On-again, off-again Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth has notched his own solo successes. That includes three Top 20 albums, including the platinum-selling Eat ‘Em and Smile and Skyscraper. His debut solo EP Crazy from the Heat also went to No. 15, and four of Roth’s singles became Billboard Top 20 hits, as well – including his No. 3 cover of “California Girls” and “Just Like Paradise,” which got to No. 6.
But he’ll always be known for his tenure with Van Halen, which he initially led from 1974-1985. He returned briefly in 1996, then for a longer homecoming stint in 2007 that included a surprise reunion album, A Different Kind of Truth. This Gimme Five list of Van Halen favorites, however, focuses on Roth’s career-making first stint. In fact, three of these songs are plucked from their very first album together, 1978’s Van Halen.
“RUNNIN’ WITH THE DEVIL,” VAN HALEN (1978): In the late 1970s, I had a job working at a Maine-based drugstore that would end up being swallowed by Rite Aid. One of my responsibilities was to order and stock the relatively small record department. This was great fun – hardly a job at all, really. The only downside was that it was insanely easy to buy albums. I would just sign a receipt, “charging” the item to my account. Unfortunately, this resulted in several paychecks of less than $10 over a two-week period.
When the first Van Halen record showed up at the store, I just knew I had to have it. There was something kind of primal and unhinged about the cover photos. Were they a punk band or something? I had no idea, but I took home a copy that night.
Not more than a few seconds after I dropped the needle and, cliche’ or not, my jaw hit the floor. I just could not believe what I was hearing. Oh sure, I’d heard plenty of loud guitar before but this was different: When Eddie stepped up for that first solo, he unleashed a torrent of notes that managed to sound both focused and wildly out of control. And while David Lee Roth’s voice roared, the entire vocal sound was sweetened by Michael Anthony’s crucial high harmonies.
After I got home from work, it was customary for me to chat with my girlfriend on the phone. I was so taken with this album that I had to apologize and hang up on her. Probably not the first time that my music obsession has negatively affected my sex life. – Mark Saleski
“HOT FOR TEACHER,” 1984 (1984): I’ve long held the unpopular belief that Eddie Van Halen may be the most overrated guitarist on the planet. It’s not that I don’t like Van Halen, and it’s not that I don’t respect Eddie’s abilities, which admittedly are far beyond what mine would ever be if I spent every waking minute of the rest of my life in the woodshed. But he was just never that big of an inspiration to me, personally.
While my other guitar-playing friends were worshipping at the altar of Eddie, I was failing miserably at copping Randy Rhoads’ lead licks. By the time those friends had mastered “Eruption,” I had realized that my musical future didn’t lie in flashy leads, and I was studying guys like Tony Iommi and James Hetfield, guys who provided the backbone of a song. Sadly, I failed miserably at that, too.
But there were occasions that something from Van Halen caught my ear, and I’m pretty sure that if you added up all the time I spent trying to nail the licks from “Hot For Teacher” in high school, it would equal months of my life.
It starts off with that pencil-on-notebook style drum groove (or maybe that was just suggestion from the video) by Alex Van Halen that sets the mood, then Eddie comes in with that incredible tapping run, which was the first thing that caught my attention about the song. I was finally able to figure out a sloppy, stuttering version of that, but those stretches are just beyond what my short, stubby fingers are comfortable with.
The main riff of the song, though, has just as much to do with its success as the showy leads. There’s a definite swagger to that riff. It was a little metal, a little blues rock and, maybe, just a little show tune – that last bit, of course, accentuated by David Lee Roth’s flamboyant presence. “Hot For Teacher” has all of the attitude that the best Van Halen songs of the original Roth era were known for. Then the tune settles into a quiet, bluesy groove for just a minute on that little clean fingerpicked lick as David Lee Roth pretends to be the bad kid in class before revving back up with a version of the same riff on steroids. It all leads eventually to a main solo – which, let’s just say, I never mastered.
To open up the age-old argument, “Hot For Teacher” is a perfect illustration of why I prefer the early version of Van Halen to the Van Hagar years. Sure, it’s not as refined and radio-friendly, but rock ‘n’ roll has never been about refinement. Rock ‘n’ roll should be wild, rude and rowdy, and “Hot For Teacher” fits those parameters perfectly. – Fred Phillips
“JAMIE’S CRYIN’,” VAN HALEN (1978): Van Halen didn’t become a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame band solely from Eddie’s guitar virtuosity and Diamond Dave’s tongue-n-cheek swagger. This band created plenty of monster riffs and catchy hooks back in its day, and a rapper named Tone Loc (remember him?) rode both of those things to a No. 2 hit back in ’89.
But the song he ripped off, “Jamie’s Crying,” had more than that and Eddie’s “uh oh” guitar quip going for it. The backing vocals, supplied by their plodding bassist Michael Anthony, made this song complete. Those high, smooth harmonies were never going to take front stage when there’s an all-world axe shredder and front man in the lineup but it helped to push the band beyond the normal realm of hard rock.
Songs from that game-changing debut album like “Jamie’s Cryin’” pointed the way early on for how Van Halen was going to reach an audience much bigger than the headbanger set. – S. Victor Aaron
“AND THE CRADLE WILL ROCK,” WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, (1980): There’s a split somewhere in the Van Halen fan base about – no, not about Roth vs. Hagar – Eddie Van Halen’s use of keyboards.
For instance, some of us wouldn’t mind never hearing “Jump” again. That issue aside, my favorite application of keyboards in the entire Van Halen collection comes with the introduction to “And the Cradle Will Rock.” Eddie fed his keyboard signal through a flanger and then into a cranked Marshall amplifier.
The sound is kind of sinister and industrial, and helps this killer song and Women and Children First achieve liftoff right from the start. – Mark Saleski
“ICE CREAM MAN,” VAN HALEN (1978): The first time I heard “Ice Cream Man,” I thought it was the silliest rock song ever. I was in third grade and just beginning to discover the world of rock ‘n’ roll when a friend brought the cassette to school. Those were different times, and I actually still thought David Lee Roth was singing about ice cream. I also wasn’t very fond of Roth’s vocals at the time.
A few years later, when I rediscovered the first Van Halen album, obviously I had a slightly different take. Those adolescent hormones had me thinking the lyrics were pretty cool, and by that point, I’d begun to realize that the best rock singers weren’t always the ones that delivered the most perfect vocals, but sometimes the guys that put the right amount of character and attitude.
No one can deny that Roth had both in droves. While a lot of my friends prefer the more grown-up sound of the Sammy Hagar era, Roth’s zany, goofy antics always appealed to me. One of the first concerts that I ever went to was from David Lee Roth’s Skyscraper tour, and many years later, it’s still a comparison point for shows I see today.
The adolescent hormones are long gone now and I don’t think the song is quite as clever as I did back then, but I still crank up the stereo every time I hear “Ice Cream Man. ” I still love the sense of humor on the early Van Halen albums, with songs like this and their goofy cover of “Happy Trails” from Diver Down. – Fred Phillips
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