Thursday, October 15, 2020

For Early Gen X'ers, Van Halen Was Our Nirvana!

In a way, I still think of the year 1978 as being in black-and-white, like TV's in the days of "I Love Lucy" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show". About halfway through Van Halen's self-titled debut album, though, a funny thing happened: hard rock's black-and-white world suddenly burst into full technicolor and, in doing so, became irresistible to the masses.

Make no mistake, hard rock/heavy metal was already a burgeoning genre full of great bands, but no single band carried with it the potential of reaching a mainstream audience the way Van Halen did so effortlessly.

Because they made it look so easy, other metal bands initially accused the band's members of being  fake-metal carpetbaggers, much like The Police had been in UK punk circles at roughly the same time, but, sadly for such vocal critics of Eddie & Co., such purity tests proved unpopular as die-hard metal fans forgot all about Sabbath, Purple and their ilk when the mighty VH mothership landed.

Prior to VH getting signed, Kiss frontman Gene Simmons had made a serious play to get Eddie to join Kiss, who would have replaced a hard-drinking Ace Frehley, whose days in the band were numbered.

Of course, to build trust with Eddie, Gene had produced Van Halen's demo on his own dime, but when no record deal materialized, Simmons would then console Eddie by offering him the gig in Kiss. Who could resist such a set-up, you ask? Eddie Van Halen, that's who.

Whether Eddie eventually saw through Gene's actions or not, his decision not to don Kiss make-up for a fast buck, the maturity and confidence that Eddie showed by turning down Mr. Simmons would ultimately seal both men's fates.

For Gene, luring Eddie into the band would have been a much-needed shot of adrenaline for Kiss, whose ginormous fan base was growing older and starting to look for less cartoony musical thrills. Eddie, meanwhile, had to deal with the many "What if's" of his decision to turn down the coveted guitar slot in one of America's biggest bands.

As a result, according to producer Ted Templeman in a recent Billboard magazine interview, Eddie Van Halen was "pretty damn serious" during the recording of Van Halen.  You would be too if you'd turned down the biggest gig in rock to make a record with your own then-unknown band. EVH knew that if he didn't put everything he had into that record, turning own the Kiss gig might haunt him forever.

Thankfully, within weeks of Van Halen hitting record store shelves, such frivolities would haunt him no more.

In fact, the arrival of Van Halen's debut album upon an admittedly stagnant musical landscape in February of 1978 was a seismic event that changed the face of rock music almost overnight. Releasing the album in the quiet months of winter was also a masterstroke because most major acts were scheduling their next releases for spring and summer. This gave kids four months to become acquainted with the band before summer hit, at which point Van Halen-mania absolutely exploded.

For those not alive at the time, the closest comparison that can be made to Van Halen's meteoric rise would be that of Nirvana, whose rise from near-obscurity to mega-fame came after the release of "Smells Like Teen Spirit".

While both bands redefined rock music in the wake of their massive success, only Nirvana's fame seemed to force every other band on the planet, regardless of genre, to conform to their musical aesthetics, whereas when Van Halen rose to prominence in '78, the industry did not pressure non-metal acts to conform to the "hot new sound" VH was peddling.

That's not to say that Van Halen's sound wasn't influential.

In fact, within a few years of their success, the first wave of hair metal bands inspired by Van Halen began releasing their own debut albums and creating a movement of their own.

For better or worse, it would be Nirvana's landscape-changing success that would force many of those very same bands to trade in their skin-tight leathers and lipstick for some flannel in order to survive the '90s.  
By then, Van Halen had become a worldwide juggernaut that had survived the dismissal of Roth and the addition of Sammy "I Can't Drive 55" Hagar and, while they almost didn't survive the addition of former Extreme singer Gary Cherone a decade later, reuniting with Roth in recent years brought the closure that both fans and band members needed, albeit minus bassist Michael Anthony.

Sadly, we would learn after Eddie Van Halen's death last week that the band had almost reunited with Anthony for a world tour last year, but plans were nixed when Eddie's cancer diagnosis stopped everything and everyone in their tracks.

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