Few bands in hard rock history have been so adept at balancing the awesome and trivial as Van Halen in their prime. Consciously or instinctively, they understood that virtuoso mastery on instruments feels a whole lot less like work to listeners when you have a high-IQ stand-up comedian spouting lecherous asides during the bridges. And they also knew that eccentric noise goes down easier when it’s got giant hooks and fun in the sun. They could be ridiculously corny, but their corn more often than not made them better. Most heavy metal since has been too scared to risk being cheesy — at least on purpose.
So, since early Van Halen were so good at being “bad,” parsing the band’s best from their worst is a bit of a balancing act. Still, here’s an attempt — the “most transcendent” and “most embarrassing” moments for each of Van Halen’s seven albums with David Lee Roth in honor of new album A Different Kind of Truth. Flipping of coins was often necessary.
Van Halen (1978)
Most Transcendent Moment: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” one of the least romanticized admissions of manly single-guy refusal-to-settle ever recorded, not to mention ridiculously tough-chugging hard rock yawp in a proto-hair-metal context. David Lee Roth calls the target of his disaffection “semi-good-looking,” tells her if she wants it she’ll have to bleed for it — mean and nasty as Jagger or Axl. Excellent “Hey! hey! hey!” soccer-terrace gang-shouting at the end, too. But the best part is probably when the earth opens up and the bottom drops out and Dave tells us he’s been to the edge and stood and looked down and he’s lost a lot of friends there and has no time to mess around — you can hear the chasm he’s talking about. No wonder the Minutemen covered it, long before punks decided liking Van Halen might be cool.
Most Embarrassing Moment: The supposed “I got bim bam banana Dixie cups” line in “Ice Cream Man” (at least that’s how online lyric sites tend to translate it), which has always sounded more like “footbomb Habana (hic!) Dixie cups.” A cover of a raunchy ’50s Chicago blues by John Brim, “Ice Cream Man” was clearly Van Halen’s attempt at an equivalent of Aerosmith’s “Big Ten Inch Record” from three years before, just kind of more gross about it. And did the “pushups” mean bras, or not?
Van Halen II (1979)
Most Transcendent Moment: “D.O.A.,” where Van Halen demonstrated that they really are the “atomic punks” they’d sung about on their first album — or at least, that they can will punkdom into existence when the situation requires them to do so. In “D.O.A.” (for “dead or alive,” not “dead on arrival”), they do it by sounding more like the Raw Power Stooges than most any supposedly “Stooges-like” hardcore or garage-revival band ever has, partly because they understood how the Stooges put dance in the rhythm, and they do it by letting the groove carry a threatening tale of hoods in the street: “We were sitting ducks for the po-lice man / They found a dirty-faced kid in a garbage can.” “Down and dirty, dressed in rags” — in what sense is this not punk rock? Plus yelps and oofs! and musicians who start racing faster and faster toward the finish line, and David Lee Roth getting the last word in: “I’m a spark on the horizon!”
Most Embarrassing Moment: “Women In Love…,” a fairly spiritless if not absolutely horrible gimme-nookie-or-go-away midtempo semi-ballad groupie come-on that’s made more noxious by being the dullest song the band had recorded up to that point. And still, admittedly, it’s got a certain dusky suburban late ’70s warmth to it. But when all is said and done, even Roth’s obnoxious diddy-bopping belches and stutters in “Bottoms Up!” and “Beautiful Girls” and “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” are more useful.
Women And Children First (1980)
Most Transcendent Moment: “And The Cradle Will Rock…,” first song on the first side, where these guys take an unusual hard-rock stance of singing from the point of view of the older generation, partly even as parents of teenagers (“Have you seen junior’s grades?”, followed by crazy crunching Eddie effects), though later Dave sarcastically refers to Mom and Dad in the third person (the kid hits the street at an early age, and now “he’s unemployed… his folks are overjoyed.”) Seems like a deft sociological comment on their burnt-and-flunked-out fanbase. But a hilarious one, and of course those burnouts ate it up — and decades down the line, though this album has some of the hardest rock VH ever made (“Fools,” “Romeo Delight,” “Loss Of Control”), this is the track everybody remembers, for real good reason.
Most Embarrassing Moment: “Could This Be Magic?” the jokey Manilow-titled Tin Pan Alley ragtime-revival supper-club sea chantey novelty or whatever the hell it’s supposed to be, featuring the chorus from whence Women And Children First derives its name. The album kind of peters out for its last few cuts in general, to be honest, but “Take Your Whiskey Home”‘s alcoholic boogie (with Dave pronouncing “bottle” exactly like Gil Scott-Heron!) and “In A Simple Rhyme”‘s mixed-up pomp (with angelic harmonies wimpier than Angel’s!) at least have some kick to them. “Could This Magic?” does have some sweet old-timey picking, at least. But it also has Dave pronouncing the “t” in “often” — total deal breaker!
Fair Warning (1981)
Most Transcendent Moment: “Mean Street.” Welcome to their jungle, with a nod to Martin Scorsese, no doubt. Five minutes flat of scritchy, abrasive, heavy funk metal, for a walk around a scary urban block. (Notice a trend with their “transcendent moments” so far? Don’t want to sound like a broken record, but there was a certain kind of music of the gritty city streets that Van Halen were really great at, even though nobody ever talks about it.) Anyway, in this one, “The poor folks play for keeps down here, they’re the living dead,” and it’s way too easy to wind up on the business end of a gun. Nothing but a party band!
Most Embarrassing Moment: “Hear About It Later,” basically a four-minute holding pattern slog with an okay, incongruous, half-minute-or-so percussion break stuck in the middle, and even that doesn’t go anywhere. The gonorrhea-drip guitar at the start of this might not quite be Exhibit A for just how boring Eddie can be sometimes, but it’s still gotta be up there. And Roth’s delivery, like everybody else’s here, is so phoned in that you probably never even noticed the first verse is about being broke. I mean, at least the stupid take-it-all-off strip bar interlude in “Dirty Movies” has an intriguing disco beat underpinning it.
Diver Down (1982)
Most Transcendent Moment: “Little Guitars.” Not a whole lot of competition here, frankly — what else is there, the first 10 seconds of “Intruder” or “Dancing In The Street”? Though to be fair, “transcendence” probably wasn’t what VH were going for on this album. So “Little Guitars” it is, picking up on the Latin lilt of 1978’s (far more transcendent, but what the heck) “Dance The Night Away” and the empathetic power-pop of 1979’s (also far more transcendent) “Jamie’s Cryin'” while anticipating the glorious electro-rock of 1984’s (you got it) “Jump,” yet still a very catchy ditty (the hook goes “catch as catch, catch as catch” — can’t get much more catchy than that!), with Eddie paying homage to flamenco master Carlos Montoya on a pygmy Les Paul guitar (hence, the song title.) Plus, levee-breaking drums at the beginning!
Most Embarrassing Moment: The whole album! Just kidding. Some of those cover songs and guitar doodles hold up. So how ’bout: “Happy Trails,” barbershop-quarteted (not doo-wopped) old-fogey kitsch left over from Roy and Dale Rogers on B&W ’50s TV sets and radio sets before that. Just two songs after “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now),” the pre-“I Ain’t Got Nobody” Emmett Miller cover where Dave unleashed his Eat ‘Em And Smile blackface minstrel side. But at least that one had, uh, educational value or something. “Happy Trails” was just a tired TV theme. At least covering the Sanford And Son theme would’ve come off hip for the kids. Plus, it gets a laugh track at the end: Unfunniness evidence for sure.
Most Transcendent Moment: “Jump,” duh. Or okay, maybe not quite “duh.” But let’s face “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” are merely magnificent demonstrations of talent; “Jump” is proof of genius. Well, at least as much as Diamond Dave’s college entrance exam scores were. But seriously, this is obviously synth-pop-and-roll for ages. Some of the warmest technocrat music ever made. Eddie should put his guitar down more often! And then, uh, pick it back up for a cool solo, of course. “I ain’t the worst that you’ve seen” might be the most self-deprecating brag ever in a number-one single, and this has to be the only ’80s chart-topper with a “record machine” in it that’s even better than the one Joan Jett sang. (Didn’t everybody call them jukeboxes by then anyway?) Not to mention probably a better Cars song than the Cars ever did, which is saying a lot, right? Plus, like all truly great songs with “jump” in the title, it does.
Most Embarrassing Moment: “I brought my pencil! Gimme sumpin’ to write on, man!” in the otherwise sweat-hog classic “Hot For Teacher.” A Cheech & Chong imitation, seemingly, but at most only half of the dumb sexual metaphor (if that’s even what Dave was going for) works. Either that, or Eddie’s minute-long Star Wars-ish album intro “1984” itself: Maybe he was nostalgic for Meco, who the heck knows.
A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
Most Transcendent Moment: “Outta Space,” which actually manages to survive its nearly three minutes without ever once letting up its energy or falling on its face, while meanwhile carrying us to planets VH never thought to visit before — or at least to some fast-and-furious brand of retro-futurism, with rocket bumper stickers and “interstellar facial pulls” (that’s what it sounds like anyway) and cyborg voicings. Otherwise, the could’ve-been-a-trainwreck comeback album contains several surprisingly almost-there attempts at Sounding How Van Halen Used To Sound, but even most of the better ones — “China Town,” “Bullethead,” “As Is,” “Honeybabysweetiedoll,” maybe a couple others — tend to wind up clumsy or just “off” here and there, confused about whether nü-metal or Las Vegas is the band’s true calling. Awesome intros, for the most part, and no lack of topologically twisted curveballs thrown, but Roth’s talk-show asides, especially, are aggravatingly inconsistent, inspiring as many huh?s as ha!s. Further exposure could flip-flop this opinion, but for now there’s something apt about the best song on an album with an almost-Buzzcocks title (see: A Different Kind Of Tension, 1980) being the record’s most new wave cut.
Most Embarrassing Moment: The leaden, half-assed, not particularly bluesy “You And Your Blues” — especially the parts where an unusually gravelly Roth blows his colon-groaning “Woman!! Suffah for a cullah!!” then claims he’s suffering ’cause of her, and everybody else is suffering too. Well, we sure are. No idea whether this is meant as some kind of racial allegory — “Crossroads” references suggest maybe; “19th Nervous Breakdown” references suggest maybe not. Who do they think they are, Chickenfoot?