Van Halen: 20 Insanely Great Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know – Rolling Stone
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20 Insanely Great Van Halen Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know

A journey through the hidden corners of the band’s discography – from rare demos to overlooked deep cuts

david lee roth an eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18th, 1984.

Ebet Roberts/Redferns/Getty

When Van Halen performed a concert on Jimmy Kimmel’s outdoor stage in 2015 to promote the release of their new Tokyo Dome Live in Concert album, lead singer David Lee Roth cut his nose open while twirling a baton during the song “Panama.” Roth scampered off stage and had the wound — which would later require 14 stitches — taped up. The band continued to play as guitarist Eddie Van Halen, one of rock’s most revered and profoundly original players, filled the space with a fusillade of licks and noises. Minutes later, Roth returned to finish the set, first asking the audience: “How do I look? Like fucking Hiawatha, right?”

A less-resilient act would have folded when first blood was drawn that night, or more likely wouldn’t have already made it this far into a career that has spanned five decades, three singers and two bass players. What could have kept this band, formed in Pasadena in 1972 by Eddie and his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen, together so long? Well there’s the money — the group has topped the charts, sold tens of millions of album and packed countless arenas over the course of its career — but there’s also the music.

With both Roth, who left the band in 1985 and returned in 2006, and his replacement Sammy Hagar (not so much with third singer Gary Cherone, but we’ll get to that later), Van Halen have never failed to deliver. There are of course the hits — “Jump,” “Running With the Devil,” “Finish What You Started” — that anyone who has ever tuned into a rock radio station knows backwards and forwards, but digging deeper uncovers countless album tracks and unreleased gems that reveal a band with a musical range and sensibility that extends far beyond feel-good anthems and screeching rockers — not that there’s anything wrong with either of those.

We’ve put together a list of the coolest rare and unreleased tracks and deep album cuts in both the official and unofficial Van Halen discography. Crank them up as you head out to the show — hopefully no one gets hurt!

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Donut City”

An instrumental available only on the soundtrack of the Cameron Crowe–penned 1984 movie The Wild Life, "Donut City" is as long forgotten as the teens-bongs-and-nunchakus romp for which it was penned. But while the film, which starred Eric Stoltz, Lea Thompson and Rick Moranis, might deserve to remain buried in the rubble of pop culture, "Donut City" — named for the shop that Thompson's character Anita works at — is a propulsive and memorable rocker featuring a beat lifted straight from Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," baritone guitar riffing and Eddie Van Halen indulging in a Hendrix-inspired backwards guitar solo.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Buried deep on disc two of 1993's Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now this electrifying rendition of the Who classic reminds us that Van Halen aren't just a killer band, they're a killer cover band to boot. Eddie Van Halen's patented finger-style popping proves perfectly suited to reinterpreting the keyboard part that opens the song, and when Sammy Hagar lets loose the throat-shredding "Yeahhhhhh" that serves as the song's climax, it has all the power and passion of Roger Daltrey's original.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Blues Breaker”

Although credited to Brian May and Friends and therefore not strictly a "Van Halen song," this epic 12-minute tribute to Eric Clapton, the two guitarists' shared idol, features Queen's May and Eddie Van Halen gleefully trading licks over a standard blues progression. May, a hard-rock guitarist with a style and sound no less innovative than Van Halen's, must have felt like he held his own in this face-off as he chose to release the historic jam on his 1983 Star Fleet Project EP. It's a good thing he did, as this an exceedingly rare example of Eddie mixing it up with another guitarist.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Put Out the Lights”

After seeing the still-unsigned band perform in a Sunset Strip club and being duly impressed, Gene Simmons of Kiss offered to produce a series of demos for Van Halen in 1976. On the recordings, which are widely available as the bootleg Zero album, the band's talent is amply clear even if Eddie Van Halen has yet to perfect the guitar sound that would make him legend. David Lee Roth, however, had already reached his full potential, as had his vocal foil, bassist Michael Anthony, and this rifftastic rocker is fully fist-pumping. Simmons, by the way, was unable to secure a deal for Van Halen (he also unsuccessfully tried to convince the band change their name to Daddy Longlegs). After the "Zero" recordings were completed, he released them from their contract — a rare business fumble for the money-obsessed bassist.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Baluchitherium”

The making of 1995's Balance album came at a time when relations between lead singer Sammy Hagar — it would be his last record with the band — and Eddie Van Halen were strained to the breaking point, so there is speculation that this song was originally intended to feature vocals but that Hagar demurred. Be that as it may, this enormously heavy instrumental track is appropriately named after the largest land mammal known to man, a rhinoceros-like beast that roamed the earth 30 million years ago, featuring as it does a huge Zeppelinesque drum beat, a wall of layered guitars and fleet-fingered solo that could very well be saying, "Hey Sammy, I'm fucking Eddie Van Halen, I don't need no stinking singer to make a song."

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Crossing Over”

Eddie Van Halen originally wrote the darkest and most emotionally raw song in the Van Halen catalog in 1983 after the suicide of a close friend. The mournful track was later dusted off and repurposed after the death of Van Halen manager Ed Leffler in 1993. Released as a bonus track on the Japanese version of 1995's Balance and as the B-side of the U.S. CD-single (remember those?) for "Can't Stop Lovin' You," "Crossing Over" superimposes new instrumentation and vocals over the song's original demo, recorded a decade earlier. Careful listeners will notice that one can still hear Eddie's demo vocal underneath Sammy Hagar's more high-octane take on the lyrics.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Atomic Punk”

Van Halen's one and only foray into the world of dystopian sci-fi is a remarkably successful one. David Lee Roth, usually one to approach his vocals with a wink and a grin eschews all irony on this Van Halen rave-up and convincingly assumes the role of a post-apocalyptic gang lord who is a "victim of the science age" and ruler of the "nether worlds." That Eddie is able to make his guitar sound like a spaceship landing in a barren wasteland in the song's intro (he does so by rubbing his palm across the strings while his guitar is hooked up to a whooshing phaser pedal) doesn't hurt the mood either.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)”

It was David Lee Roth who convinced Van Halen to cover this 1924 tune by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, and as the period-faithful rendition on 1983's Diver Down demonstrates the group was up to the task. Alex Van Halen swings on the brushes, Michael Anthony hold down the low end on acoustic bass, and Eddie, playing a hollow body jazz guitar, navigates the song's dizzying chord changes with an aplomb that most rock guitarists could never dream of. But what makes this recording a truly special moment in Van Halen history is that the clarinetist blowing on this track is none other than Alex and Eddie's father, Jan Van Halen, a professional musician who died only a few years after this recording was made.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“In a Simple Rhyme”

Van Halen would impact the charts with their fair share of sweet-hearted power ballads after Sammy Hagar joined the fold, but songs expressing deep sentiments were few and far between in the David Lee Roth era. A notable exception is this Who-inspired track from Women and Children First, in which Diamond Dave suddenly goes all emo and admits that a girl has "up and left, and I almost died." The song rocks hard (there's even a brief bass solo) to mitigate the unexpected outpouring of feelings, but Roth reveals himself to be just as vulnerable to the love bug as the rest of us mere mortals.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Drop Dead Legs”

One of the few tracks on the blockbuster 1984 album not be released as a single (although it did appear on the B-Side of the U.S. version of the "Panama" 45, this none-too-subtle rocker features such classic nonsensical DLR lines as "Dig that steam, giant butt" and "Nice white teeth, Betty Boop" and boasts one of the blockbuster album's most tremendous riffs (imagine AC/DC's "Back in Black" run through Van Halen's sunny SoCal prism). The song concludes with a two-minute instrumental outro jam on which Eddie stretches harmonically and channels to fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth one of the few players that he regularly name-checks.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Dirty Movies”

Van Halen's ode to porn stars from 1981's Fair Warning album may feature a dated lyric — the song's pre-video and Interwebs protagonist does the nasty "on the silver screen" — but its sleazy riff and slide guitar salvos still stand the test of time. "Dirty Movies" notably features a mid-section breakdown in which the band members extemporaneously whistle, holler and urge a wayward waif to "take it all off," an arrangement trick subsequently appropriated by any number of lesser hair-metal bands. Van Halen also revisited the device on the 1984 hit "Hot for Teacher," in which David Lee Roth, this time assuming the role of a junior high delinquent, utters the immortal line, "I don't feel tardy."

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“5150”

The epic title track from the 1986 5150, Van Halen's maiden voyage with vocalist Sammy Hagar, showcases the band making full use of their new singer's extended vocal range and is a one stop shop for all things excellent in the Van Halen lexicon. Rad intro that provokes uncontrollable air-guitaring? Check. Chunky, funky verse riff? Check. Anthemic, fist-pumping sing-along chorus? Check. Face-melting extended shred interlude that will pretenders to the throne never want to pick up an actual guitar again? Check and double check.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“House of Pain” (‘Zero’ Version)

A song with the same title and riff would appear on 1984, but this demo version, also from a batch of tracks produced by Simmons, is far more unhinged. The tempo of this early iteration is amped up, the vocal performance impassioned and the beat unrelentingly fierce. Frenzied verses are punctuated by bombastic lead guitar jabs and the chorus, while gone on the subsequent version of the song, concludes with the haunting car horn sound that would soon serve to open "Runnin' With the Devil," the first track on the band's debut album.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Somebody Get Me a Doctor”

Perhaps the most upbeat song ever penned about overdosing on either pills or booze — David Lee Roth's minimalist lyrics leaves this open to interpretation — "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" is the loud and loose climax of Van Halen II, the band's 1979 sophomore outing. The unbridled energy of the playing suggest that this recording must capture a first or second take in all of its ragged glory, and Roth has rarely squealed, squawked and screamed as exuberantly, as he does here while celebrating his own near demise.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Secrets”

A deep cut from 1982's Diver Down — an album that features no less than five covers songs, including "(Oh) Pretty Woman" and "Happy Trails" — "Secrets'" boasts a mellow shuffle, shimmering guitars and intricate chord changes that could just as well have been conceived by jazz-rockers Steely Dan. The song's smooth fuzoid solo, reportedly nailed in one take, is among Eddie's best and most melodic, and demonstrates that he is probably justified when he grumbles in interviews about being pigeonholed as a "heavy-metal guitarist."

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“That’s Why I Love You”

Few would argue (including the musicians involved) that 1998's Van Halen III, the only album by the band to feature Extreme's singer Gary Cherone, was anything but an unmitigated artistic and commercial disaster. The arrangements are directionless, the music plodding and almost contrarian in its lack of discernable structure or melody, and Cherone, who has always acquitted himself well in other musical contexts, sounds frightened and frantic throughout. Given the lack of aesthetic judgment exercised by all involved, it's par for the course that "That's Why I Love You," which would have been the one really solid tune on the album, was not included. The sound on this demo is not the best, but it gives a glimpse into a parallel universe where Van Cherone showed some promise.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“You and Your Blues”

A Different Kind of Truth, Van Halen's 2012 reunion album with David Lee Roth, failed to move a lot of units — it's not even certified Gold in the U.S. — but the material on the record is remarkably vital, perhaps because it was largely culled from remnants of the original Roth era. Among the record's standout tracks is "You and Your Blues" an acerbic breakup song with a soaring, Cheap Trick–approved power-pop chorus that, in a bygone era, would have dominated the rock radio airwaves for months.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Could This Be Magic”

David Lee Roth first exhibited his considerable acoustic guitar chops on  "Ice Cream Man," a cover of a Chess records side by blues guitarist John Brim from Van Halen's self-titled 1978 debut. On this unplugged, old-timey gem from the 1980 LP Women and Children and First, he returns to the instrument, choogling and boogieing on rhythm guitar as Eddie licks it up on the slide Dobro. The track showcases the band's range and sheer musicianship; had they chosen to embrace bluegrass or skiffle instead of hard rock, we'd probably still be talking about them today.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Sinners Swing!”

Thanks in large part to the horsepower imparted by Alex Van Halen's unique, propulsive drumming style, Van Halen have a rhythmic engine that's built for speed and there's no shortage of up-tempo rave-ups in their catalog. "Sinners Swing!" from Fair Warning is one of the and meanest and leanest of the bunch, both cranked up and, if we're being honest, with lyrics like "She looks so fucking good, so sexy and so frail," a little bit creepy as well.

david lee roth and eddie van halen

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen of Van Halen performing in Jacksonville, Florida on January 18, 1984. (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

“Blood and Fire”

"I told you I was coming back. Say you missed me. Say it like you mean it." David Lee Roth certainly deserves to puff out his chest on this A Different Kind of Truth highlight, in which he hits a succession of high notes that would have cowed him as a young buck. The lyrics spin Halen's origin story over a riff that harkens back to Diver Down's classic "Little Guitars," and Wolfgang Van Halen ably steps in for excommunicated bassist Michael Anthony not only on the four-string, but also on background vocal duties.

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