Cynthia Rose, NME, 20 June 1981
The image is of course the one Van Halen ascended into when Led Zep stepped down (or moved over or fell off or whatever) in America. And there can be no doubt that this is a full HM pectorals and power-trio band: Roth’s vocals are the last item on their shopping list, mixed in well behind Eddie Van Halen’s guitar heroics. But as they made the climb from a popular Pasadena, California bar band who hand-lettered their posters, booked halls and managed themselves, to superstars whose contract rider specifies Smarties with all thechocolate ones removed backstage at every gig, Van Halen have taken some liberties with their genre.
The main one is subtlety – these guys do architect actual and varied songs, from Fair Warning‘s stinging ‘Sinners Swing!’ and vivid ‘Mean Streets’ to the hyperkinetic ‘Unchained’. Nor is it any accident that Eddie Van Halen topped this year’s Best Guitarist polls in bothGuitar Player and CREEM. This LP’s best numbers (the above, plus a discoidal ‘Push Comes to Shove’ in which Roth raps between Fast Eddie’s special sinuous runs) are constructed around his whip-you-with-electric-eels showmanship and buoyed up by brother Alex’s Oblique Strategies drumming – which lashes the cymbals, varies the support system and attacks from behind instead of coming down on top of the rhythm in traditional HM thump and grind fashion.
Fair Warning makes it explicit that Van Halen have become a triumph of Form over Content; only it’s satire and not cartoon. Most heavy metal uses metaphors that promise what it can’t possibly musically deliver – a sonic apocalypse, a moment of ultimate machismo, a real climate amped up to X zillion decibels. The climaxes that Van Halen do actually deliver thanks to tight musicianship and self-circumscribed aims have everything to do with entertainment – ie ‘art’ – and little to do with reality (for instance, sexual politics).
Let he who has never listened to them wonder why stylish-kinky fashion lensman Helmut Newton shot their last LP’s foldout poster of David Lee in bondage, or from whence cometh the sheer unbelievable obnoxiousness of the band’s sartorial gambits. Perhaps doubters should consider Adam Ant, whose liberally applied slap never hides how basicallyuncomfortable he is in his secondhand Georgette Heyer universe. Where Ant’s “war whoops” sound like an outtake from Shriek Of The Mutilated, Davy Lee whoops the BIG LAUGH (at himself) and screams like an exhaust pipe after an all-day Demolition Derby.
Yes, Fair Warning can be funny and ‘Unchained’ is a great number to get anyone’s ass in gear anytime. There’s also the reflective guitar work which leads into the echoing tunnel visions of ‘Hear About It Later’ (a strong melodic chorus filters in and out of Eddie’s aural crossword puzzles), the ping-pong beat of ‘Sinners Swing!’, and The HM parody ‘Dirty Movies’, which begins with a sparkling seashore tune and recedes into neon guitar shapes as a coed reaches the city and questionable celluloid fame. Only a muddy ‘Hear About It Later’ and a pedestrian ‘So This Is Love?’ (did I hear cowbells??) fail to repay reasonable scrutiny with reasonable sophistication.
Now that they’ve made the megabucks, Van Halen aren’t too serious about anything this side of showbiz, yet they are one of the few HM bands who through their particular style come close to broaching the unspeakable but logical question of whether men’s interests and women’s interests might not be actually opposed rather than merely different. How awful if Liberal Thinking had hidden such a truth from us for years, only to have four blokes in Spandex strides reveal it! Eh?
© Cynthia Rose, 1981