Retro Review: Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)

The musical landscape on which Van Halen released their self-titled debut album in February of 1978 was diverse. The Bee Gees were at their apogee and Peter Frampton was the guitar god of the moment. A Sisyphean task if ever there was one because Van Halen was equal parts Black Sabbath and Rick James (with just a flare of Elton John).

Sure, now we can say unequivocally that they’re classic rock, but at the time? They were a hybrid genre unto their own. Not quite hard rock and not quite pop. Recognizing the genius of Eddie Van Halen, FM radio programmers quickly added the first single, a re-make of The Kinks “You Really Got Me”.

A few years later, many cried foul when Eddie used keyboards on 1984. Hogwash, I always point to the first few seconds of Van Halen’s first track, “Runnin’ With The Devil”. That song stomps and rolls right into your ears and bellows the bands presence.

If there was ever a first song on a debut album that announced a band to the world, “Runnin’ With The Devil” is it.

Track two is “Eruption”, a 1:42 minute guitar solo. An instrumental as a second song is a strong statement by any artist . . . at any stage in their career. But a new artist . . . on their first album? That’s chutzpah.

“Eruption” is followed by the Van Halen-ing of the aforementioned “You Really Got Me”. The Kinks? Seriously? That’s some intrepid musicianship.

The rest of Van Halen is a barrage of originality. Yes, Eddie Van Halen and singer David Lee Roth are one of a kind. However, to discount the contributions of drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony would be a mistake. Van Halen, the album, and this line up of the band, is bupkis without them.

The band toured and worked hard, quickly rising from opening act to headliner. No easy task in the late 70’s. By the end of 1978 the album was platinum and the band were certified rock stars.

1978 wasn’t only a diverse year for established music, but there were some fractures being created with the new music being released (Elvis Costello, The Cars, Blondie). Van Halen’s debut album helped widen that crevasse.

41 years later, and ignoring all the Page Six nonsense, Van Halen sounds just as fresh and sounds so fucking good. A testament to not only the band but to producer Ted Templeman and engineer Don Landee.

Masculinity was still a thing in 1978 but Van Halen proved that you could still rock, make catchy tunes, look good and appeal to women. They were the first to package the masculinity of hard rock and make it appeal to both men and women. From the heavy “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” to the poppier “Feel Your Love Tonight” to the cheeky cover of “Ice Cream Man”, the band often vacillated from threatening to playful; good for both genders.

Making it clear that this was not a band to be trifled with. And not a band to be pigeon holed.

Van Halen is often rightly recognized as a watershed moment for rock music because it helped expanded the parameters of hard rock. It pushed guitar sounds sure, but more importantly, it announced that a hard rock band could appeal to both guys and girls.

With Van Halen, the band built the template for what followed in the 80’s: guys wanted to be them, girls wanted to be with them . . . and parents were terrified of them.

A rock band, and record label’s dream come true.

Van Halen is arguably the most consistent, if not the best, Van Halen album.

Further Reading & Listening: