Author: BD Joyce
As we left Wembley Park station and entered a throng of people walking towards the twin towers of Wembley Stadium, something palpably shifted, deep in my consciousness. An inchoate sense of attachment to rock ‘n’ roll music, and everything surrounding it, began to thrive, nourished by the discovery of an open doorway to the history of a musical form that seemed all encompassing at that point in my life. We walked past a new world of shifty men thrusting flyers into our hands, early casualties of one two many industrial-strength lager, and denim and leather clad lifers already slurring the words to Bon Jovi hits, hours before the headliners would hit the stage in a blaze of pyrotechnics. The merchandise vans parked outside the stadium displayed t-shirts emblazoned with the graphics from Bon Jovi’s latest album, These Days, of course, but also a number sporting the almost mythical name of Van Halen, together with the image from their recently released Balance LP. Ugly Kid Joe and Thunder came and went, the latter in particular making me an instant fan, and then Van Halen hit the stage. It was 1995, not truly considered the golden period for the band despite the huge success of the Sammy Hagar era, but as they worked through a set combining a handful of their early classics with their more contemporary material, and as Eddie Van Halen nonchalantly peeled off majestic riffs and solos, it was clear that we were in the presence of a magician, and this sense of wonder at what it was possible to do with a guitar has never withered.
As I pursued my own rock ‘n’ roll dreams after that first show, days and nights were spent in the Essex countryside at Dave’s, jamming our own attempts to emulate Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Van Halen. In the evenings, obsessed with the music we loved, we watched endless VHS copies of live shows and documentaries. Hendrix, Clapton, The Band, and The Eagles were on regular rotation, but alongside that was Van Halen’s Right Here, Right Now. Again, the band was fronted by Hagar, and the set leaned mostly on the contemporaneous For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, but the relatively middle of the road output compared to the more explosive early works could not dim the brilliance of the guitar-toting Van Halen brother, nor his symbiotic relationship with his sibling which powered the band throughout their storied existence.
Of course, over the years I worked backwards and got to know the Dave Lee Roth period of Van Halen’s discography, and came to understand their position on the rock ‘n’ roll continuum, and gained some sort of knowledge of just how startling Van Halen’s quicksilver guitar playing would’ve sounded at a time before every single lead guitarist had added the finger-tapping and whammy-bar divebombs that he popularised to their technical arsenal. In the same way that Hendrix had redefined rock ‘n’ roll guitar playing in the 1960s, Van Halen did the same in the 1970s. So singular is his playing – trademark fluid leads adorn every track, dazzling flurries of notes displaying his wondrous tone, working through neo-classical scales that turn into harmonic laden shredding and finger-tapping, before finishing with loose blues figures, all the while sounding like only himself – that even today it sounds paradoxically futuristic, as if the rest of the guitar-playing world is still a few years from catching up. And most importantly, every note serves the song, rarely descending into the muso self-indulgence that would likely still have been compelling, albeit less so. ‘Eruption’ is of course the touchstone for his spectacular skills, but it’s an anomaly in the Van Halen back catalogue. Equally interesting is the staggering lightness of touch that Van Halen displays on ‘Top Jimmy’, or the supercharged warped riffing of ‘Unchained’, or the dragging funkiness of ‘Drop Dead Legs’. Just one of these songs would be enough to inspire a kid with a guitar to form a band – the cumulative effect of them inspired almost everyone who played rock and metal for decades after the release of Van Halen’s seminal debut.
As I approach my 40th birthday, whenever I listen to Van Halen, I once again become that 13 year old boy, walking towards Wembley Stadium with my Dad, my brother Rich and my lifelong friend Dave, ready to be amazed and inspired all over again, alive to the infinite possibilities of the universe.