Hot for teacher – somebody get me a doctor. And the cradle will rock, little dreamer.
Take your whiskey home, fools. I’m the one runnin’ with the devil.
Beautiful girls dancing in the street; I’ll wait. Sinners swing Saturday afternoon in the park.
By classic, we mean the Roth era, where a potent foursome rocketed into the franken-stratosphere with a six-pack of records that still polish concrete today. Rather than ranking our choices, we put everything in discographical order and then exchanged thoughts, some of which you’ll read below. We also allowed ourselves personal picks, as usual.
So this is love? Happy trails...
1. Runnin’ with the Devil
Van Halen (1978)
TG: Wanna be startin’ thumpin’? Michael Anthony starts his underrated foundation pulse here and lends angelic backing vox for the demonic chorus. This track has horns – not brass or cuckold ones; it’s like a bull wrecking the China Shop of disco.
CM: I like the simplicity and space of it, the best choice to open their first record. Eddie provides a broad riff and a solo so melodic it had to be played twice, while Dave introduces his persona as streetwise solo agent, but in this case it’s more about survival rather than living it up.
CM: We cheated a bit here – the two aren’t bound as strongly as “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid” were on classic rock radio – but it allows us to acknowledge both Eddie’s fretboard showmanship and the group’s prowess at transforming cover songs. Great as the Kinks’ original is, VH ambush it with unprecedented fervor.
TG: Always makes me wonder if hearing this version kept the Davies brothers awake at night until they felt compelled to release whatever early ’80s album – Come Dancing by the Parley End Up Blowing All Your Lolas for the Week. Not that a Kinks komeback was totally a bad thing...
TG: Punks from the waist down. Alex shows off a bit...tasty cymbals under string massages. Somewhere, Jamie’s crying.
CM: Head-down energy and more lyrical darkness in a song described by its title. You know they’re not really punks but they make the word their own. (Eddie has referred to “Ain’t Talkin Bout Love” as near-punk, too.) The band didn’t do live albums in the early days because the studio takes were essentially live, and that’s obvious here, with the raw room balance and rhythm section behavior during the guitar solo. Heck, it’s obvious about everything on the first two or three albums.
TG: Dave goes from streetwise to world weary, and the beat goes slinky.
CM: As much as the debut album introduces the characters and method of the band, it’s also relatively diverse with every track earning its place, and “Dreamer” has quite the aura. Striking performance from Dave, and the backing vox put it over the top.
CM: As tuneful as any rock or pop ever was. No solo needed, and Ed has his hands full tapping harmonic decoration.
TG – no, wait, it’s Martin: What do you think about Van Halen?
Rust: Rock music is adrenalized anthems backed by protohistoric rhythms; such Neanderthalic chants fuel the hormone-soaked desires of the young. As the generation folds, the music of one's youth becomes advertising jingles that feed misremembered ephemera and re-focus sexual desires to wants of status and self-worth.
Martin: Russ, do you enjoy anything?
TG: Because this song is sick as hell!
CM: Inflamed riff has spread to distended rump, convulsive tics, delirious pleas, and string fever. Best crank it up twice and wait for morning.
CM: Man, these cats could swing. Eddie accents slightly in front of the beat as he does in so many rhythm parts; it’s not hard to imagine Alex inverting his groove and a walking bassline fitting right in. Dave sits on top of the world but not without self-deprecating humor as he watches the beautiful gal walk away.
TG: This is the real sinner’s swing.
CM: Indubitably one of their best, lifted by a sonic hook (Wurlitzer through a flanger and Marshall). In fact, most of the rhythm track is keyboard, often mistaken for guitar – though there’s plenty of that as well. It fits right in with Women and Children First’s expansion of the group sound, which also includes more acoustic flavor (as opposed to brief novelties on the first two albums) and looser arrangements like “Everybody Wants Some” and “Fools”.
TG: A slowed and heavier “Dance the Night Away” riff as Dave reports on the down and out youth of Anywhere, America.
TG: Alex shines here as his stickwork drives to the chorus where the backing voices warm the heart like fuzzy socks. The mellifluous refrain reigns excitement until the band’s rush to climax just after. A second winsome refrain rides us into the sunset. Diminuendo in Blue...Balls.
CM: This earnest resolution to win one lady’s heart always seemed epic to me, perhaps an illusion due to the 12-string guitar, sweet vocal harmony, and changes of pace. Speaking of vocals, it’s a shame that the VH brothers cold-shouldered Michael Anthony in later years, his voice being one of the band’s hallmarks. He also has more flair on bass than Eddie’s mandate for simplicity would allow, as stowaway moments on this album prove.
TG: Eddie’s peccadilloes battle Dave’s lyrical aggrandizement. After the incredible harmonic intro, the band punches its way into true hard rock territory where machine gun licks leave bullet holes in the genre. Having left their mark, the guys veer into sustained outro pleasure.
CM: Fair Warning gets tagged as VH’s “dark” album, and while it lacks carefree atmosphere, it ain’t a threnody, either. Even “Mean Street” has a breakdown that implores the listener to “dance, baby.” That being said, no other sun shines on this street, as the pulsing rhythm strikes poor boys down.
CM: The opening riff is legend, but note how its chugging force gets twisted in the pre-chorus. Small anomalies like that throughout Fair Warning point toward it being partly a co-opted Eddie solo effort, one where he may have wanted to tackle more sophisticated ideas. In any case, he spent a lot of time working alone on this album and it shows.
TG: Is it time to give Ted Templeman his props? The classic VH albums have always sounded great, and this one shines in all directions.
CM: Over a bass-led intro, Dave treats vices casually then gives way to sympathy for the broken-hearted. The music wanders into areas they hadn’t been before – probably envisioned as instrumental, I’d guess – and is quite interesting, though not often found in VH hymnals.
TG: Bumpworthy bass grinds your mind as Alex accents like a French tickler set to stun. Did Dave just walk in and thwart (another) instrumental endeavor? Probably.
TG: Uptempo riff sets the pace. Is as musically unsettling as Steely Dan’s “Do It Again” is lyrically; both tackle Western (American) themes while achieving different ends.
CM: Let it not be said Diver Down is sub-par. Griping about the album being half covers doesn’t erase how enjoyable they are, and the originals sit among VH’s best, especially this one. Mike and Alex summon a storm beneath quickfire guitar hooks and a great vocal. If we were ranking this list, it would be high indeed.
CM: “Sweet rhythm” for a luscious vamp that challenges the vocal to deliver, and it does. Dave truly sings more on Diver Down because the material requires it.
TG: Dave’s muse of Woman as the embodiment of Love, Eros, Fantasy, Nature and Soul. Secrets of life, it seems.
CM: After a tasteful nylon-string intro, there’s a full-band episode that peeks at Eddie and Alex’s inner prog/fusion tastes, then they shift into a glorious pop-rocker that complements “Hang 'em High”.
TG: Eddie’s peppy figure releases endorphins into my mind; however, the dramatic and slightly dissonant chopped chord that follows introduces a hint of worry and anxiety.
CM: Oberheim triads, driving eighths, nonsense kerbuffle masquerading as lyric, jagged guitar break, triumphant synth solo. Pointed sisters still ask: how did this become a huge hit? The temple man would know. So do I. There’s no way around it.
TG: After the Valhallan intro, the song briefly drifts into Jazzercise territory with Dave directing calisthenics via microphone prosthetics. (TG: “How do you spell calisthenics?” CM: [gives correct spelling] TG: “How do you spell prosthetics?” CM: “What the fuck are you writing?”) All is made whole with righteous riffage provided by Edward.
TG: Is Dave driving while the passenger is easing his seat back or vice versa? Are they parked in the Hollywood Hills tumbling dice and getting rocks off? Was Panama a state of mind or a nation state? It talks about cars and girls and it rocks, so put it on the record machine and enjoy.
CM: By 1984, VH’s knack for hooks stood as tall as their hi-watt reputation, and “Panama” drives both home in top gear. How appropriate for Dave to blurt “Jump back, what’s that sound” in the first line.
CM: An exaggerated strut of a song, followed by an unrelated outro where three Eddies swirl around something Doobie-esque...
TG: “China Grove” or “Black Water”?
CM: Maybe a crooked “Long Train Running”, but anyhow, that coda is a sweet slice of pie that almost makes you wanna roller skate.
TG: I don’t know if I’m hungry or disgusted.
CM: Don’t blame me, them was the times.
CM: Deeper into synth world than “Jump” with richer twists along the way, perhaps due to the minor rather than major key. Alex turns in a fine performance with far more than just those roto-tom fills.
TG: Much richer, my friend. And no doubt made so by Michael “Moneybags” McDonald dropping dimes to Dave’s diamonds as they bounced ideas off each other during a writing session – the viewing of which must surely have been akin to the birth of Castor and Pollux in the far heavens.
TG: False intro diverts into mind-melting onslaught. Not a song as much as a contrivance; not a track as much as a trick; not a night stick so much as a night cap. Stick that in your rump and roast it!
CM: Fifty shades of awesome for those who like it different ways. Last part arrives from nowhere to take us away from the House o’ Pain.
Todd’s 3 Faves:
Ice Cream Man
Van Halen (1978)
TG: Mr. Roth’s wild ride through all flavors (and Push-Ups, too) and favors of the tastiest kind. Dave’s tongue trots along as the band eventually melts your face (and cone).
TG: Move over, Benny Goodman, Dad Van Halen jumps in on clarinet as Dave illustrates the traditional tale of being tamed by tail. Diamond Dave changes to Vaudeville Dave.
TG: The entire track still warps my mind, and the video warped my pubescence.
Chris’ 3 Faves:
I’m the One
Van Halen (1978)
CM: Infectious swing once again, a hard-rock adaptation of big band boogie – the phrasing, pre-chorus chromatics, “shoobee-doo-wah” break, everything. Eddie flies effortlessly between rhythm and lead lines, boosted by a watertight groove that slices ’n dices and could probably solve a world problem or two in its spare time.
CM: I faintly remember an explanation that “Intruder” was devised as a prelude to “Pretty Woman” to fit the video length of the latter. Whatever the reason, it’s tensely cinematic on its own.
CM: A reinvented Motown staple with soul preserved, and the Moog, cowbell, and syncopated bass are all up my alley. Though some retroactive commentators downgrade Diver as much as we tout its virtues, I’ve never stopped enjoying it, full-bug-stop.