The frisson generated by Van Halen’s piledriver guitar riffs and Roth’s ebullient yelps is a foolproof signifier for teenage kicks, transcending the specifics of time and place.
It’s hard to believe that Van Halen’s self-titled debut album turned 40 years old this year. Not just because it sounds ahead of its time, though that’s certainly part of it; give or take a synthesizer or two, almost any of its songs would have fit right in on 1984, the band’s swan song released six years later. More importantly, however, Van Halen has an indelible youthfulness that belies its chronological age. There’s a reason why “Runnin’ with the Devil,” the album’s opening track, was put to such memorable use in the first episode of “Freaks and Geeks,” a high school comedy about lovable Midwestern dirtbags set in 1980 and originally aired in 1999. The frisson generated by Eddie Van Halen’s piledriver guitar riffs and David Lee Roth’s ebullient yelps is a foolproof signifier for teenage kicks, transcending the specifics of time and place.
I can personally confirm this to be true; I was born six years after Van Halen and didn’t discover the album until my mid-20s, but it still reminds me of an adolescence that never literally existed. In this invented past, Roth is the local bad boy who drove a bitchin’ Camaro and got one of the cheerleaders pregnant; the Van Halens are the kids who never talked but totally shredded on “You Really Got Me” at the Battle of the Bands; bass player Michael Anthony is, quite obviously, the older dude who bought beer and smokes for me and the rest of the kids.
Van Halen lends itself naturally to this kind of fuzzy pseudo-nostalgia, because few other hard rock albums are so blithely angst-free. The lyrics are determinedly juvenile, but without the life-or-death weightiness of real pubescent emotions. Dave might warn his prospective conquest that his “love is rotten to the core” on “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” but that’s pillow talk play-acting; much more characteristic is his half-hearted apology from “Feel Your Love Tonight”: “We’re getting’ funny in the back of my car/ I’m sorry, honey, if I took it just a little too far.” And when somebody does get burned, like the poor mistreated protagonist of “Jamie’s Cryin’,” the only reaction it warrants is a tongue-in-cheek, mock-sympathetic guitar lick: Womp-womp.
It’s tempting to attribute to that sense of glibness why Van Halen was more of a commercial success than a critical one—that, and Diamond Dave’s oft-quoted theory about music journalists resembling Elvis Costello more than him (another thing I can personally confirm to be true). But one also gets the sense that contemporary reviewers didn’t fully grasp what they were hearing. Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young, for example, compared Eddie’s guitar style to Jimmy Page and Joe Walsh, before damning him with the faint praise that his riffs “beat anything Aerosmith has come up with in years.” Even as late as the following year’s Van Halen II, critics were still name-checking the passé likes of Bad Company and Humble Pie.
After 40 years, of course, it’s obvious that Eddie Van Halen was the most epoch-shifting electric guitarist since, arguably, Jimi Hendrix. His aptly-named instrumental “Eruption” spawned a whole subgenre of song-length guitar solos, from Van Halen II’s acoustic variant “Spanish Fly” to—in a classic case of diminishing returns—Quiet Riot’s “Battle Axe” and “Play with Me” by Extreme. And while this would undoubtedly have been a more impressive achievement had hair metal not worn out its welcome so spectacularly, it’s still worth reflecting on just how different rock guitar sounded in the pre-shred era: even as late as 1985, Van Halen still sounded futuristic enough to be credibly used as alien sounds by Marty McFly in Back to the Future.
Even aside from such historical considerations, however, Van Halen still holds up as the group’s most fully-realized album; they would have bigger hits, notably the aforementioned 1984), but never again would they so consistently fire on all cylinders from beginning to end. Indeed, few other debut albums before or since have so thoroughly encapsulated a group’s strength and charisma from square one. Fully half of the album is “Greatest Hits”-caliber material: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Eruption,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” “I’m the One,” “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Feel Your Love Tonight”; the other half, give or take a few moments that drag on Side B, are almost as strong. There is admittedly little on today’s charts that sounds much like it; for better or worse, guitar rock’s grasp on musical hegemony is not what it was in decades past. But as long as there are guitars to shred and heads to bang, its influence will live on: preserved in all its eternal youth at the never-ending backyard parties in the sun-dappled southern Californian suburbs of our minds.