30 YEARS AGO TODAY: VAN HALEN – 1984 (A “Looking Back” Review)…

van halen 1984

Thirty years ago today, the final album by the definitive original lineup of Van Halen was released. If twitter had been around back then, it would have been interesting to see how many negative tweets would have sprung up at the premiere of the first single “Jump”. After all, Eddie Van Halen was now a well known guitar virtuoso revered by many. How dare he chuck the guitar in favor of.. *gasp*.. keyboards?

But then, as the title suggests, this was 1984. The dawn of the decade and particularly New Wave music brought a curiosity for almost all musicians to try these new gadgets. In some cases, the experimentation was successful. In others, it left fans shaking their heads in disgust and calling their heroes “sellouts”. Trying out keyboards was both a blessing and a curse. From what I’ve read, Eddie’s side of the story leading up to the original lineup’s breakup was that David Lee Roth loathed having the keyboards on the songs. You can definitely feel just a tad of power struggle on 1984, but the conflict actually made for good variety.

I can only imagine someone weaned on Van Halen and Van Halen II hearing the swooshy keyboard intro track “1984” and double checking their LP or cassette that it was the right album. However for me, this wasn’t so. I was a 7 year old kid the summer of 1984. My cousin had the cassette of 1984 and let me borrow it. I only knew the three MTV videos, so I had no idea what Van Halen was *supposed* to be, only that it was exciting to listen to.

“Jump” was immediately a smash. Despite having a keyboard driven chorus and riff, it still had a monstrous guitar solo. The band’s energy was unstoppable. Diamond Dave was a madman and even with his crazy squeals the song was everywhere alongside mainstream pop songs. It was such a feel-good song. It would go on to be pretty much their biggest hit with Dave. Then came a one-two punch of following it with “Panama”. This one was also in heavy rotation on MTV. My family had moved back to the area I was born after an aborted two year stint living in Oklahoma, and my aunt and uncle usually had MTV on when nothing else was on in the evening. I was hooked. I had no idea what “Panama” was about. In fact I heard it as “Panamow” for some reason. But the song had such a riff and such energy. The band doing all that crazy stuff like swinging on cables and cops hauling off Dave in a towel at a hotel room… this band just seemed like so much fun! Listening now, I think this song shaped my love for heavy music. the drums, the riffs, even the engine sounds.. it rocked so much!

So then the two songs on side one of the cassette that I didn’t know. “Top Jimmy” starts with a very mysterious sounding guitar string pluck intro that gives way to full throttle in your face rock & roll. I didn’t know who Top Jimmy was but he sounded awesome. And while it’s apparent in most of early Van Halen, when I want to point to an example when Michael Anthony’s backing vocals were crucial to their sound, I immediately think of this song. Then came the song that as a kid I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t on the radio, “Drop Dead Legs”. This one had such a crunchy, sleazy riff. To this day it’s one of my favorite Van Halen tunes. In hindsight I’m sure it was a bit too heavy to be on the radio back then. To me the radio was the pop station. While they played hits by Quiet Riot, Ratt and Twisted Sister, I didn’t yet understand the dividing lines between pop and AOR radio.

Flip the tape over, and there it was… my absolute favorite, “Hot For Teacher”! I first knew this song from the video. I still think this was such a great video. And the fact I’m not hetero speaks volumes about the creativity on this one. Sure there were the schoolboy fantasy “Miss Phys Ed.” stripper teachers. But Waldo. Oh my god Waldo! The whole cast of characters on this was completely unforgettable. The send up of the metal kids gone wild. The mini-me versions of the band. And most of all, the ending, where David Lee Roth went on to become America’s favorite game show host. It was the best last video ever. But aside from the video, the song was amazing. The drums, like motorcycles revving up. The swing beat amped up to 11 that was like nothing else at the time. And David Lee Roth and that voice of fury. Half the song wasn’t even sung. That song can’t even be covered. You must be David Lee Roth to sing that song. His attitude and pizzazz made him a force to be reckoned with. Eddie’s guitar just flew all over the place at amazing speeds while the perfect bassline chugged along keeping it all lunging ahead. But then wait, what’s next? What is this? “I’ll Wait”?

Now I’ve grown to like “I’ll Wait”. At the time I don’t remember it ever being on the radio. It didn’t have a video. So it was just like “what’s this throwaway song”. Heavy on the keyboards. Very indicative of what was to come on 5150 with Sammy Hagar. In fact I do not blame Sammy for Van Halen’s quick turn. He was a great vocalist with a different energy. But “I’ll Wait” started that plodding keyboard-heavy sound that became “When It’s Love”. I can see why David Lee Roth might have disagreed on this one. How can he do mid-air splits and supersonic squeals to that?

The last two on the album probably get skipped by a lot of people. I admit even I did back then. I think the last two tracks, “Girl Gone Bad” and “House of Pain” were a concession to the older fans. Both have the band in extreme heavy mode. “Girl Gone Bad” is the faster of the two and would not have been out of place on Fair Warning. “House of Pain” rocks hard and has a sort of bluesy breakdown in the middle in between bouts of guitar gymnastics that proved why Eddie was as good as people say. But sadly the album fades out sort of anticlimactic. I almost feel like “Hot For Teacher” should have been the finale, in the way that the video ending feels like a finale to the end of the original band.

Does 1984 hold up today? You bet! The 2000 remasters of all of the Roth era albums pack that extra punch, mainly in the low end, that the original CD pressings were missing. This was the band that got it all right. The mix of a really good time and a fun singalong song mixed with crazy levels of technical expertise, without ever sounding too complicated to have fun. 1984 was an album that formed part of my musical taste at a young age. In many ways, most metal and hard rock I’d hear thereafter would subconsciously be measured against what I love about this band.

Get your own copy of 1984 HERE:

CD | MP3 | VINYL | CASSETTE | The Complete Studio Albums 1978-1984 on CD

Check out these classic videos from 1984:

“Jump”:

“Panama”:

“Hot For Teacher”:

“Hot For Teacher” (Live at Castle Donington 8/18/84 for BBC):

“I’ll Wait” (Live In Montreal 4/8/84 – the only footage of this song from the 1984 tour):

MTV 1984 “Lost Weekend” Contest segment – read the story about the entire fiasco HERE from the book “I Want My MTV” – then read Van Halen’s “News Desk” version HERE – the difference in stories is quite shocking!:

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