Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

Van Halen – 1984 (1984)

I must have been 12 at the time, going on 13, when the video for “Jump” came out. I didn’t listen to much “heavy” music, but I spent at least ten hours a week glued to this new thing called MTV, and I thought that Van Halen was in the same league as Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Madness, Cyndi Lauper, and all of the other stuff in constant circulation on the new-fangled music video channel. But I secretly longed for heavier music, and I’d seen the live video for the band’s earlier song, “Unchained,” so I knew there was something more than just Eddie playing keyboards. I have to admit that I bought the single for “Jump” on 45 because I saw the video and fell for it. I picked up the single, which came out right before the album’s January 1 release date, and had to hide it from my friend Jim’s mom, because it depicted an angel smoking on the cover, and she was a Jesus freak that regularly searched his room like a warden at a prison, confiscating his Dungeons and Dragons gear and burning whatever music the 700 Club told her to ash-can.

The one thing that everyone will tell you about this album is that it introduced the synthesizer to metal. Maybe that’s true, maybe not (VH had used synth on a few other songs previously), but I can tell you that until about 1990, a lot of metal bands despised the synth, so maybe in some sense, the neutered Eddie Van Halen tapping away on his keys set back metal a few years, because a lot of long-hairs didn’t want to become him. Add to that the fact that before 1984, Eddie was a guitar genius, and his tapping style of fretwork was absolutely awe-inspiring. But by this album, every 15-year-old kid in a guitar store was playing “Eruption” with all ten fingers on the rosewood, so maybe it made sense for EVH to branch out and try some other instrument. It was probably wise for Eddie to bow out of the guitar god pissing contest that ensued, with every Steve Vai/Yngwie Malmsteen type slapping the strings as fast as possible to the point of ridiculousness. He probably made a hell of a lot more money with a lot less stress when he was laying more mindless riffs with Sammy Hagar and shilling Pepsi, anyway.

ANYWAY, this album starts out with the title track, which oddly enough is just a minute and seven seconds of weird synth intro that sounded like it should be on an ELP record. (This, years later, pissed me off when I was in a Pizza hut with a couple of friends and I fed a bunch of change into the jukebox and picked “1984,” not remembering this, and then getting nothing but a minute of swooshy synth for my quarter and not some hard rocking song instead.) This goes right into “Jump,” which I don’t need to review, as every human being alive from the years 1984 to present has heard this song at least 22 million times. It was a really cool song for about a month, then I forgot about it,
and then a year later when WGN and the Cubs decided to use this as the theme music for their games, I decided that maybe I needed to burn my single of the tune. This song got so much god damned airplay that my eighty-something grandparents could hum along. There were African tribes in the middle of nowhere who had never seen water before who could sing you this song. And yes, it had a cute little video which was nothing more than the band lip-syncing, with slo-mo shots of David Lee Roth jumping around in the air. Usually the band-singing-along videos are stupid, but this one was actually metaphorical. Well, I guess that REM song “Stand” is too, because they were standing up.

1984 was a harvesting ground for a lot of quick-growth hits, thanks again to that MTV thing. “Panama” was a hard-rocking song that either talked about David Lee Roth driving a sports car, or maybe getting a hand job in a sports car. Previous songs like the aforementioned “Unchained” usually had 80% cool parts that rocked and then 20% awkward or experimental bridges that didn’t really fit. But “Panama” pushed the envelope on its chorus, and then got into a slower, sexier part with Roth pretty much just talking, and it worked much better to create a continuous song that worked good on the radio and TV. Another big hit was “Hot for Teacher,” which was remembered as the song with the big concept video about a nerdy kid and some totally hot teachers, dancing on desks with bikinis. David Lee Roth should have traded in his leather pants for a director’s chair after metal got old for him, because his influence all over this video shows that he can market the idea of a band (and Van Halen is a big “idea” band, with that idea being partying) and totally make it come to life on the screen. Oddly enough, nobody remembers this song musically (it’s largely instead mentioned as a punchline when yet another middle-aged teacher starts banging a teenaged student, which seems to happen with an oddly increasing frequency these days, probably because I am no longer a teenager), because it’s one of the best cuts on the album. First of all, Eddie Van Halen, who I just mentioned wussing out on the synth from this point on, totally lights this track up on the six-string, practically playing straight solos through his entire part. And his brother Alex makes this probably the best double-bass drum track ever.

The rest of the album is still good, but a bit odd. There’s a track “Top Jimmy” that’s an old VH-style number, which is very good, but everybody forgets was on here. Same for “Drop Dead Legs,” except it wasn’t as great. “I’ll Wait” became an AOR hit for the band, and “Girl Gone Bad” was okay. “House of Pain” seemed to be a last-minute addition; it’s a really old track of the band’s that was recorded and thrown on, and doesn’t match any of the rest of the album. It’s not bad, but… weird.

As far as sound, production, all of that junk, there’s not much to talk about here, since all of the Van Halen albums have pretty stellar and clean production. Ted Templeman kept the band tight with good drums and clean guitar that had enough space that you’d swear there was a second guy on the axe backing up Eddie. I’m sure a true fan could argue as to which VH albums sounded better or worse, but for the most part, they had a commodity production to them, and maybe 1984 was a half-notch above that.

The weirdest part of this album is that with all of the stuff going on with those nine tracks, the whole thing weighs in at 33:08. I’m not expecting them to give up their three- and four-minute tracks and go all Rick Wakeman on my ass with a 17-minute prog rock-out, but the album is over before it starts. There’s also the issue that this will always be considered the “last” “real” Van Halen record. [Not true anymore, because they did an album with the classic lineup minus Michael Anthony in 2012.] Given that the band was at the peak of popularity in 1985 when Roth split/was fired, the record company would have rolled out some live album or greatest hits stopgap, rather than to rush in the studio. Either way, this album is an odd bookend for the first part of the band’s career.

Rating: 8