Released: Apr. 14, 1982
The album cover artwork displays the “diver down” flag used in many US jurisdictions (which indicates aSCUBA diver is currently submerged in the area). Asked about the cover in a 1982 interview with Sylvie Simmons (Sounds, June 23, 1982), David Lee Roth said it was meant to imply that “there was something going on that’s not apparent to your eyes. You put up the red flag with the white slash. Well, a lot of people approach Van Halen as sort of the abyss. It means, it’s not immediately apparent to your eyes what is going on underneath the surface.” The back cover of the album features a photo by Richard Aaron of Van Halen on stage at the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida that was taken on October 24, 1981 as they concluded a set opening for The Rolling Stones.
The music video for “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was one of the first banned by MTV, although VH1 Classic has consistently aired it in recent years. In 1982, Roth explained the ban as the result of complaints that it made fun of “an almost theological figure” the Samurai warrior (Michael Anthony in the video) and also because two midgets appeared to molest a woman (actually a Los Angeles area drag queen performer). The video, directed by Roth, was, he said: “rather like a surrealistic art project … where they paint the picture and come back three days later and try to figure out what they meant.” The track “Intruder” on the album, which precedes “(Oh) Pretty Woman”, was written specifically in order that there would be enough music to cover the length of the film that was edited down for the “(Oh) Pretty Woman” video. In his 1982 interview with Simmons[who?], Roth takes credit for “Intruder,” stating: “I wrote that… When we finished the movie (i.e., the video) it was about three minutes too long. So, I said, we won’t cut any of it; we’ll write soundtrack music for the beginning. So we went into the studio and I played the synthesizer and I wrote it. It took about an hour to put that together.”.
Eddie and Alex Van Halen’s father, Jan Van Halen, plays clarinet on “Big Bad Bill”.
Two interviews from the period give the best account of how the band – certainly Roth and Eddie – saw the album at the time. The comments here are taken from Roth’s interview with Sylvie Simmons (Sounds, June 23, 1982) and Eddie’s interview with Jas Obrecht (Guitar Player, Dec. 1982).
Where Have all the Good Times Gone
Dave: “We’re capable of playing six different Kinks’ songs. Because at one time, back in our bar days, I bought a double album from K-Tel or something that had 30 Kinks tunes on it. We learned all of one side and played them into the dirt during the club gigs, twice a night each one, because they sounded so good and they were great to dance to, etc., etc.” He added that the band had never met Ray Davies but that “we had a seance once and tried to dredge up his spirit. And Chrissie Hynde materialized for a brief moment.”
Eddie: “The solo was more sounds than lines. I ran the edge of my pick up and down the strings for some of those effects. I think I used my Echoplex in that song.”
Hang ‘Em High
Dave: “It’s like all those Westerns where there’s some kind of dissonant sound in the background. Like they’ll have one harmonica that hits only one note — eeeeeeeeee — and that’s when you know the hero is coming to town or something terrible is going to happen. And what happens is Edward will come up with a song or a riff and then immediately I’ll hear it and I’ll know right away what the scenario is.”
Eddie: “The solo was just loose, fun, craziness. I play it better every night than I did on the record, but who cares? It has feeling. Actually that was a really old song.”
Eddie: “I’ve been doing ‘Cathedral’ for more than a year and I wanted to put it on record… it sounds like a Catholic church organ, which is how it got its name. On that cut I use the volume knob a lot. If you turn it up and down too fast, it heats up and freezes. I did two takes of that song, and right at the end of the second take, the volume knob just froze, just stopped.”
Dave: “The nucleus of the lyrics come from greeting cards and get-well cards that I bought in Albuquerque, New Mexico on the last tour, and they were written in the style of American Indian poetry. ‘May your moccasins leave happy tracks in the summer snows’.”
Eddie: “I used a Gibson doubleneck 12-string, the model Jimmy Page uses, and played with a flatpick. The solo in ‘Secrets’ was a first take. I kind of laid back, and it fit the song.”
Dancing in the Street
Dave: “It sounds like more than four people are playing, when in actuality there are almost zero overdubs — that’s why it takes us such a short amount of time [to record].”
Eddie: “It takes almost as much time to make a cover song sound original as it does writing a song. I spent a lot of time arranging and playing synthesizer on ‘Dancing in the Streets,’ and they [critics] just wrote it off as, ‘Oh, it’s just like the original.’ So forget the critics! These are good songs. Why shouldn’t we redo them for the new generation of people?”
Dave: “Edward was saying he’d just seen this TV show with a flamenco guy doing all these wonderful things with his fingers, and he says ‘I’ve figured out how to do it with one pick, watch this.’ And he did it. And it sounded better than the original… It sounded Mexican to me, so I wrote a song for senoritas.” The guitar used on the recording (and subsequent tour) was a miniature Les Paul, built by Nashville luthier David Petschulat and sold to Eddie on the earlier “Fair Warning” tour.
Eddie: “I think that the best thing I do is cheat. I came up with the intro after I bought a couple of Carlos Montoya records. I was hearing his fingerpicking, going, ‘My God, this guy is great. I can’t do that.’ So, I just listened to that style of music for a couple of days and I cheated! [Using a pick] I am doing trills on the high E and pull-offs with my left hand, and slapping my middle finger on the low E. If there’s something I want to do and can’t, I won’t give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can do.”
Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)
Dave: “I think it’s a great song. And there’s been this thread winding its way through all of Van Halen’s music and all of our albums since beginning with ‘Ice Cream Man.’ I played acoustic guitar and songs like this for quite a while before I ever joined Van Halen. It’s music. Why do I have to bang my head to every single song on every single album? I don’t think the audience has that much lack of creativity or imagination.”
Eddie: “It was Dave’s idea to do ‘Big Bad Bill’. He bought himself one of those Sanyo Walkman-type things with the FM-AM radio, and you can record off the radio if you like something you hear. He was up in his bedroom at his father’s house and he found that if he stood in a certain spot and pointed his antenna a certain way, he picked up this weird radio station in Louisville, Kentucky. He recorded ‘Big Bad Bill’ and played it to us, and we started laughing ourselves silly and going, ‘That is bad! Let’s do it!’ Dave suggested, ‘Hey, we can get your old man to play the clarinet.’ We said, ‘sure.’
“It’s so funny, because I couldn’t play the song for you right now. I had to read because there were so many chords, I just couldn’t remember it. So here’s my father to the left of me, sitting on a chair with a music stand in front of him, and I’m sitting next to him with sheet music in a stand. Mike was there, too, playing like an acoustic guitar bass – the kind they have in Mexican restaurants where they come up, play in front of your face, and aggravate you. We had a great time. It looked like an old ’30s or ’40s session. I used some thick Gibson hollowbody with f-holes. My father hadn’t played in a long time because he had lost his left-hand middle finger about 10 years ago. He was nervous, and we told him, ‘Jan, just have a good time. We make mistakes! That’s what makes it real.’ I love what he did, but he was thinking back 10 years ago when he was smokin’, playing jazz and stuff. He played exactly what we wanted.”
Dave: “I think when you hear Mr. Van Halen playing, you’ll have an idea it’s a shadow of where Eddie and Alex are now. There’s a sense of humour in there, a lot of technique and a whole lot of beer!”
The Full Bug
Dave: “You know when you have a cockroach and they run round the house and get into a corner? We used to have these shoes called PRFCs – Puerto Rican Fence Climbers, okay? And this was aptly titled because if you were running from the police or what have you, and you were wearing your PRFCs, you could hit the fence at a dead run and your foot would stay in and you could commence climbing immediately, which was the essence of the whole sport anyway. And these were also great shoes for when the cockroach moves into the corner and you can’t get at it with your foot or the broom anymore. You just jam your toe into the corner and hit as hard as you can. And if you did it right you got the full bug. So this slang means — bammm! — you have to give it everything you’ve got. Make the maximum effort, do everything possible, get the full bug.”
Eddie: “Dave plays the acoustic guitar and harmonica on the intro of ‘The Full Bug.’ My lines in the middle of that are different. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff with Allan Holdsworth, and he inspires me.”
Dave: “Joke ’em if they can’t take a f**k, Sylvie! You wouldn’t believe the number of TV commercials and radio jingles this band can sing in four-part harmony. I was nannied and weaned by TV — that’s the babysitter around here when you’re growing up, to sit in front of the tube. You turn into a vidiot. I remember all the commercials. We’ve been singing ‘Happy Trails’ for general airport use for years. And we wanted to do something wonderful and different for you.”