How Van Halen Redefined Hard Rock Before it Even Existed

By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)

By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)

In the early-to-mid-1970s, hard rock and heavy metal were still in their gestation periods as sub-genres. Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin helped plant the seeds with massive guitar riffs, punishing grooves, and dark subject matter, while the punk movement brought a bold attitude adjustment.

But even those bands weren’t about fun so much as perilous adventure. Sabbath weaved murky tales of wizards, fairies, and war. Zeppelin peppered lyrics with Lord of the Rings references and indulged in Robert Plant’s fascination with mythology. And the Sex Pistols defied a monarchy and cried for social revolution.

Then, along came Van Halen. Touting the most influential guitar player of his time in Eddie Van Halen, and a frontman that was equally dynamic on the stage and the microphone in David Lee Roth, they eschewed the hard rock aesthetics conceived by Sabbath and Zeppelin. Not that hard rock was in need of a change – or arguably even existed to that point in time – but Van Halen changed it nonetheless. And they did it with an unprecedented combination of musicianship and showmanship.

The band’s first headlining tour, which rolled through Boston’s Orpheum Theater on May 14, 1979, was their American introduction and an astonishing kick in the ass to rock and roll that the genre didn’t know it needed.

Lead singer David Lee Roth, left, and lead guitarist  Eddie Van Halen of the rock group Van Halen perform during the concert at the spectrum in Philadelphia in this Oct. 19, 1982 file photo. The rockers have re-formed with original frontman David Lee Roth and will set out on a national tour beginning in October, 2007, according to a report posted Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2007 on Billboard Magazine's Web site. (AP Photo) Lead singer David Lee Roth, left, and lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen of the rock group Van Halen perform during the concert at the spectrum in Philadelphia in this Oct. 19, 1982 file photo. (AP Photo)

Van Halen’s arrival on the rock music scene was “the first real advent of the new face of hard rock,” said Mike Mullaney, music director at our sister station Mix 104.1 and longtime Van Halen devotee. If Sabbath and Zeppelin’s ear-splitting riffs and fantastical images were rough charcoal sketches of hard rock, Van Halen’s electrifying musical energy and fun-loving attitude were vibrant color portraits.

“He is the only guy you could imagine to have the bravado to match the amazing musicianship going on.”

– Mix 104.1 Music Director Mike Mullaney on David Lee Roth’s stage presence with Van Halen.

Mullaney added that Eddie Van Halen’s transcendent guitar work played one of the biggest roles in hard rock’s shift from brooding to lively. Jimmy Page and Tony Iommi wrote (and continue to write) riffs like no other guitarists in history, but Eddie’s blistering chops and sprightly phrasing injected rock guitars with an unexpected shot of adrenaline.

“Here’s the most important guitar player since Hendrix…Everyone was buzzing about the way he changed how the guitar sounded,” he said about Eddie’s innovative finger-tapping techniques and next-level shredding – in both solos and straight riffs. He displayed an extraordinary combo of dynamic skill and bombast in songs like “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”, “Unchained”, and of course, “Eruption”.

As obviously great as Eddie was, he was still only part of Van Halen’s appeal. Frontman David Lee Roth also took rock vocals to new heights with his wailing five-octave vocal range and dizzying on-stage gymnastics.

David Lee Roth, lead singer of the rock group Van Halen, sings during a concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pa., on Oct. 19, 1982.  (AP Photo) David Lee Roth, lead singer of the rock group Van Halen, sings during a concert at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Pa., on Oct. 19, 1982. (AP Photo)

Roth and the rest of the band’s relentless exuberance was a direct response to the “corporate rock” of the ’70s that dominated the radio and still gets regular time here on ZLX and on every other classic rock station, like Kansas, Boston, and R.E.O. Speedwagon. While these bands were very talented and had plenty of great songs, they just didn’t have the live energy to match. Even Robert Plant, while an amazing singer, still just kind of stood there and “looked pretty” when he performed.

Mullaney saw Van Halen for the first time in 1980 on the “Women and Children First” tour, and staggered out of the arena in awe at the band’s live performance. Roth opened the show by leaping spread-eagle off the drum riser, and the energy never let up. Roth held everyone’s attention like a master of ceremonies, nailing all the high notes and kicking and strutting his way across the stage.

“[Roth] is the only guy you could imagine to have the bravado to match the amazing musicianship going on,” said Mullaney. “Every guy wanted to be David Lee Roth and every woman wanted to be with David Lee Roth.”

Roth and the band’s wild on-stage antics also translated off the stage. Mullaney described their aesthetic as “smiling metal”, focusing more on soaking in the California sunshine, tapping a keg of beer, and getting laid. The “hair metal” craze of the 1980s was a direct result of Van Halen’s striking persona, spawning the likes of Motley Crue and Poison.

While they also put out a litany of hugely popular hard rock songs and performed with similar fervent intensity on stage, they still came off as imitators of what Van Halen and Roth brought to the scene, starting on their first tours in the late-’70s.

“These guys [Van Halen] came out and they were fierce and bold,” said Mullaney. “It was incendiary.”

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