"It's real obvious to me," says producer Ted Templeman when asked why 1984 won Van Halen a broader and larger audience. "Eddie Van Halen discovered the synthesizer."
The foursome had been selling out arenas for more than a decade on the basis of Eddie's virtuosic, fleet-fingered guitar playing, singer David Lee Roth's blunt, raunchy lyrics and the brute force of Michael Anthony's bass and Alex Van Halen's drums. But 1984, abetted by tunes that swirled elements of synth pop into metal — most evidently on the hit single "Jump" — and by a string of campy, low-budget videos that found favor on MTV, carried Van Halen to a new plateau of popularity. No longer viewed as threatening to those with a chronic fear of metal, the band somehow became amusing and even endearing to middle America. And all the while Van Halen continued to rock like crazy.
According to Templeman, who produced all six Van Halen albums prior to and including 1984, having time to experiment in the studio made a difference. "The group was finding out how to do stuff for themselves, rather than 'Here, do this, because we've gotta get back on the road,'" he says. "So they had a little time and got creative. They got into all kinds of different things, because they were bored doing the same old stuff."
At the time, Eddie was in the process of building his own studio with Don Landee, the band's longtime engineer (and now its producer). While boards and tape machines were being installed, the guitarist began fiddling around on synthesizers to pass the time. "There were no presets," says Templeman. "He would just twist off until it sounded right."
One night Eddie and Alex laid down an instrumental demo of what would become "Jump," excitedly ringing up their slumbering producer when they finished. "I still have it on my answering machine," recalls Templeman with a chuckle. "'Ted, come on up! It's like three in the morning, but we really came up with something great.' They played a little bit over the phone."
Roth added the lyrics, which he wrote while being chauffeured in his red Mercury convertible, and "Jump" went on to top the charts — heralding the arrival of hard rock and heavy metal in the theretofore impervious Top Forty. "They connected with a pop audience," says Templeman. "Whatever Bon Jovi has today, Van Halen picked up with 'Jump' then."
"Jump" was followed by two more singles from 1984: "I'll Wait," a ballad whose chorus was written by Roth with an uncredited Michael McDonald, and "Panama," a hard-charging number to which the sounds of Eddie Van Halen's revving Lamborghini were added.
The album turned out to be the last recorded by Van Halen in its original configuration, as Roth left — not entirely amicably — to go solo and was soon replaced by Sammy Hagar. Producer Templeman swears he didn't see it coming: "There were no indicators to signal a breakup at all. Matter of fact, they were really united on that sucker. Balls to the wall, they were going after the world, man!"