Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Could This Be Magic? (thoughts on Van Halen)...

I'm reviewing the new Van Halen record for The Quietus. The review should be 600 words. I found that before I even listened to the record I'd already written 1200 words. So before I finish the review, here they are.

I've been waiting 27 years for this.  It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that every day I've wished it would happen.  They were my first love, you see.  And I've often said that Orwell at least had part of it right, though it was really in 1985, the day David Lee Roth left Van Halen, that the world went wrong. I never took sides in the split.  It seemed to me that there were then two great bands to follow.  Though it was never really the same.  And although the Van Halen name stayed, they were a different band with Sammy Hagar.  Not that that's a bad thing, far from it.  I realize it's heresy but I'll admit it here for the first time ever - I like 5150 better as an album than the first Van Halen record.  I think I was too late for Van Halen.  Having been introduced to them at the age of 6 via (Oh) Pretty Woman and then very quickly hearing Unchained (in my opinion, the best rock song ever recorded, followed closely by Panama and Everybody Wants Some!!), by the time I heard Runnin' With The Devil, it was a little too slow for me.  Not to take anything away from that album.  It was recorded live with only two overdubs, and those were rhythm guitar tracks behind the solos!  Consider the caliber of the playing.  And especially thinking of how bands make records these days, this is Astounding.  Back then you had to be able to play.  And boy could they play.  People sometimes mistakenly lump Eddie in with all the hot shot, gunslinging guitarists who came after him.  But if you actually take the time to listen, nobody, repeat nobody, sounds like Eddie Van Halen.  First off there's his tone, the famous "brown sound".  And then there's his sense of melody and phrasing.  His fingers may be flying but there's music behind them.  Van Halen II I absolutely LOVE.  Dance The Night Away is a fantastic pop song, Beautiful Girls (and the rest of them) are excellent rock tunes, and there's always been something about that D.O.A. riff.  Women And Children First I love too.  It has two of the best rock songs ever written on it (Everybody Wants Some!! and Romeo Delight) as well as the amazing melodic pop of In A Simple Rhyme (yes, yes, there's And The Cradle Will Rock..., it's never really been one of my favourites, though that Wurlitzer sound is Awesome.  WACF also has Could This Be Magic?, a great little acoustic blues).  Fair Warning and 1984 are both Masterpieces.  Fair Warning possesses a magnificent dark rock energy and 1984 is just classic pop through and through.  And I quite like Diver Down. Secrets and Little Guitars are amazing pop songs.  I could go on and on (and on and on...) about these records but let's leave it at that for now.

I was too young to see the 1984 tour.  Little did I know of the dark three decades that lay ahead.  My cousin Keith begged my mom to let me go with them, to no avail.  This makes perfect sense - I was 8 years old and he and his friends had just turned 16.  He called me the next day to tell me all about it though, and conveyed that sense of wonder and excitement that has always made pop music so special.  To my mom's credit, she let me go see David Lee Roth's first solo tour two years later, after seeing the Yankee Rose video made me pick up a guitar and literally changed my life.  October 3, 1986 at the Hartford Civic Center.  My older cousin Jenny drove us up and we met up with Keith and his brother Mark.  And voila!  I was introduced to this whole new world, a world I instinctively knew I wanted to be a part of.  A week later, on Roth's birthday, my mom let me stay up late to watch the first ever Joan Rivers Show with Roth as her first ever guest.  (Diamond Dave starts at 6:25 in)

27 years.  My feelings going into this are the most complicated I've ever felt about anything.  They were right there at the beginning of my love of music.  It may have been sparked by the 60's 45s and Beatles records that my mom would play, but Van Halen were the first band that I ever really felt were my own. And not in an exclusive, protective sort of way.  They were there for EVERYBODY.  And in America at that time, it seemed everybody loved them.  This wasn't the hide-in-your-room-and-wallow-in-being-misunderstood music that I'd later experience with the likes of The Smiths and Joy Division.  This was Good Time Music, Party Music, and everybody was invited.  There was a sense of inclusion and unity that made one feel just how enormous the power of music was, a feeling I would be glad to welcome again when I finally got to see Pulp for the first time last summer.  Music as a celebration of life, the one thing we all share.

I'd like to say that I remember the exact moment I heard that David Lee Roth had left Van Halen.  I know people who can recall that moment and describe it to you with exactness and clarity.  But in truth, I don't.  What I do remember, and this is perhaps more appropriate to the situation, is an air of confusion hanging about.  Well, why?  What did this mean (for us, for the world)?  There were 2 bands now, and 2 albums, and surely 2 is better than 1?  But you knew, deep down inside, that it would never be the same.  Not to make this too grandiose, for obviously there are plenty of more earth-shattering and important events that happen to people, but this was the first time in my life, at age 9, that I had to consider the idea that something you loved, that was important to you in way you didn't fully understand, that it could all change and be taken away from you, and to consider the uncertainty of the future.  Which, to be fair, also seemed exciting.  An excitement which carried you far past where you thought things would go - for surely Dave was coming back soon, right? - making things even more complicated.

All that said, I don't really have any expectations for this new record.  I mean, how could I?  Disappointment - a very real possibility, letting 27-year-old hopes build up - would prove nearly fatal.  But perhaps I do secretly wish for one more suspended chord melodic rocker (so much better than that sounds ; ) in the grand tradition of Unchained and Panama (perhaps the song 5150 is the final part of this most excellent trilogy).  I know it's supposed to be re-recordings of old songs that never got released (before I found the old demos online, I always wondered about how much stuff was left over.  B-sides were never a big thing in America, but with only 9 or 10 songs per album, there must be some extras kicking around somewhere), but Eddie always mentions the 100s of hours of music he's been recording the past however many years, surely there must be something great in there?  Will they make that little jam ("Earth", I think they called it) at the end of In A Simple Rhyme, in the fade-out of Women And Children First, into a proper song?  I always dug that riff.  I remember when the remasters came out, my boss called me all excited "You can hear that little jam at the end of the record so much better now!  It's awesome".  So many little things about Van Halen are important and exciting to a lot of people.  If nothing else, at least they'll be touring.  I've still never seen them.  On the last tour, I had tickets for the CT and NYC dates but they were postponed to a time when I was back in the UK.  Maybe I can finally get to see them live (truth be told, I was a bit disappointed when I read that they opened with You Really Got Me on the last tour.  I realize it was their first single and what broke them, but I'd much rather hear one of their songs.  I was gutted when on the 2002 Sam & Dave tour, Roth played a lot of the old covers and omitted Unchained, the best rock song ever written).  I really hope they come to Europe.

Maybe it's true, that the importance of this now is based on childhood experience.  But take a moment to think about your first love.  And how much it meant and hopefully still means to you, how much it shaped who you are, opening huge vistas of possibility and excitement and wonder, without you quite knowing why.  Could this be magic?

I say I've been waiting 7 years, when 1984 was released in 1983 (December 27th) - this being 2012 would make it 28 years.  But in actual fact, I didn't give it a second thought until Roth left.  I always just took it as given in those carefree days that Van Halen would continue releasing records, one a year, forever into the glorious future, or so it seemed.  So I've been waiting since 1985, when suddenly nothing was certain anymore yet we all clung to the hope this would all be resolved shortly.

Now, time to listen to A Different Kind Of Truth...