Music

Van Halen: A Secret Influence Finally Gets its Due

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The announcement of Van Halen's coming indictment* into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame gives me an excuse to link to one of my all-time favorite bits of rock crit, a hilarious, smart alternate universe, pop-Borgesian critical fantasy by the brilliant Bill Tuomala about a 1970s where punk ruled the schools and the charts, metal was a despised underground taste, Jimmy Carter escalated the Cold War in his second term, and Van Halen were not chart-topping sensations but a secret and neglected influence.

The essay is called "Best Band in the Land." A tiny sample below, but all fans and/or students of standard rock history really ought to read the whole thing–the conceit is brilliantly developed throughout and doesn't miss a beat, fill, or riff:

Van Halen's first two albums stiffed on the charts and their best hope for a hit song, "Dance The Night Away," also bombed. America's kids just wanted the fast chords and throaty vocals of punk; not the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink eclecticism of Van Halen. It was too messy—youngsters didn't want to deal with all the blues, vaudeville, and covers of Linda Ronstadt hits that they were serving up. The kids dug the Ramones because they were easier to dig; their jokes were simpler, as was their music—you knew what you were getting each and every time. Van Halen was the cool name to drop in certain circles and they got glowing reviews in the rock press, but their sales were lousy.

*apparently misused word a deliberate hat-tip to all my fellow Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments fans.

NEXT: Palm Greasing 101

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  1. And I thought I arrived home to an alternative universe when I heard of AC-130 strikes on Somali targets today, but this article just blows me away.

  2. AC-130 turns ’em into MODERATE Muslims.
    And the only good Muslim is a moderate Muslim.
    Peace be upon them a few thousand times a minute.

  3. Gotta call “bullshit” on this article.
    I was a high school sophmore in 78, and the first Van Halen album was about as big as an LP could get. It vied with Styx’s Grand Illusion and Thin Lizzy’s Live & Dangerous as THE weekend basement party albums.

    Then again I hung out with stoners…

    (Jeff Wayne’s disco/prog opus War of the Worlds also came out that year, which I turned Jennifer onto a few weeks ago while watching the DVD of the stage performance that just came out. That, and Neil Young’s Comes a Time, are probably the only discs from that year that get any play in my room.)

  4. Blow it up b4 Ron House gets in.

  5. Jeebus, Jeff P
    RTFA

  6. As you all have read, I sometimes could use some English helpin’.

    So, is Styx’s prounced ‘stixes’ or some other way?

  7. R.E.M. and the Ronettes beat out Joe Tex and the Stooges?

    Fuckin’ Hall of Fame has no taste.

  8. Van Halen went to my high school. That year’s yearbook was always conspicuously missing from the yearbook office’s archives.

    That is all.

  9. Sorry, _________, if there is irony here, I’m just not getting it. It reads like just about every other piece of rock criticism I’ve read over the past ten years.

  10. Gotta call “bullshit” on this article.
    I was a high school sophmore in 78, and the first Van Halen album was about as big as an LP could get.

    When you’re done calling bullshit on this, there’s this guy named Turtledove who you should probably straighten out on the history of the Civil War.

  11. The Ramones AND Van Halen suck, I mean, obviously folks!

  12. Maybe it was a typo and that is Jeff K rather than Jeff P posting?

  13. I’ve got to agree with Jeff P . I saw Van Halen blow Black Sabbath off the stage in 78. In San Antonio , They had heavy airplay on KISS/KMAC and everyone I knew had the album/ 8-track.

    then again, I hung with stoners too.

    Jeff P – that Jeff Wayne album brings back memories. I haven’t heard that in years.Also, Ever listen to Budgie back then?

  14. Fuckin’ Hall of Fame has no taste.

    As you put it in a recent thread, that’s assumed as a given. The rest is riffing.

  15. Reading it again, I can see what the author might be trying to do. But in the last few years I’ve read essays in established music rags explaining how Duran Duran revitalized prog, how Lou Reed created grunge, and how Brian Eno was the first true experimental musician.
    As the saying goes, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, and most folks who do really don’t know what they are talking about.
    Tuomala succeeds in sounding like every other critic who overblows the scope and impact of punk on the public psyche.

  16. I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the question of rock from one’s youth, and how difficult it is to seperate nostalgia from quality (even if one could define quality, in a genre like rock). I actually went through some back catalog recently, and came to the conclusion that 1)(Roth era) Van Halen truly still rocks and 2) To me, REM has not aged well. I like listening to it, but I have to admit it’s nostalgiac navel gazing.

    (Jeff Wayne’s disco/prog opus War of the Worlds also came out that year, which I turned Jennifer onto a few weeks ago while watching the DVD of the stage performance that just came out.

    Wow, I remember hearing that broadcast on a local radio station on halloween when I was, like, 10. I thought it was the coolest thing, evar. When I was 10. As an adult, it struck me as epitomizing everything one can criticize about prog.

  17. One of the best pieces of alternate history and music criticism I have ever read. Only someone who lived through can really get the irony. Thanks for the link.

    Philip, wicked funny comment, some people you have to draw a picture for.

    Some of the music has NOT aged well, but it is still fun to listen to, even if it is a guilty pleasure.

  18. Van Halen aged rather well. I still pull out my discs and have a listen to the first few releases. I like all aspects of Van Halen (both versions) and they are fully deserving of being in the Hall of Fame.

  19. My two cents.
    Eddie Van Halen is a first rate instrumentalist. David Lee Roth is a first rate showman.
    Early Van Halen albums hold up well, until Diver Down, then they got lazy.

  20. Leave it to Cleveland to set up museum based on the obsolescence of rock ‘n’ roll and call it a hall of fame. They have long since run out of reputable rock ‘n’ roll acts and must increasingly rely on anything with drums and a guitar to fill the dusty corridors. Way to go, O-Hi-O.

  21. From the opening of “And the Cradle Will Rock…” to the finale of “Panama,” it was one great song after another.

    As if. Everybody knows VH closes the show with “Happy Trails”

  22. Being too young to have lived through the era, I didn’t quite get all the references. (For example, I suspect the quotes from Landau, Costello, Bangs, and Westerberg are based on quotes from the real world saying exactly the opposite, but I don’t know for sure. Am I right?) I know enough to find the article very funny, however. (The exception was the part about Walter Mondale, which, while obviously based on the PMRC, came across as strained.)
    Since the major punk bands and Van Halen are all in the Hall now, I guess it ended happily for everyone (if we consider the Hall a happy ending, which I know many purists would not).
    Jeff P. – Good grief.

  23. The only listenable VH recording is Aztec Camera’s remake of “Jump.” And Roddy Frame was a much better frontman than either DD or the RR.

  24. I was in Junior High when Van Halen was at its peak and I remember them being a really big deal. A bigger deal than the Ramones. I am not sure what this guy is talking about. I think the David Lee Roth fronted Van Halen is a really underrated group. They were something few rock bands manage to be; really funny. It is a shame that Eddie Van Halen didn’t understand the appeal of the group and wanted them to be considered a serious rock band causing him to hire Hagar and fall into pretentiousness. Eddie still doesn’t understand that of course David Lee Roth made Van Halen into a joke about an over the top rock band to the point of parody, but it was a really good joke and a joke worth hearing that no one else could tell as well.

  25. John (and Jeff P. and ChuckWalla) : Read the article! Was there a second Carter term? Was 1984 Mondale vs. Anderson? Did Van Halen break up (as in permanently break up, not replace Roth with Hagar) in 1984? The first of these is mentioned in Doherty’s brief summary, so you didn’t even need to read the article.

  26. Also: Was Nirvana a heavy metal band? Did Roth and Eddied Van Halen appear on Nirvana’s “Unplugged” episode?

  27. “[overblow] the scope and impact of punk on the public psyche.”

    Yeah!

    It’s kinda like how all of a sudden *everyone* was a Ramones fan. Or that all of a sudden *everyone* loved the Clash (especially those who misstate the title of “Train in Vain”).

    Or those who think Nirvana came before Soul Asylum (LOUD AND FAST!)

    etc. etc. etc.

    :-,
    oooh! yooo in trouble! I’m tellin’ Smacky.
    Yooo’re gonna get it! (tee hee).

    Then, AGF is gonna give you a paddling with the leather-bound copy of “Heather Has Two Mommies” (the edition with the sweaty pillow fight scene on page 69). (Recalling that he’s the one who organized that huge pro acid rain rally last summer)

    Oh the humanity!

  28. Was this dude even alive when VH’s first record dropped? The first two records ‘stiffed’? WTF? The band’s debut went to #19 on the billboard charts and blasted from every primer-gray Chevelle and ‘Cuda in my high school’s parking lot for like a whole year.

    I didn’t even know the Ramones existed until I heard them on my college radio station a couple years later.

    This is lazy, sloppy rock journalism. I don’t need some fancypants revisionist to ‘rediscover’ and ‘rethink’ a band I already know is great.

  29. “John (and Jeff P. and ChuckWalla) : Read the article! Was there a second Carter term? Was 1984 Mondale vs. Anderson? Did Van Halen break up (as in permanently break up, not replace Roth with Hagar) in 1984? The first of these is mentioned in Doherty’s brief summary, so you didn’t even need to read the article.”

    I did read the article and he is dead wrong. Van Halen I and II were really big records. From Wikipedia

    “. Simply titled Van Halen, the album was released to immediate commercial success, reaching #19 on the Billboard pop music charts. All of the tracks were laid down very quickly (about three weeks), with little over-dubbing or double tracking. Minor mistakes were left on the record and a very simple musical set-up was used to give the record an almost-live feel. After adding vocals, the album was essentially ready to be mixed. Despite the simple studio set-up, Van Halen featured innovations in musical technique, production, and arrangement.

    The first album, one of rock’s most commercially successful debuts[8], is widely regarded as one of the most influential rock albums ever produced[9]. While it included original songs by the band, such as “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Eruption,” and “Runnin’ With The Devil,” the album also featured covers of the Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me” and John Brim’s “Ice Cream Man.” The band toured for nearly a year on the basis of Van Halen, establishing their reputation as a talented and exciting live band. The early chemistry of the band was based upon the interplay of Eddie Van Halen’s technical wizardry and David Lee Roth’s flamboyant antics (a contrast that would later erupt into full-blown conflict). They returned to the studio in 1979 for Van Halen II, similar in style to their debut. This album yielded the band’s first hit single, the poppy “Dance The Night Away.””

    I don’t think the Ramones ever had a record in the top 20 much less a hit single. What the hell is this guy talking about? Van Halen was playing basketball arenas to white kids from the suburbs all over the country in the late 1970s.

  30. after checking out the article:

    Oh, yeah, irony. har.

    Still standing by the fancypants comment, though.

  31. James, I am currently holding in my hand the Boston Phoenix review of Nirvana’s Nevermind, and I quote: “Nirvana takes the frantic energy of The Pixies and unleashes it squarely in the realm of metal where it belongs.”

  32. To me, REM has not aged well. I like listening to it, but I have to admit it’s nostalgiac navel gazing.

    Funny, when I first heard about the err, inductions I had exactly the opposite thought. REM still sounds great and VH is for navel gazing. I mean if you can navel gaze while hopping around the room with your air guitar.

  33. I’m seriously going to cry and lose any accidental respect I’d accrued for anyone here.

    Is the phrase from the post, describing the article and constructing “a hilarious, smart alternate universe” all that confusing?

  34. You are right some James. My mind stopped working this morning. It is a really funny article. Basically, rock critics don’t get paid for stating the obvious. They therefore spend their lives telling us how every band who sells a record to someone off of the approved cool list is not any good and these five bands no one has ever heard of and will forget in five years are the greatest things ever.

  35. Some James,

    Please don’t cry! Laugh instead. Especially for the people who couldn’t figure it out even in their second comment.

  36. “Or those who think Nirvana came before Soul Asylum (LOUD AND FAST!)”

    melvins COFF COFF melvins.

    i see the pixies connection too. still, nevermind is a permanent classic.

  37. dhex!

    YEAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

    But in my alternative universe, U2 would remain an obscure Irish unemployment benefit form (yet another reason to hate socialism/social democracy).

    REM would have called it quits after, say, “Fabels”… and the FEELIES would infect the nation with their crazy rhythms!

    🙂

    (and the Modern Lovers would have been from Milwaukee, but that’s an accent thing)

  38. Kurt Cobain popped his own melon cos he knew he could never be as awesome as Black Francis / Frank Black.

  39. “But in my alternative universe, U2 would remain an obscure Irish unemployment benefit form (yet another reason to hate socialism/social democracy).”

    and they’d be replaced by an even more drug-addled pogues lineup!

    YEAAAAAAAAAAH!

    i have the sudden urge to hear stoner witch now…

  40. Kurt Cobain popped his own melon cos he knew he could never be as awesome as Black Francis / Frank Black.

    Current Cobain did not pop his own melon. there are not fingerprints where his fingerprints should be, he had too much heroin in his system and the suicide note is as phony as a 3 dollar bill. That is not even going to motive.

    Elliot Smith? Who knows.

  41. Sam,

    Either way I hold Cortney Love responsible. Either she whacked him for the inheritence or how could anyone married to her not commit suicide?

  42. “he had too much heroin in his system”

    I have asked several doctors about that theory. They all told me that if you are enough of an addict, even that much heroine won’t automatically kill you. They told me it is possible that Kobain could have shot that much heroine and while he certainly would have died later on, remained conscious enough long enough to shoot himself out of pure tolerance alone.

  43. The feelies are the greatest, most wrongly neglected and ignored band ever.
    Are their albums still out of print? I have the vinyl, but I really wish I had it on my ipod.

  44. High:

    They probably are. (Someone borrowed my Feelies collection and promptly moved to Latvia. grrrr.) It looks as though only used CDs are available.

    Youtube has a few videos up, tho.

    Dhex: pogues: do you think that Godot and Herb know each other? ha ha.

    KICK OUT THE JAMS!

  45. Most neglected band ever, “Whiskeytown”. In my alternative universe, they own Nashville and Toby Kieth, Kieth Urban, and Faith Hill and her husband are playing redneck weddings.

  46. They told me it is possible that Kobain could have shot that much heroine and while he certainly would have died later on, remained conscious enough long enough to shoot himself out of pure tolerance alone.

    I don’t dispute that this is possible. This was the first basis I heard being used to question the apparent suicide way back in 1994 or whenever ppl started asking questions. the amount of heroin, standing by itself were not sufficient to raise my suspicions. The finger print evidence cause me to raise my eyebrow.

    It was only when I looked at the suicide note that I decided this was probably a murder. that was enuf totality of the circumstances for me at that point.

  47. Sam,

    It would not shock me if Love offed Cobain. The thing that got me to thinking was the note itself. It never says he is going to kill himself. It just says that he doesn’t want to be a rock star anymore and is going to quit music. I think it is at least plausable that Cobain planned to divorce Love, cut her out of the will for his daughter and quit music ala Sid Barrett and she had him killed to keep him from doing that.

  48. agree on the note. I found it most fishy that the last four lines clearly don’t match the rest of the note, neither in content nor handwriting.

    More than anything that switched me into a conspiracy theorist on the Cobain death. I think it might have been 2002 when I first reviewed that note with my own eyes.

  49. VM,

    I have seen the used CDs, but I can’t bring myself to buy them. CDs from back then sound so brittle. I’m dying for somebody to remaster them.

    John,

    Whiskeytown was great. Except for his first album, I can’t get as excited about the other stuff Ryan Adams has done.

  50. High:

    agreed. But as long as we’re stuck with cilantro-come-latelies, we’ll see Wall of Voodoo tour with GWAR first… sigh.

    (And I’ll remain on the far side of crazy)

  51. What the kidlets are having trouble with here is the mixing of accurate quotes from rockers and critics with the turning upside down of history, while still managing to accurately measure Van Halen. If Tuomala thinks he’s trashing the band, he’s doing a damned good imitation of giving them kudos. Much of what he says about them is completely accurate, and I’m sure they’d consider it a compliment.

    Van Halen was an attitude as much as a band. If you want to think that they were followed completely by stoners and people with iq’s under 40, knock yourself out. There was a whole level to it that the author, and many of you simply don’t get, and never will. Simply: Life is a f***ing joke, therefore, follow your dreams, screw the consequences and make sure you remain happy doing it. Preferably while drunk. Tell those who don’t get it to F*** off.

    Those of you who lived in the world of the Ramones overrate your darkness immensely.

  52. Van Halen was an attitude as much as a band. If you want to think that they were followed completely by stoners and people with iq’s under 40, knock yourself out. There was a whole level to it that the author, and many of you simply don’t get, and never will. Simply: Life is a f***ing joke, therefore, follow your dreams, screw the consequences and make sure you remain happy doing it. Preferably while drunk. Tell those who don’t get it to F*** off.

    Those of you who lived in the world of the Ramones overrate your darkness immensely.

    Everything in the first paragraph could be said about the Ramones. Have you ever listened to the Ramones? They did anything but take themselves seriously.

  53. Since Brian treated us to a Rush reference yesterday, it’s worth noting that the RRHOF will have no credibility until Rush is inducted. Seriously. Say what you will about their music, the reality is that only 3 rock bands have more gold records (The Beatles, The Stones, and Kiss), and no band has won more musicianship awards. Plus they’ve done it with the same lineup for over 30 years and are STILL creating new music, rather than doing the State Fair oldies tour. (New CD coming out this spring).

    I guess not making good “Behind the Music” fodder or having politically incorrect lyrics is what really matters, eh? It sure ain’t the music. Wenner and company ought to be levelled by hatchet, axe, and saw.

    And VH is a fine choice.

  54. I like that: overrated darkness.

    Conjures up memories of 1999 “Rollins in the Wry”

    {Rollins}”… where I’d write my… angstfilled poetry: [mocking tough, scary voice] Nobody knows me. Nobody likes me. I am the lord of darkness [whimpers quietly] please fuck me”

  55. Sensible Shoes

    You are absolutely right. Like I said above, sure Van Halen was a joke, but it was a really good one. I will take VH over any 10 “serious” bands you want to name.

    VM,

    Rollins can be such a funny guy, I just wish his music didn’t suck so bad. (watch thread become highjacked by outraged Rollins fans).

  56. yeah, i give hank credit for being both funny and a dickface.

    “Simply: Life is a f***ing joke, therefore, follow your dreams, screw the consequences and make sure you remain happy doing it. Preferably while drunk. Tell those who don’t get it to F*** off.”

    how isn’t this the motto of every band ever, minus the political ones?

    i mean, that’s blingish hip hop in a nutshell.

    if i could go back in time, after decapitating the ramones (and selling their blood to desperate junkies for $$$$ i.e. four dollars) i’d see if we could find a way to wipe out van halen, kiss and courtney love all in one fell swoop.

    and then i’d make the jesus and mary chain president for 10 minutes, but that’s me.

  57. Jesus & Mary Chain was the 2nd most boring live act I have ever seen.

    #1 – the Sundays

  58. Highnubmer,

    I saw the Sundays to and thought they were terrible and I really like their records. But I think seeing Yes was even more boring.

  59. Rollins is not a dickface. I am not a fan of his music or, well, I guess I’m not a fan [period], but I have met him. I saw his spoken word when I was in college. My friend told me to tell him “hi” from her and that she was sorry she couldn’t make it. Since I had a crush on her I followed her instructions exactly, thinking that Rollins would give me a blank look and say ok, thank you, and slowly back away. Turned out he was genuinely disappointed that she wasn’t there and we spent a few minutes talking about our mutual friend. He was super nice.

  60. John,

    Yes? Ugh! I consider myself blessed to never have been subjected to that.
    The only band further down on my list is Rush.

    I’ll go run and hide from the angry objectivists now.

  61. Don’t ask me why I went to see them HN. I was young and didn’t know any better. I have actually seen Rush and they were a little better than Yes. For all of their faults, they did a killer version of Working Man that made the show somewhat bearable. That song of course was made before Niel Pert joined the band and turned them into the world’s biggest geek rock band; a title they held until REM took it from them. Now the angry objectivists have two targets.

  62. hank is indeed a real nice guy at times – i.e. the time i met him at a spoken word show in college he was very cordial and hung out with 10 or so people outside the venue after his set for a good half hour.

    but that’s balanced by legendary accounts of his dickface behavior.

  63. Dish, dhex, dish some of these legends.
    I remember some crazy stories from the Black Flag era, but he came across as just a punk in those stories, not a dickface. That time in college was probably the last time I thought about him. I have ignored the MTV/IFC era Rollins.

  64. a friend of a friend got punched in the face sometime in the early 90s at a rollins show in nyc outside the venue. they tell it as having no provocation, which sort of knowing this dude i can believe.

    also, some folks who have worked with him on various events mention he’s got a real short fuse. but like i said he’s also really funny and was quite personable when i met him.

  65. Dhex,

    I have never met the guy, but he always stuck me on TV as someone who perhaps too a few too many speed and roid hits in the 80s and probably needs to remember to take his meds more often. I am not surprised by your friend’s story. I can’t stand a bully and Rollins always struck me as one. Its too bad your friends weren’t Green Berets or something and could have just beaten the living shit out of him.

  66. *** Stars in my eyes***

    oooh, “military Lawyer” you could have done it alone. You can Chuck Norris, even. Since you’re a naviee SEEL (sic) with pure korn syrup coarsing (sic) through your vanes (sic).

    /****starry eyes *****

  67. Another thing about Rollins – he is a tiny man. Buff physique, but he’s on the short side, maybe 5’8″, and he has a small frame.

    Glenn Danzig – that’s a man to fear. He’s short, but still physically intimidating. He almost beat up a guy at the Riv on behalf of my friends & me. Guy moving some equipment told us to get out of the way while we were talking to Danzig. He told the guy to buzz off because we were the reason he was there. The guy threatened to come back with some friends. Danzig told him to bring it on. Guy backed down. I was 16 or 17 and I had a new hero.

    Jimmy Gestapo from Murphy’s Law told the bouncers at Medusa’s to stop beating the kids up while we slam-danced, stage-dove, and punch-danced. The bouncers started yelling smack to Jimmy and, as I recall, Jimmy threatened to end the show if they didn’t cut it out. The show went on. Later, Jimmy could be heard saying he wasn’t worried about any trouble from the bouncers after the show because he had his .38 handy. Yipes.

    Ian MacKaye, on the other hand, threatened to end a Fugazi show if we didn’t stop hitting each other as we danced. I did chip a tooth that night.

    Stop by again soon for another installment of “Growing Up at Punk Rock Shows in the Early 90s.” Next episode features appearances by Integrity, Even Score, Choke, Naked Raygun, and that big black skin Will that everyone knew who wouldn’t let the straight edge kids stomp on a Soviet flag.

  68. Highnumber,

    Glenn Danzig is truly scary. If Rollins ever took a swing at me I just might be stupid enough to fight back. If Danzig every did, I would scream like a girl and run for my life.

  69. meow! Crazy delicious!

  70. I notice that neither John nor HN is scared of an attack from slavering hordes of Yes fans. Nobody is scared of Yes fans.

  71. Yes has fans?

  72. danzig came to one of my football practices in high school. he was friends with a coach. short, buff, but really nice dude.

  73. any columubusites read the Ron House article in The Other Paper this past week?

  74. What a crock I lived it and Van Halen were much bigger than the Ramones.

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