its release – with a sense of indestructability and bravado. Van Halen still blurs the line between heavy metal and loud in-your-face punk: You can practically hear the spandex and hairspray in Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love but songs like Atomic Punk and You Really Got Me boast the knuckle-baring punk-rock attitude prevalent in the late 70s. Then there are songs on the album like the closer On Fire, which mash together the glam rock aesthetic and punk attitude for an unsurprisingly awesome set closer.
The musicianship on Van Halen is incredible. Eddie Van Halen proves he’s capable of everything: from soaring and mind-boggling leads a la Eruption, to more introspective work such as Jamie’s Cryin where you’re treated to a toned down version of Eddie’s playing. Backing Eddie up are his brother Alex on drums and bassist Michael Anthony, both of whom make up a substantial portion of Van Halen’s sound. The duo match Eddie’s energy when need be, without getting in his – or each other’s way – throughout the album. If there’s a rhythm section any bassist or drummer should pay attention to, it’s the one gracing the cover of Van Halen. Then there’s vocalist David Lee Roth, whose voice remains consistently powerful whether he’s softly crooning in the lower register or belting out stratospheric high notes. There’s a reason Van Halen is held in such high regard by musicians.
Production-wise, Van Halen couldn’t sound more natural. Save for a few overdubs, the album was recorded entirely live in the studio and those performances shine through on the recording. You can pick out each individual instrument on each song with ease, with the production lending an even bigger helping hand to the roomy, natural sound of the album. Van Halen is not embellished or enhanced in any way – what you hear is what Van Halen was capable of at the time, and you can practically hear the paint peeling off the walls.
Van Halen is front-to-back a great album. How an album whose musicianship and songwriting are impeccably interesting and well-executed could possibly go out of style is beyond me. There’s no Jump on Van Halen, or Why Can’t This Be Love, or Hot For Teacher, or anything. This is the sound of a hard rock band with everything to prove who were more than capable of nailing it, and they did so with flying colors. Van Halen is an album that set the pace for the coming wave of heavy metal and for guitarists everywhere and is a landmark in music that should not be overlooked.