Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Van Halen Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

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Van Halen (1978, Warner Bros.)

A +

Van Halen’s self-titled debut was a landmark release, one that would permanently alter the musical landscape. The world of hard rock had never before seen a frontman quite like the wild and charismatic David Lee Roth (whose stage persona was reportedly modeled after that of Black Oak Arkansas’s Jim “Dandy” Mangrum, though the one-of-a-kind Roth brought a whole new level of hyperactivity and flamboyance to the proceedings that put him in a league of his own), while Eddie Van Halen worked his fretboards with such utter creativity, wizardry and command (while simultaneously making it look as if he were doing it all completely effortlessly) that he single-handedly inspired countless thousands of young men to go out and take guitar lessons in hopes of becoming even just a fraction as great an axe man as the gifted Eddie. Of course, the band’s sound and stage presence might ultimately have made them little more than merely a great live band if they also hadn’t the songs to go with it, but fortunately for rock fans everywhere, these guys could write, too, and there is a surprisingly large number of instant rock classics on this disc, among them the ominous slow-burning grooves of “Runnin’ with the Devil” (as great an opening cut as you’ll find on any debut album from a hard-rock act), the pounding rock of “Jamie’s Crying” and “Ain’t Talkin’’Bout Love,” a first-rate cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” (not quite as deliciously sludgy as the original, but sporting superior backing-vocal work), and, of course, the now-iconic near-two-minute guitar solo known as “Eruption,” easily one of the most historically significant slices of lead-guitar work ever captured on tape. Even cuts that should, in theory, be pure throwaways, like “Ice Cream Man,” end up being not merely just fun but actual highlights of the disc, thanks to the unbridled charisma and enthusiasm the band members inject into the proceedings. Any serious rock fan should have a copy of this disc in their collection.    

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Van Halen II (1979, Warner Bros.)

A

You just can’t top a debut as groundbreaking and awe-inspiring as Van Halen, and one suspects that the group itself realized this, because this sophomore outing from the band is noticeably lighter and a bit less self-serious than their debut, even if it partially mimics that disc’s formula, right down to incorporating another brief guitar instrumental (“Spanish Fly”) and another ‘60s cover (Dee Dee Warwick’s “You’re No Good,” which Linda Ronstadt would later have her first and surprisingly only Number One hit with). It may not be nearly as influential a disc or contain as many classics, but in some ways, it’s actually more fun. “Light Up the Sky” and “D.O.A.” are minor gems, but the best cuts here are easily the driving rock of “Dance the Night Away” (the band’s first Top Twenty hit), the playful “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,”  and the swinging boogie of album closer “Beautiful Girls.”

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Women and Children First (1980, Warner Bros.)

A – 

In terms of sheer instrumental showmanship, the band is as dazzling here as it is on any disc it’s ever made, its self-titled debut included, and Eddie Van Halen in particular steals the show with his Hendrix-worthy licks. But, though rock fanatics will undoubtedly savor this disc, which moves the band in a heavier direction, more pop-minded fans of the band who may have relished Van Halen II may be slightly disappointed by the album, which just contains eight proper, fully-realized songs (there are also two very brief instrumentals, “Tora Tora!” and “Growth,” the latter an uncredited track hidden at the end of “In a Simple Rhyme”), only one of which the label actually deemed worthy for release as a single. Mind you, it’s a great single – the pounding “And the Cradle Will Rock …” – but the band is undeniably back-pedaling here from the mass crossover exposure they gained through Van Halen II and limiting their appeal somewhat. But though the disc could have been a bit more radio-friendly, it’s hard to deny the greatness of such songs as “And the Cradle Will Rock …,” “Loss of Control,” “Romeo Delight,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” One interesting sidebar is that this album unusually features an outside guest appearance – that of Nicolette Larson (of “Lotta Love” and “Let Me Go, Love” fame), who provides backing vocals on the acoustic country-blues hoedown of “Could This Be Magic?” 

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Fair Warning (1981, Warner Bros.)

B –

Ask most Van Halen diehards what the weakest album of the Roth era is, and you’re most likely to receive the covers-heavy Diver Down as a response. But assuming you don’t value heaviness over hooks, you can make a very valid case for Fair Warning for being the weakest in the bunch. For starters, there are just nine cuts here, two of which clock in at under two minutes, resulting in the band’s shortest album yet. But, much more problematically, seldom ever has the band sounded this uninterested in crafting anything resembling a single. Not that the band doesn’t rock, of course – “Sinner’s Swing” and “Dirty Movies” are as gritty as anything they’ve done to date – but they don’t really deliver in the hooks department except for on “Unchained,” arguably the best track here if you’re going on sheer songwriting quality, and the band is also in a strangely bitter and dark mood here (at least by Van Halen’s standards, anyway) both lyrically and musically. “Push Comes to Shove” is an unusually funky song for the band, but it’s a slow, haunting, wormy brand of funk, while even the ironically-titled “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” is a very ominous-sounding synthesizer instrumental. (The band would later use synths to much brighter effect on future albums, beginning with Diver Down.) Not that the album is without its minor gems – namely the aforementioned “Unchained” and “So This Is Love?” – but there is a good reason why this is the least-represented Roth-era album on the band’s best-of packages.

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Diver Down (1982, Warner Bros.)

B +

Arguably the oddest of the Roth-era albums, there are twelve cuts in all here, three of which are brief instrumental interludes and an astounding five of which are covers. So, in reality, you’re only truly getting four full-length new originals from the band, so fans who felt ripped off by this disc can’t really be faulted for feeling that way. Even the choice of covers is a bit weird for a hard-rock band: one of them is a New Orleans-jazz-styled remake of the 1924 standard “Big Bad Will (Is Sweet William Now),” while the disc closes with a minute-long rendition of “Happy Trails” – yes, the same “Happy Trails” that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans used to sing at the end of their radio program. But, though what’s here gives you reason to wonder if the band isn’t suffering from writer’s block, this is actually arguably a more fan-friendly – and fun – disc than the insular and angry Fair Warning. The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” (a lyrically fitting album-opener for an upbeat disc that was the follow-up to the notoriously dark and decidedly un-happy Fair Warning) makes a bit more sense and is very well-done, but the best covers of all here are the grunged-up rendition of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” and the band’s radical makeover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” which is recast here as a synth-laden, throbbing disco-rock number. It shouldn’t work, but it actually turns out to be pretty ingenious and one of the best Motown covers of the ‘80s. Of the four originals, “Hang ‘em High” and “Little Guitars” are the best, but they fall a bit short of standing up to the caliber of the original material on the band’s first three discs, although “Little Guitars” is just as good as anything from the last disc. The lack of original material aside, this is a much better disc than it typically gets credited for being – though it is undeniably true that its seemingly stopgap nature does prevent it from feeling like a truly seminal or essential disc – and the Orbison and Martha and the Vandellas covers would both deservedly return the band to the Top 40 after a three-year absence and lay the groundwork for the band’s biggest commercial success yet.  

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1984 (1984, Warner Bros.)

A +

Eddie Van Halen experimented with using synths on Diver Down, but synthesizers didn’t really become a regular fixture of the band’s singles until this album, a true return to form and, shockingly enough, Roth’s final outing with the band before leaving for a solo career that would unexpectedly kick off with the covers EP Crazy from the Heat. For most other hard-rock bands, this new instrumental twist could have been a dreadfully bad idea, but Eddie shows some admirable restraint and doesn’t go too overboard with the idea, so it ends up being a surprisingly welcome development, particularly on the album’s biggest single, the arena-sized “Jump,” which boasts one of the catchiest synth licks in all of ‘80s pop-rock and would become the band’s first and only Number One hit. But while “Jump” may be the most unforgettable song here, there are still quite a few other band classics here. “Panama” is a return to the driving rock of “Dance the Night Away” but with a stronger hook, while the rapid-fire blues-rock of “Hot for Teacher” is Van Halen at both its fastest and funniest, brothers Eddie and Alex absolutely sending up smoke with the sheer intensity and speed of their playing. (Alex’s double-bass-drum-laden introductory solo here, which undoubtedly was an influence on any number of speed-metal drummers that would follow, must truly be heard to be believed.) The synth-heavy slow groove of “I’ll Wait” (a cut co-written by, surprisingly enough, former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald!) is one of the band’s most criminally overlooked singles, even if it’s a significant side-step from the band’s usual hard-rock workouts, and “Drop Dead Legs” and “House of Pain” are among the band’s better album cuts of the Eighties. The band’s ‘80s output simply doesn’t get any better than this disc, a true classic and an album that did wonders to keep rock alive and well in an era dominated by pop and new-wave.