“Okay, lemme ask you a question: Whose side did you take in the big David Lee Roth-Van Halen split?” Now, if you answer Van Halen, as the ‘record exec’ foolishly did in the 1994 film Airheads, rocker Chazz will know immediately that you’re an undercover cop. As will we.
It won’t matter. American rock band Van Halen’s hits, in their 40-year run, are split evenly between their two frontmen — David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. But this is a band named, unusually, after the guitarist.
Eddie Van Halen, who died at 65, from cancer, this week, was more than the sound and soul of the band. His guitar work (plus the songwriting and arrangements) helped define ’80s American rock. When guitarists do their two-finger tapping, they’re opening the door Van Halen unlocked. And despite the band’s mostly awful gigs, guitar god Joe Satriani has tweeted that Van Halen was the ‘greatest of our generation’.
Here’s where to hear Eddie Van Halen at his rocking best:
The obvious one
Jump (1984). All lists start with Jump, the band’s best-known song, which spent five weeks on top of the Billboard charts. Van Halen’s solo, coming halfway in, outshines the keyboards that, on paper, looked like the dominant instrument. Watch a live gig video to see his fingers fly, almost in a blur, as he tears through his bit. Other hits: Runnin’ With The Devil, Hot For Teacher, Why Can’t This Be Love and Panama
The cover that rocks as hard
Won’t Get Fooled Again (1993). No one can scream like Roger Daltrey — but Hagar comes close. Halen’s guitar does the rest, mimicking what The Who did on the keyboard. Pity it’s lost on disc two of the Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now album. U2 covered this one too — don’t get fooled again.
The one time they went sci-fi
Atomic Punk (1978). An early look at Van Halen’s talent and experimentation. By rubbing his palm across the strings, his intro creates the sound of a spaceship landing. David Lee Roth is surprisingly earnest on vocals, and Michael Anthony gives his everything on base. One YouTube commenter says the song “makes me wanna break something”. It does.
The one he didn’t take credit for
Beat It (1982). Van Halen’s work on Michael Jackson’s hit was also recorded for free, as a favour to Jackson, and not (as rumours suggest) because the band promised each other they’d never do solo projects. One story is true: during recording, the guitar-playing caused a speaker in the studio to catch fire. One engineer exclaimed, “This must really be good.”
The surprise gem
Finish What Ya Started (1988). The story goes that Van Halen thought up the riff late one night, and walked over to frontman Hagar’s house, where they recorded it on the spot, as a last-minute addition to their OU812 album. There are several songs about staying unsatisfied — this one makes desperation sound almost celebratory. Come on baby, pleeeeeese.
The one to see and hear
Right Now (1992). If your music tastes were shaped by MTV, this video probably holds a special place in your heart. Black-and-white footage comes captioned with lines that start with Right now. Right now is just a space between ice ages. Right now, God is killing moms and dogs… because he has to. Right now, oysters are being robbed of their sole possessions.
The one with 12 strings
Poundcake (1991). Van Halen works double the number of strings on an unusual electric guitar. It’s the song music schools play to demonstrate what the guitar can do. And what Van Halen could.
If you have only 20 seconds…
Hear the Eruption solo in the 2015 blockbuster Minions. Stuart is presented with a guitar, which he identifies as a ‘super mega ukelele’ and goes to town on, shredding it to the sounds of Van Halen’s 1978 hit. What follows is every rock concert cliché — and Van Halen certainly deserved them all.