Article written about VH in their early days, this comes from Sounds magazine, May 13, 1978. They were just about to conquer the world…
Columbus, Ohio (3/16/1978). Van Halen, just called back for an encore, are basking in the unexpected adulation. The support band takes a bow. “Thank you Cleveland”, yells their frontman. Cleveland? Silence. You could hear a piece of popcorn pop.
Van Halen’s collective face drops further still, as insults and hard objects are tossed at the stage. The man whose job it is to keep the band informed on such trivia as where exactly they are playing has reportedly been given his marching orders.
But anyone can put their platformed foot in it once in awhile; and for every one of those, Van Halen has been takings a bigger step forward. Today Hollywood – as they said back in the days of movieland glam – tomorrow the World.
Kicking off with an extensive tour of America, supporting – and at times upstaging – Montrose and Journey, the band are now in Europe and Britain on the Black Sabbath tour, before heading east to the Orient. They might get some time off in October, but the Puritan work ethic, the cornerstone of the Land of the Free, goes down fine with Van Halen.
I mean, this is the band that not long ago played five sets a night, 24 nights in a row, for a bit of loose change.
“Now we’re on the road, everyone’s saying: Van Halen First World Tour. And we’re going out there and doing a 45-minute set or something like that – man, this is like Van Halen World Vacation”.
Spoken in the true spirit of rock and roll by Jim Dandy/Robert Plant hybrid, bumping-and-grinding frontman Dave Lee Roth, who goes on to say: “It’s been going great. Everybody’s been eating it up like crazy. Because it’s good rock music. It’s straight-ahead stuff, really passionate, really intense stuff with none of this dumb blues-rock or anything.
“We put a lot of effort into it and people are responding real well – because it translates so much more beautifully live than on the record; because you can really feel the bass. You get the tight pants and all that extra.”
Not to mention lightshows, dry ice, sweat, blood and white-hot physical excitement. Good old rock and roll; wine, women and song. None of this Malibu lie-with-you-in-a-hammock-looking-at-the-highway-laid-back trash. This is the real McCoy. Groupies form a quiet line by the door.
Van Halen are from California. The land that gave you love and peace and long-legged girls with freckles and braces, and Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. California seems to do something to its bands. A week in the sun and they turn laid-back and mellow. Look what happened to Fleetwood Mac…
It’s not as if California hasn’t any heavy metal fans – it’s swarming with them. Just none of them home-grown. Until Van Halen came along – and it took them four years to get out of the bars and into a recording studio. Van Halen are not laid-back, but they like California. They used to judge wet T-shirt contests.
The band’s line-up is Dave Lee Roth on lead vocals, Michael Anthony on bass, and brothers Dutchmen Alex Van Halen on drums and (excellent) Edward Van Halen on guitar. Formed four years ago, they originally called themselves Mammoth, until a few choice words from another band of the same name led them to choose ‘Van Halen’. Theirs has been called “the most auspicious hard rock debut since Led Zeppelin.”
“We were all in rival bands in the LA area”, Roth tells the story. “And once you play a circuit of so many square miles, you become familiar with the other musicians who are playing around. People who weren’t terribly, terribly into it, who wanted to drop off and become a lawyer or a junkie or something, would do that, and the four of us were kind of stuck with each other. It’s because we were very intense about wanting to get a band together and make a record and go on the road and all that entails.”
They started out playing parties and graduated to bars. At Gazarri’s on the Sunset Strip, they were paid to keep the kids dancing – and thirsty; and they had to run a dance contest twice a week.
“I had to talk to the kids while they all lined up”, recalls Roth. “I’d do a Monty Hall (the American equivalent of Hugie Greene), ask them ‘where do you come from, what do you do for a living’, all that kind of stuff, or make a joke about quaaludes and the audience would crack up. And then they’d get up and dance.
“We worked everywhere, see, because we just loved to play. We figured what we’d do is play as far and wide as the car would take us in a one-night drive, and eventually enough people would see us and enough of them like us and we’d be discovered.”
America is the land of commercials. You advertise everything, from deodorant and hamburgers to plastic surgery, voodoo dolls and religion. Van Halen set about advertising itself.
“After playing the bars for a while we began promoting our own shows. We would make up flyers and rent a hall and start to put on our own shows around the local high schools and junior colleges, wherever young people would be. We were barred from just about everywhere in Pasadena (their locality N.E. of LA) so we started drawing in other Southern Californian areas. The first show we drew maybe 800 people. The last show – about eight months ago, before the record came out – we drew 3,200 people just with posters. We had no money for radio advertising or newspapers or stuff like that. The local newspaper couldn’t stand us anyway. We represented to them the classic rock-and-roll-band bad guy image.”
Their next venture was to rent a bunch of semis (flat-deck trucks), put them together and make a stage; put on a sow, keep enough to pay their bills, and invest the rest in a PA system, then some lights, the works.
“You can’t expect to knock on someone’s door with a demo tape and get a lot”, explains Roth. “We just wanted to be discovered. It took about four years but we did it.”
The first step on their road to discovery came in the form of one Rodney Bingenheimer, LA hanger-outer, who spotted them bashing out top forty hits at one club, and transported them to another – the Starwood (mecca for heavy metal fans), the only club in Hollywood where the walls actually sweat. The second step was an offer by Gene (Kiss) Simmons to pay for a demo tape session. The third was a visit to the Starwood by producer Ted Templeman (of Doobies and Montrose fame) accompanied by a top bod from Warner Records.
“It was a crummy Monday night, just like any other”, recalls Roth in a scene so dramatic it could have come straight from the movies. “They just showed up, came backstage after the show, and said ‘hey you guys are terrific – wanna sign up?’ And it felt real good. We’d been campaigning for it for so long, and then we got it. So we said: ‘Ah, now stage two. The rest was just eliminations, now you’re in the race’.”
Their first album, Van Halen produced by Templeman, came out in December. It’s an impressive debut. Each song has a great riff, written, says Roth, for “instant appeal”.
“The whole Van Halen concept is that we’re very straight ahead. No studio wizardry, no magic of multiple overdubbing or stuff like that. We just wanted to do a real solid, pure product without being too simplistic – that same old boring blues riff. Recording the album actually took two weeks. All of that stuff on the record is live. It’s all first take or second take stuff. I sang while the band played.
“Maybe three out of ten songs have a – one – guitar overdub on them. That way it translates real well live, and it makes for a very different sound in this day and age when everybody seems to be ‘soaring vocal harmonies over a progressive background overlay’ stuff. It’s great to make that music, but I’m not sure if that’s rock music.
All but two of the songs on the album are communally-written originals. The exceptions are the Elmore James oldie, ‘Ice Cream Man’, and their hit single, a remake of the Kinks’ classic ‘You Really got Me’; a throwback to their top 40-playing bar days.
“We had a repertoire of about 300 songs”, says Roth, “So don’t be surprised if there’s any old stuff on the next album, or the one after that, or whatever. Because there are a lot of great old songs we used to do that translate well into the 1980 sound.”
That, by the way, is the message they’d like passed on to you.
“This is the 1980s, tell them, and this is the new sound. It’s not the ’60s, and it’s not a reflection of the ’70s any more. It’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent is what it is. Our music is exuberant and strenuous to play – so we’re really in shape.”
A glance at the supple body on the album cover, and you believe him. By the way, don’t expect them to cancel a tour if they come down with flu, anything less than death.
Says Roth: “I can’t stand nerks who complain: ‘Oooh, I have the sniffles. I can’t go on’. There are, say, 10,000 fans who are in love with the act and have been waiting months to see him, and He’s Got The Sniffles! Bars really shape you up. So when your monitors screw up or you get flu or something you don’t O.D. on it. We don’t go to pieces.”