Only truly shallow people do not judge a record by its cover. Especially if the cover features a leather trousered, flowing maned David Lee Roth sporting a bearskin rug on his chest and holding a microphone in a highly suggestive position. The cd case could be full of pigeonshit, but you just know somehow from looking at it that this is going to be a great record.
Although half of them were born in Holland, Van Halen had Sunset Strip etched into their hearts, the golden elixir of sunbleached California pulsing through their veins. With punk pogoing up and down on heavy metal's mortally wounded body by the end of the 70s, big guitar solos and budgerigar vocals seemed as dead a language as Latin. Yet despite everything, the electric shock of "You Really Got Me" was enough to get an entire genre off the flatline and back onto the white lines.
Van Halen were immediately set apart from the punks and new wavers (their music seemingly as oblivious to trend as it was to feminism), yet they were also distinct from the rest of heavy metal, and this way the key to their success. David Lee Roth's stage acrobatics made Elvis' pelvis look like the gimmick it really was, and in Eddie Van Halen they had the most innovative guitarist since Hendrix and a worthy successor to Jimmy Page. It may have taken almost a decade, but America had finally come up with a serious answer to Led Zeppelin.
Completely reliant on four to the floor timing and pentatonic riffs, the records solid simplicity is nevertheless a perfect vehicle for all of VH's talents. The likes of "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love", "Feel Your Love Tonight" and "Jamie's Cryin'" all utilise sumptuous major scale melodies, the rhythm section of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony pushing things along with a certain muscular sexy lope not heard since Led Zep 2. "I'm the One" is a revelation, it's relentless caterwhauling riff propelling the song forwards with an energy akin to punk or even thrash metal. Basically, the clumsy Brontosaurus that was Deep Purple or Styx or Kiss had gone to the gym and become a velociraptor. Roth on the other hand, sounded eerily like his hero, Mr Presley, on the hilarious "Ice Cream Man" ("All my flavours are guaranteeeeee-eeeee-eeeeee-eeeeeeeeeed to satisuhfy"). And "Eruption" was Eddie's calling card, the sheer spontaneity of his licks and tricks, the effortlessness of his technique and the unpredictable dynamics and incomprehensible scale work of every solo all adding up to a guitar style that could almost be described as "witty".
"Van Halen" kick started the heart of hard rock when it was most needed, and - like many great albums - it has a rather dodgy legacy. While VH continued into the 80s in style ("Jump" and "Hot for Teacher"), they quickly became surrounded by an entire scene, largely based in their native LA, of tedious glam metallers who clogged up the American music stage and eventually gave rise to the counter culture that was grunge. By 1987, VH's coke-on-the-table, Jack Daniels-in-hand, entire-floor-staff-of-Spearmint Rhino-in-the-bed attitude had been surpassed by the hammy hedonism of Motley Crue et al, Roth's charisma was being aped by a legion of tooth bleaching, spandex wearing, crazily coiffeured, preening prettyboys (the initials JBJ spring to mind). And Eddie Van Halen's virtuosity had given licence to endless six string onanism by the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen and chums right up until the nineties when musical virtuosity became as uncool as it already was. Michael Anthony seems to have been replaced by Anthony Whirral Thompson by the way. If there's one good thing about the legacy of Van Halen though, it's this record, released by Warners in April 1978, and that more than makes up for the likes of Poison, Motley Crue, Whitesnake, Great White, Billy Idol.........