Van Halen (Warner Bros., 1978)
Van Halen II (Warner Bros., 1979)
Women and Children First (Warner Bros., 1980)
Fair Warning (Warner Bros., 1981)
Diver Down (Warner Bros., 1982)
1984 (Warner Bros., 1984)
5150 (Warner Bros., 1986)
OU812 (Warner Bros., 1988)
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Bros., 1991)
Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now (Warner Bros., 1993)
Balance (Warner Bros., 1995)
Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 (Warner Bros., 1996)
Van Halen III (Warner Bros., 1998)
The Best of Both Worlds (Warner Bros., 2004)
During the Seventies heyday of AC/DC, Aerosmith, and Led Zeppelin, girls could dance to hard rock but they couldn't really strip. Van Halen eagerly remedied that with a gloriously sleazy act that combined the power and finesse of fine heavy metal, the poofery of glam, and the outlandish showmanship of James Brown. David Lee Roth became a new archetype for the oversexed hard-rock frontman, displacing Robert Plant and Steven Tyler with vaudevillian panache. And Eddie Van Halen's fretboard prestidigitation created a radically new rock-guitar technique; only Page and Hendrix match up in terms of pure originality. With drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony, they transformed hard rock into a rollicking burlesque show and paved the way for a whole generation of pop-metal followers.
Van Halen contains all of the band's hallmarks: the bad-boy boogie of "Runnin' with the Devil," the otherworldly guitar wizardry of "Eruption," a swaggering ode to a slut ("Jamie's Cryin'"), and a hyperenergized, this-is-the-way-we-do-it-in-Hollywood cover song (the Kinks' "You Really Got Me"). The group's major weaknesses are evident too, such as its lack of lyrical depth, side two duds, and penchant for oldtimey numbers hammed up for minstrelsy effect ("Ice Cream Man," a lecherous ditty originally by bluesman John Brim). The blistering Van Halen II takes the approach further, with an even more over-the-top cover ("You're No Good") and yet more inspired guitar pyrotechnics. Roth also steps more confidently into his character, developing his trademark bawdy squeal into a leitmotif and stepping back now and then to laugh at it all with canny self-awareness.
The band tried a tougher, more heavy-metal sound on Women and Children First and Fair Warning, but it flops due to the poor material and, significantly, a fairly humorless approach overall. Eddie Van Halen shows off a few new guitar tricks, but the most significant musical development is the synthesizer introduced at the end of Fair Warning, which would be exploited to greater effect on later albums.
Diver Down finds the band back in top form, entertaining with a smile and lots of squeals. The album contains a ridiculous five covers, but they're some of the band's best: "(Oh) Pretty Woman," "Dancing in the Street," and another Kinks cover, "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?," which jettisons the melancholy tone of the original in favor of a sexed-up strut, something that has never done them wrong.The band's masterpiece and greatest commercial success, 1984, is loaded equally with pop hits and rockers as hot as anything Van Halen had done before. But it was the pop numbers that broke: "Jump" is a trifle constructed wholly around the synth; guitars enter only as backup, and the solo is split between guitar and keyboard. Along with "Hot for Teacher" and "Panama," it was a megahit on MTV and established the band as one of the giants of the video age.
In 1985 Roth was kicked out and replaced by Sammy Hagar. Roth went solo and took with him the band's longtime producer, Ted Templeman. Both were key losses, and the bulk of the post-Roth material is insufferably dull and humorless. A majority of 5150, like "Love Walks In" and the monster hit "Why Can't This Be Love," grew out of the synth work on 1984, but at best it sounds like an imitation of the old band, and at worst sluggish and adrift. OU812 is marginally better, mainly because of "Finish What Ya Started," a hilarious faux-country toe-tapper that is the best (i.e., funniest) song they recorded without Roth. The other hits, "When It's Love" and "Feels So Good," are astonishingly sedate for a band that tore so lustfully through "Hot for Teacher" just four years before.
Templeman returned to coproduce For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and some of the old fire returned with him. "Poundcake," the first track, is a tough, libidinous stomp that could have been a Roth cut back in the day. But from there the band sounds lost: "Judgement Day" (spelling courtesy of the band) is built on a Judas Priest–circa-'81 riff, something they should have been avoiding since '81; "Spanked" is a flaccid white-funk ode to a TV commercial for a phone sex line with painfully bad lyrics ("Both feet up, watchin' TV/Some place to feast my eyes/I always drift on commercials/But this one blew my mind"). Exit Templeman again; Balance, the last with Hagar before his ouster, is a disgrace, from the pseudo-religious "The Seventh Seal" (featuring, for real, the Monks of Gyuto Tantric University in Tibet) to Hagar's ode to smoking "Panama red" in "Amsterdam."
In 1996 Hagar was replaced by…Roth. But the reunited lineup lasted only long enough to record two songs for the greatest-hits album. The songs, "Can't Get This Stuff No More" and "Me Wise Magic," sound like Hagar cuts, and though it's nice to hear Diamond Dave again, it only tarnishes the memory. Best of Vol. 1 is itself not a very useful retrospective; it omits "(Oh) Pretty Woman," "Hot for Teacher," "Dancing in the Street," and "You're No Good" and is dominated by mediocre post-Roth tracks. Two years after the aborted reunion with Roth, the band recruited its third singer, Gary Cherone of Extreme, who has even less personality than Hagar, though he can't really be blamed for the lifelessness of the music on Van Halen III; he's just hired pipes. In 2004 the band released the mishmash Best of Both Worlds, which featured alternating tracks from Roth and Haggar; the band hit the road with Haggar that same year. In 2006, the band again hired Roth as its singer and embarked on a highly successful tour.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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