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Revisit: Van Halen: Diver Down

Revisit: Van Halen: Diver Down

Nothing that came after Diver Down ever matched the album’s haphazard genius.

Van Halen’s fifth effort, Diver Down, leans heavily on outside material and stretches the quartet’s natural eclecticism in unexpected directions. It also signaled the end of the first David Lee Roth era. After an unassailable 1978 debut, the group faltered with the formulaic and decidedly commercial Van Halen II before rebounding with the deeper-than-expected Woman and Children First (1980) and the dark Fair Warning (1981). History has shown that come 1982, there was trouble brewing. Circa 1980, Roth and the Van Halen brothers reportedly tried to recruit Talas bassist Billy Sheehan as a replacement for Michael Anthony. The group’s guitar genius also wanted to add keyboards to the mix and squared off with Roth more and more stubbornly.

At least three of the cover tunes on Diver Down are concessions to record company pressure while another serves as a harbinger of Roth’s solo career. Having had mainstream success with singles from the first two records, neither Woman and Children nor Fair Warning produced singles that bothered the upper echelons of the Billboard charts. Though the albums sold well enough, Van Halen wasn’t becoming the unstoppable hit machine Warner Bros. had hoped for.

The record opens with a glance backwards on both thematic and artistic fronts. “Where Have All The Good Times Gone,” like Van Halen’s first big hit, “You Really Got Me,” came from The Kinks. If Roth, who had celebrated sexual frustration and ecstasy in that earlier hit, wasn’t quite the mature man who had started seeing the world with a casually jaundiced eye, he sure gave one hell of a convincing performance. He had proven himself capable of penning mature, reflective material such as “When Push Comes to Shove” and “Mean Streets” on previous recordings and now he adopted Ray Davies’ sic transit gloria persona with aplomb. Just a few years earlier, on Women and Children First, the group was chronicling the life of a young man flirting with the temptations of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Now they were surveying the damage wrought by such a way of life.

As good as that version of “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” is, it wasn’t enough for Warner Bros. to peg it for the first single. That honor went to a take on Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.” The single found an audience and climbed to Number 12 on the Hot 100. It may have seemed an odd choice to some, but to others it perfectly highlighted Roth’s ladies’ man persona. The hyperactive frontman reminded us that he could get the woman – and within three minutes no less. The song may have enjoyed further success had it not been partially hobbled by lack of video play. Though MTV was still in its infancy, the fledgling format was becoming a force in shaping music tastes and the VH video for “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was banned by the network for, among other things, explicit sexual content.

The album couples the single with “Intruder,” a brief, tense burst of instrumental rock that recalls Edward and Alex’s affinity for boogie rockers Cactus as well as fusion master Billy Cobham. Those same affinities are expressed later on “Full Bug,” allowing for some of Edward’s grittiest six-string work. “Intruder” is one of three instrumental vignettes that pop up across the record, each providing a small source of frustration for fans who have long wished the guitarist would break down and make an instrumental-driven solo effort. This blip of a piece, along with the intro to “Little Guitars” and “Cathedral” all beg to be more fully-realized and suggest what might have happened had EVH ventured out on his own at that time.

That said, there can be no complaints about his writing on the full version of “Little Guitars,” one of the band’s most under-appreciated works, or the hazy, ballad-ish “Secrets.” In fact, of the small number of originals, only “Hang ‘Em High,” a kind of paean to rock ‘n’ roll outlaws, hasn’t aged especially well. It tries to recapture the intimacy of the band’s club days, replete with a hasty tempo and rebellious lyrics. Yet ultimately it fails to match the burgeoning maturity reflected elsewhere.

There is one further concession to the passing of time on Diver Down, a take on the 1924 composition “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).” Featuring Jan Van Halen on clarinet, it had previously been covered by the likes of Merle Haggard, Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone. If its jazz inflections seemed out of place on a record from the reigning kings of guitar rock, so be it. There’s a sweetness to the song (and not just because it highlights Edward and Alex’s dad) that is sorely lacking elsewhere. It also predicts, by something like three years, Roth’s covers EP, Crazy from The Heat, which saw him covering “Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” to masterful effect.
Diver Down would fail to ignite the singles chart. “Dancing in the Street,” the second cut culled from the album, stalled at Number 38 on the Hot 100, suggesting Van Halen would have to evolve or die. The group would do exactly that with its next effort, 1984, which spawned four singles – including the chart-topping “Jump” – and four videos that would help excite innovations in the form. By 1985, Roth was out and his former bandmates would soon climb to some of their greatest commercial heights.

However, nothing that came after Diver Down ever matched the album’s haphazard genius. 1984 had four strong songs and some dregs left over from their club days. But for all the well-packaged rebellion Sammy Hagar would bring in later years, Roth-era Van Halen looked directly into the eyes of oncoming maturity, giving it a defiant stare. And yet despite this posturing, they seemed to know they could no more stop its arrival than turn back time to the carefree party band they’d once been.

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