This album confirms what a lot of Van Halen fans have suspected for some time: this is no mere arena-rock band. Beneath all the strutting and heavy-metal antics lies a band with more pop savvy than a dozen Journeys, as well as the chops to pull hooks from the most unlikely places. And 1984 is the album that brings all of Van Halen’s talent into focus.
From the start, it’s clear that the band has a few tricks up its sleeve. The opening track, “1984,” is a wistful synthesizer instrumental that could have come from Pete Townshend or Thomas Dolby. It manages to sound simultaneously streetsmart and glowingly pastoral, and it’s the perfect prelude to “Jump,” the album’s initial single. Like “1984,” “Jump” is not exactly the kind of song you’d expect from Van Halen: the main synthesizer figure uses suspended chords and a pedalpoint bass in a manner more suited to Asia. But once Alex Van Halen’s drums kick in and singer David Lee Roth starts to unravel a typically convoluted story line, things start sounding a little more familiar; and by the time Eddie Van Halen reinforces the synthesizers with steely bursts of guitar, you know this has got to be Van Halen, even though it’s a mainstream pop tune.
Of course, 1984 isn’t completely dominated by synthesizers. Aside from “I’ll Wait,” a spurned-love song boasting a haunting melody and flashy guitar solo, the rest of the album features the band’s trademark guitar excess. And on 1984, Eddie Van Halen manages to expand his repertoire of hot licks, growls, screams and seemingly impossible runs to wilder frontiers than you could have imagined. On “Top Jimmy,” for example, he moves without the slightest bit of hesitation from the incredibly precise stutterstepped fills in the verse to the fretboard gymnastics on the solo. “Hot for Teacher,” on the other hand, finds Eddie plugging his two-handed arpeggios into brother Alex’ fiery tom-tom work before the two light off into a turbocharged boogie riff that sounds like ZZ Top at Warp Factor 8.
But what really makes this record work is the fact that Van Halen uses all this flash as a means to an end — driving the melody home — rather than as an end in itself. Every song hits harder than expected, until by album’s end you’re convinced that, despite all the bluster, Van Halen is one of the smartest, toughest bands in rock & roll. Believe me, that’s no newspeak.