The Return of Van Halen, and Why Alex Was Their MVP

This legendarily bad-ass band logo was etched into school notebooks more often than schoolwork was.

If the Mike Damone character from Fast Times at Ridgemont High were a real person, I bet he’d be pretty psyched about Van Halen coming back with a new album with David Lee Roth.

I can’t say that I have terribly high expectations for the new album, nor do I plan to see the upcoming tour. Actually, I’m just using the occasion of Van Halen’s “reunion” to examine my love for the band’s first six albums and try to pinpoint the unique appeal of Van Halen.

The word reunion was in quotes in the previous paragraph because VH actually “reunited” with Sammy Hagar for a tour in 2004, and they did a full tour with Diamond Dave himself in 2007. People act like these guys haven’t been in the same room since 1984. Of course the difference this time is that they are actually putting out a new album. With Dave.

If the opening Fast Times movie reference didn’t resonate with you, you might just not be that into Van Halen, or remember how big and truly great this band once was. I saw them on the Diver Down tour in 1982, when I was just 12 years old experiencing my first real arena rock concert. Amazing and unforgettable. (I saw them again in 1986 on their first tour with Sammy.) Growing up in a musical family and having our dad take us to see Van Halen seemed like he was giving it his stamp of approval. And seeing those two Van Halen brothers up there probably launched rock star ambitions in my brother in me.

Sure, the face of the band is the other-worldly technical prowess of guitarist, band leader, and namesake Eddie Van Halen. Or is he insisting on EDWARD Van Halen this week? Anyway, he of “Eruption” immortality, with that red and white-striped guitar and that sly grin that always found the camera… he is “Van Halen.”

But my real motivation to put pen to paper and click post to blog, and my conclusion to why Van Halen was so great, and why we love them: Alex Van Halen.

That’s right, Eddie’s brother, the drummer, Alex Van Halen. This ain’t no Billy Ripken or Frank Stallone. When we think of “Van Halen,” we think of guitar virtuosity, the band of the same name, and the grinning guitarist who married the chick from One Day at a Time. We rarely think of Alex, also a band namesake, but when you listen to their old albums you realize that his drumming was a huge part of why Van Halen records were so fucking fun to listen to. Hey, Eddie did amazing things on the guitar and made sounds no one had ever heard before, and millions have emulated since. But so did Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, and Yngwie Malmsteen. But people never listened to their records. They listened to Van Halen. Alex’s beats and fills kept Eddie’s wankery palatable to the ear.

Drummers growing up in the 80’s might have obsessed over “Tom Sawyer” and held Neil Peart up just a little to high for our own good… but Alex Van Halen showed us how awesome the job of Rock Drummer really was. (And his “Hot for Teacher” intro kept plenty of kids busy too.)

It was Alex’s drums that gave Eddie and the band a soul, a real groove for Diamond Dave to dance to, a primal and expressive rhythm to match the party vibe and sexuality of the lyrics. When you go back and really listen to the deep tracks off the old albums, get beyond “Jump” and “Jamie’s Crying,” you’ll hear a guy hammering with the precision of a Stewart Copeland, but with a hammer borrowed from John Bonham.

Producer Ted Templeman also got a such a great sound out of Alex’s drums. This is another underrated factor about why those old Van Halen albums were so great, but mostly it’s Alex’s execution and performance. I’m not gonna say he was as good as Bonham or Keith Moon (or even Copeland or Peart or whoever). It’s all subjective and “better than” and rankings are a bit pointless among such greats. But Alex Van Halen might be one of the most unappreciated or unsung great drummers of all time. Throughout the years and lineup changes, it was Alex as much as Eddie who put the muscle behind The Mighty Van Halen.

"I heard ya missed us... we're back!"

Despite all the back and forth, and the fact that Van Halen had several hits and plenty of success with Sammy Hagar those first few years, the other face (and head, heart, ego, id, and crotch) of this band is undeniably David Lee Roth. I’m not sure he doesn’t belong on the Mount Rushmore of Frontmen, but that’s another discussion. While his pure vocal gifts are certainly limited, and his lyrics are sophomoric and forgettable, Dave had delivery. Not just phrasing and screaming, though he excelled there. His love of old soul and R&B music infused his performance and gave him a pulse underneath those vocal gymnastic tricks (the “screaming”) that could have held their own on records by Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.

We forget that about Diamond Dave. He’s such a boiling pot of carnival barker, Vegas-style lounge act, and pure rock front man that seemed equal parts Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and Stephen Tyler. The ultimate rock star. He seemed like a guy willing to shine your shoes and able to sell you a car. Oddly, he dressed and pranced around like the hot platinum blonde bimbos that littered the bands lyrics. Every other song is about a girl in a magazine, a chick from an adult cinematic feature, a stripper, prostitute, or groupie. Song titles included “Hot For Teacher,” “Beautiful Girls,” “Dirty Movies,” “Sinners Swing,” “Women In Love,” “Girl Gone Bad,” “Everybody Wants Some.” You get the idea.

And that was part of the appeal of Van Halen. It was un-apologetically hedonistic. Its misogyny softened by the excuse that they were portraying the role of cliché rock starts and this is just what they did. If Free Love allegedly died at the end of the 60’s, and the post-Beatles/Vietnam era of the 70’s was a bummer about to be capped off by disco (and then the impending cheese of the 80’s/MTV era), Van Halen sat on that cusp, from their debut in 1978 to their smash-hit breakthrough (and last album with Dave, itself a cornerstone of that 80’s/MTV era) in 1984, and they said let’s throw one more huge party.

The old stuff holds up.

They served as a bridge from Sabbath/Zeppelin to hair metal and Guns’n’Roses, for better or worse. They managed to be both heavy hard rockers and video pop stars. They spent their allotted time as “The Biggest Band in the World,” as many have, but they had the musical chops to stand the test of time, as evidenced by those first six albums.

I’m not going to attempt to retell or summarize what happened between Eddie and Dave, between Eddie and Sammy, between Eddie and bass player Mike Anthony, between 1984 and the 2012 album/tour announcement. Because not only do the particulars not matter, there’s too much he-said/he-said about who quit and who was fired. I think it’s possible to conclude that Eddie Van Halen might be a little bit of an asshole.

It’s one thing to fight with and replace singers and all that, but in the case of bassist Michael Anthony, a serviceable bassist and very good high-harmony singer that was an integral part of the band’s sound, Eddie actually fathered and raised a human replacement for him! That might be one of the greatest band feud/personnel stories ever. “Oh yea? I will fire you and make a new person to take your place!” OK, I realize Eddie (and Valerie Bertinelli) didn’t have little Wolfgang knowing he too would end up in the band. But ya never know…

Anyway, having “the old Van Halen coming back,” has at least been a great reminder and excuse to rekindle one of my first flames. Upon further review, I think Fair Warning is their best album with Van Halen II appropriately second.

So when Van Halen drops A Different Kind of Truth in February, I’ll check it out. I won’t fret if it sucks. I imagine Eddie will likely have a few cool tricks up his sleeve… Diamond Dave will probably be a creepy shell of his former self, and hopefully he’ll keep his hat and shirt on. But my eyes and ears will be on Alex the Great.

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5 Comments

  1. Great read, I especailly agree with the Fair Warning as their best…I kinda see VH and AC/DC as seminal rock groups that kept it “real” during the rise of disco/punk in the late 70s/early 80s. They had their high gloss image, necessary for success (read: MTV airplay) but with the balls and street cred to back it up. Huzzah.

    Reply

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