24. Van Halen

Yes!  For her third consecutive appearance - all completely unrelated to this blog - we have Dazzler again, this time rocking backing vocals with her pal Vanessa, and discovering the wonders of technology.  They better bring Dazz into the Marvel Cinematic Universe soon, or it's gonna be clobbering time.
From Dazzler #17, ©1982 Marvel.

And now:
The larch.

Or, at least Van Halen, anyway.

Off the top of my head, what do I know about Van Halen?  During his heyday, guitarist Eddie Van Halen was considered to be one of the greatest instrumental performers in popular music, while his frontman David Lee Roth was equally as well known for either his charisma or his juvenile antics, depending on your perspective.  Eddie's brother Alex was in the band, along with Michael Anthony (maybe?  Not sure).  Not bad; it's been a long time (if ever) since I've been able to name all of the members in one of the bands I'm discussing here.  Roth eventually left the band, to be replaced by Sammy Hagar, and then some other guy.  

Many of their songs are familiar to me; albums like 1984 and its many hits were inescapable when I was in middle school.  But as commonly stated within this series, I went really far out of my way to avoid Van Halen and their fans, after throwing my lot in with a group of friends more attuned to Talking Heads, Japan, David Bowie, and Joy Division.  I've never heard a Van Halen album all the way through.  Their big 1980s pop-oriented hits are still of no interest (i.e. "Jump" or "Hot For Teacher"), but perhaps their first album (which also had no shortage of well-known songs such as "Runnin' with the Devil", "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love", and "Jamie's Cryin'") will reveal something worthwhile.

Also, many people have told me that I look like Eddie Van Halen, and/or David Johansen from New York Dolls.  So if you want to know what I looked like as a younger guy, imagine some mash up of these two, but without Eddie's shaggy mane or David's glam-rock makeup.  Can't say that I see the resemblance, or that I ever got into either of these lads' bands, but whatever.

As always, I'm listening to this album for the first time ever, and have not done any research at all before listening today.  Going in with nothing but the meager info about this artist that has leaked into my brain over the course of life, I'm taking it at face value.  The writing is entirely my tabula rasa stream-of-consciousness first impressions, written in real-time as the album played, and was only edited for spelling and clarity.  Since I've got three decades as a sound engineer under my belt, I'll be listening equally to the merits of the music and the quality of the sound production.  For more info about the mission and background of this series, see C O N T E X T (post #00).

Van Halen
Van Halen (1978)
Version: Warner Brothers HDCD, 9 47737-2 (2000)

Runnin' with the Devil
The sound effect at the beginning of the song is totally gratuitous.  The big spacey album opening is something that E.L.O. started doing, and soon everyone else started ripping them off until it became a mandatory fixture for late 1970s records.  This is a super-perfunctory effort; it just sounds like a slowed-down backward cymbal or something.  But then we get into a moderate throbby groove with a little swagger.  Not a lot.  Just enough.  This record sounds pretty good for a 1978 debut.  The reverb sounds nice, but it's a little heavy for its era.  I don't want to say Van Halen were purposely predicting the reverb-drenched 1980s; its more like they just got lucky.  The record sounds a little lopsided with the guitars all panned left.  Since there isn't a second guitar, or any keys, or horns, there's nothing much happening in the right side.  But then these little mini-solos come in on the right, much too loud and seemingly out of nowhere.  It's a bad mix decision on a record that's otherwise pretty good sounding.  As a song, I find this one uninspired but adequately crafted.

I seem to recall that this instrumental guitar solo is what first gained Eddie his reputation for popularizing the hammer-on technique that made him famous.  He certainly demonstrates it confidently, and also abuses the crud out of his whammy bar. It's a bold move to put 102 seconds of mostly-unaccompanied guitar wankery (there are a few staccato hits from the rhythm section) as the second track on a debut album.  This is the kind of thing that would normally be buried somewhere on side two as filler; any sane band would have followed "Devil" up with another strong rock song.  Actually, any sane band would have just included "Eruption" as a solo section within a complete song.  But this risk seems to have worked; Eddie definitely got people's attention.  Masturbating in public has that effect.  "Eruption"?  This should have been called "Erection" because it's nothing but the man wanking (ok, fine, rather skillfully wanking).

You Really Got Me
Can't go wrong with a Kinks kover.  But we're three songs into this record and so far we only have one proper Van Halen song.  How strapped for material were these guys?  Did they get signed before they'd written more than a handful of songs?  This time, Roth's densely layered backing vocals take up space in the right channel, balancing the guitar a bit, but the record still feels lopsided to me.  Eddie does another solo here, and once again it was probably pretty radical and inventive for it's day.  Having recently listened to Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and (a bit further back) Aerosmith and Uriah Heep, it is crystal clear that Eddie's guitar style was really fresh in 1978.  His playing was aped mercilessly for the next decade (or two) (or three) until the majority of the youth audience stopped focusing on rock music.  Roth gets into some auto-asphyxiative vocal histrionics after the guitar solo and then we're over and out.

Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love
Finally, another actual Van Halen song.  There's this weird slap echo in the right channel.  It's like a woody eighth-note delay on the snare.  It's distracting.  While this band are rockin' out, I just picture David Lee Roth in spandex mugging for a camera, being goofy. I wonder if I'd hear this record differently if I didn't know what this guy looked like.  I can't really take him seriously.  Eddie stomps on a flange pedal in the bridge.  That's not a real tape-flange.  It's easy to tell.  Too controlled, too precise, and too trebly.  Doubled guitar solo in each channel.  Eddie absolutely shines on this record.  His rhythm tone is razor-sharp (if a bit brittle at times) and his many leads are mapping new territory.  And there's no one competing with him.  Just a bass player and a drummer holding down the beat leaving Eddie and David Lee to take turns showing off in very different ways.  Neither of these guys got enough attention as children.  Their mamas ain't talkin' 'bout love enough when they were kiddies.

I'm the One
This one is a fairly frenzied rocker, fast and a little less controlled than the others.  Do I hear a double-kick drum?  That was also a fairly new trick in 1978.  Later acts would EQ all the low-end out of the double-kick so it was easier to really hear the rapid attacks of the beater on the drum head.  That clicky kick sound of the 1980s came from here, and is still used in speed metal.  Hey wait, a nearly a capella do-wop section comes out of nowhere in the bridge.  That's kind of fun, then we're right back into the chaos.  Seems like the band are having fun.  Overall, on this record they sound tight and rehearsed.  They don't have a lot of songs, but it seems that they've played the ones they do have enough times that they're locked in.  I don't enjoy them, but it is clear why this band became huge, they had their shit together.

Jamie's Cryin'
Another bit of swagger in this groove.  One of the problems with hard rock or metal guitar is that the leads and solos are often more preoccupied with demonstrating dexterity than with developing melody.  So few rock guitar solos are actually interesting as music.  Come to think of it, all the riffs from this record are already fading; none of them stick with me.  Eddie brings the innovative technique, but the hooks in the songs all come from David Lee's vocals.  There's no iconic guitar riff on this album like "Smoke on the Water" or "Iron Man" (as heard in recent posts for this series), or (say) "Back in Black" by AC/DC.  But this song's riffage comes closest to being memorable.  And once again, the right channel is used for secondary guitar parts, while Eddie is spending most of his time on the left.  Honestly a little Hammond or a sax or something would help round this band's sound out a bit.  But I can't see Eddie giving up any ground.

Atomic Punk
This one is a bit heavier, a little harder, kind of spirited.  More of the same otherwise.  Kind of fun.  I'm just listening, there's nothing new to add.  David's screams are funny.  None of these songs are over four minutes.  Was this even legal for bands in this style in the 1970s?  A bit like Boston (previous post), these guys seemed laser-focused on the charts, and got there.

Feel Your Love Tonight
Yeah, this is the song that wasn't a hit.  There are eleven songs on this record: eight shortish Van Halen songs, a guitar solo, and two covers.  All eight of the originals are attempts at commerciality, and three of them succeeded.  The rest are the almost-rans.  Still, three hits off this record is nothing to complain about.  There's not much to say about this music; there just isn't much substance to it.  Same thing: Roth is having fun goofing off, Eddie is biding his time between solos, the other guys are enjoying the ride.

Little Dreamer
I'll reiterate that this record is recorded well even if I don't agree with the lopsided mix and occasional excess reverb.  The mixes are consistent though; every song has the same tonal balance and the same soundstage.  They got tones they liked and then laid it down eleven times.  This doesn't sound like a first album.  The band are very confident, and there was a budget.  It's a little brittle sometimes though; I'd warm it up a notch.

Ice Cream Man
If I'd had to guess in advance which Tom Waits song* was most likely to be covered by Van Halen, this probably would have been it, largely due to the raunchy double-entendres.  Here's that warmth: a woody acoustic guitar and vocal.  Rhythm section took a coke break.  Until halfway through... then it's suddenly Van Halen again.  Tom's version definitely didn't have this solo on it.  In my post about The Eagles, I mentioned that Tom Waits probably makes more money from the many, many people who cover his 1970s songs than he does from sales of his own albums.  We can calculate how much Tom made from Van Halen's cover.  When this album was released in 1978, the songwriter's publishing royalty rate was 2.75 cents per song (the performer gets a different rate, see below).  Having written one song from the first Van Halen album, Tom got 2.75 cents for every copy Van Halen sold.  By law, this rate has increased steadily over the years; it is 9.1 cents today.  This album has sold 15.5 million copies.  That means at 2.75 cents per copy, Tom made $426,250.  At 9.1 cents per copy, that's $1,410,500.  Thus, his real pay has been somewhere between those two numbers, but probably closer to the low end, since presumably the record was selling better when it was newer.  He probably has to split that money 50/50 with his publisher, and then pay income taxes on his cut.  At the very least, he's netted $159,843 (half the lowest possible publishing rate minus a total guess of 25% tax rate), but it's probably a bit more than that since some portion of the records were sold after the royalty rate started going up. 
Compare that to how much Tom made for selling copies of his own Closing Time (1973), the album "Ice Cream Man" appeared on.  For performing on that record, Tom got a rate negotiated with the record label.  A good guess is 8% of the wholesale price; that was common for young emerging artists.  Albums cost about $7 then, so figure a $3.50 wholesale price.  The record went gold, meaning it has sold between 500,000 and 999,999 copies.  At an 8% rate for 500k copies at $3.50 per copy, that's $140,000.  He also got that 2.75 cents for writing the songs, times 12 songs on the album. So that's another 33 cents per album, times 500k albums, or $165k (to be divided by half again, as above).  That's a total of about $222,500 for writing and performing on 500k copies, double that if he sold closer to 999,999, and remember that he's earned more for copies sold more recently.  From that money, he had to pay the record label back for recording costs, his manager took a cut (10% usually), and he had to pay income tax.  It's hard to definitively state whether he made more money from Van Halen covering one song than he did from selling copies of his own album, but consider that "Ice Cream Man" is blues standard now, many people have performed it, and Tom is making cash from every one of them.  So for sure he's doing better from other people playing it than he himself has. (Also, that song came out in 1973, so all this theoretical cash has been trickling in slowly for 49 years).  
How much has Van Halen made from Van Halen (1978)?  They got zero for writing "Ice Cream Man" (because Tom wrote it), but if they got an 8% performance rate in 1978 (a reasonable guess), when records cost closer to $9 ($4.50 wholesale), that's about $5,580,000.  Subtract 10% for the manager, subtract recording costs (reported at $40k for this record), and divide by four (each of the four band members would get a quarter of the net total), and we're at about a million bucks per guy after taxes.  Plus the publishing money for the songs they did write themselves, but this gets complicated because each band member might own a different percentage of each song.

On Fire
Another uptempo rocker, the band pull out all the stops here and finish the album on a relatively thrilling note.  But the fade at the end is tragic.  This one really really needed a big finish and a cold ending; all the others on this album had one except "Jamie's Cryin'", which probably needed its fade for radio play.  Van Halen's debut shows them tight, confident, and forward-thinking right out of the gate.  They sound like a band who know each other's idiosyncrasies, and are able to function effectively as a unit. Having heard this album for the first time, I can't say I'm a fan, but it does show a high level of craftsmanship, and perhaps art in Eddie's guitar innovations (which I don't ever need to hear again).


*Post-posting research:
Yeah, I thought the lyrics on "Ice Cream Man" were different from Tom's, but that's artistic license for you.  Turns out that Tom was credited with writing "Ice Cream Man" on Closing Time, but there is also an older and conceptually really similar song  called "Ice Cream Man", written by John Brim.  So that brick of text about royalties?  Well, Tom didn't make squat from Van Halen, but John Brim did.  But as an example of how this crap works it holds up in theory so I'm'ma leave it up there for you.  At least six other bands have written songs called "Ice Cream Man", but the similarity between the Waits and Brim versions is worth noting; they might have both pinched it from some traditional blues thing that's been passed around like a social disease since the late 19th century century.  Like a "Stagger Lee" kind of thing (look it up, I'm out of here).

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
I'm going to go for something obscure and loose.  "Atomic Punk" or "On Fire" both sound like the band are having fun.  Another quick listen... "Atomic Punk".

Genesis, coming April 15, 2022

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