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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

DECONSTRUCTING VAN HALEN

I've been thinking a lot about Van Halen lately. Partially because of the Klosterman books I've been reading, partially because of recent discussions on this blog, but mostly because thinking about Van Halen is the type of thing Jackson does.

I belong to a select group of Van Halen fans that I'll call the First Wave, basically I'm talking about guys like Tony Alva, my brothers, and the rest of the hard rock record buying public who were blown away by the first VH record back in 1978 - the Cal Jam generation, if you will.

To us, VH was mind blowing because we had never heard it's likeness before, the VH sound was something wholly new - but not really. We had never heard Billy Cobham's Spectrum record, we didn't listen to Mahavishnu - we liked to think we knew what Mahavishnu was, and certainly we dropped the name John McLaughlin when citing guitar gods - but in actuality, we hadn't a clue, because if we did, VH wouldn't have come off as mind blowing as it did.

About a year and a half ago I was living in Nyack with Andy Rock. Andy is about fifteen years my junior. He's a hard rock fan who was raised on Guns and Roses and Motley Crue. Andy and I had a very healthy symbiotic vinyl based relationship. I turned him onto seminal bands that I though he should check out (The New York Dolls, Rose Tatoo, Jeff Beck, Billy Cobham, Budgie....), and he forced me to revisit what I though I didn't need to, namely the first two VH records.

Ask me what my favorite VH record is, and I'll tell you 'Women and Children First', ask Tony Alva and he'll say 'Fair Warning', but ask either of us, or anybody in fact, what the best VH record is, and invariably they'll say the first one is the best followed by the second (VHII).

I hadn't listened to either of those records in years, for the same reason the 'Women and Children First' became my favorite VH record. I had heard those first two records so many times that I didn't need to any more. I knew a guy in college who had taken acid every day for a year. After that, he didn't need to actually drop a tab anymore, all he had to do was think about it, and off he'd go. That's how the first two VH records were to me - it was in me already. Andy disabused me of that notion one fateful night.

We had been doing bong hits and listening to 'Blow By Blow' and 'Spectrum', then somebody put on VHII. Andy and I looked at each other immediately - we went back to the Cobham record, back to VHII - it was undeniably similar. We knew, without a doubt, that Eddie and Alex Van Halen were unabashed Cobham heads. Further inspection revealed that the drum intro to 'Hot For Teacher' was lifted directly off 'Spectrum'.

What was new about VH was the attitude, and the solos. Mahavishnu didn't have David Lee Roth, and nobody played leads like Eddie. VH took bebop influenced fusion, jacked it through Eddie's hot rod Marshall, and had David Lee spout testosterone infused Southern Californian doctrines on top. It was a formula that took the world by storm, it was so good, we thought it was actually something new, and in a way, it was.

Unfortunately, it was a formula, and like most bands, they began to lean on it. By the time '1984' came out, it seemed the only thing left to do was add keyboards. Exit David Lee, and yours truly.

The most obvious formula used by Van Halen is the 'spoken word breakdown', and inevitable moment in the song where the band takes it down a notch while David Lee espouses rhetoric on a) automotive activities - "reach down between my legs and ease the seat back...", b) fashion - "hey man, that suit is you, you'll get some leg tonight for sure..." and "I like the way the line runs up the back of the stocking......", c) memories - "remember when that girl was prom queen..." d) the rough side of town - "See a gun is real easy, in this desperate part of town....."

You get the idea.

In the end formula helps a band define itself, but destroys what is good by putting too fine a point on it. If one were to chart the musical output of Van Halen, one would end up with a graph that looks like the cover of their fifth record, 'Diver Down'




From the start, every successive VH record was a little less awesome than it's predecessor. The initial record was so good, that it took a few records before the trend was noticable. Certainly by 'Diver Down' it was evident that VH was a 'once great' band in decline. I would end up giving away my tickets to see them on that tour. I had seen them in 1980, and didn't think they could possibly top that show. The next record, '1984' was so bad, I have never owned a copy. By the time Van Hagar hit the scene, I wasn't even interested anymore.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention Michael Anthony. Michael's contribution the the VH sound cannot be undersated - he is integral, but it's not his bass playing that makes him so important. This is not to say that his bass playing sucks, it does not. Though this notion was prevelant in the eighties, looking back, he simply was adequate as a bass player in a band of virtuosity. What makes Michael a valued member of VH is his outstanding vocal harmonies. Without him nobody would much care who can't wait to feel anybody's love tonight.

Comments:
Excellent post. You got to it before I did.

Small bit of clarification: I believe Eddie was a Mesa Boogie guy in the early days. Didn't he have the whole modified tube thing going with the MB combo amp? I seem to remember guitar players in my highschool bands always clamoring on about MB's and VH.
 
I read an article about Eddie using a Marshall on the first two records, albeit one that he had modified. Maybe the Mesa Boogie folks somehow modeled their amps on what Eddie was doing to his Marshalls.
 
I love the story from Craig Meyer about when he was working at Spector when it was owned by Kramer. Our of the corner of his eye in the shop he sees a guitar slide across the floor and slam into the wall. Someone says, "That must be one of Eddie's."
 
Yawn...

Sorry, did I do that out loud?
 
Awesome post, you need to write for Spin.

I liked the first 3 albums, but grew tired of them after that.

don't even get me started on Van Hagar or Van (insert that dude from Extreme's last name)

I've always thought VH 1 and 2 were done on a 100 watt marshall plexy.
 
Chrispy either a) needs more sleep, or b) is in need of a good rocking.
 
Definitely a.

Perhaps some b. But b might be what made me a.
 
I think Hue is right. The "Brown Sound" is just Eddie's homebuilt plugged straight into a Marshall plexi.
 
From a gentleman named Christopher Michael, a confidante of Ed's in the early days:

">The setup is a 100 watt Marshall plexi with Sylvania 6CA7's. The head is plugged into a Variac to lower the mains voltage to about 90 VAC or whatever he's in the mood for. This browns the sound slightly and helps lenghten the tubes' life. The speaker out is set at 8 ohms. The dummy load resistor is adjusted to about 20 ohms. Then the load resistor is tapped at center and sent to a box with a potentiometer in it and and output jack. The output jack is a line-level low-impedance source and will not muddy up the tone anywhere. The pot. is adjusted for whatever drive level you want. It then goes into the MXR Phase 90, MXR flanger, and Echoplex-EP3. This then goes to the power amp, usually a low-powered one, 100-200 watts. This is to prevent fucking up good real low-power vintage speakers, as opposed to today's higher-powered shit Celestions. The final power amp he used was by H&H and he paralleled 4 cabinets down to 4 ohms to connect it to power amp. This IS the setup for his early days. Nowadays it's a chorousy-sounding pile of buzzy horse shit!"

So, he's using the Marshall purely as the preamp, ran the speaker out to a resistor (to simulate the load os a speaker) and then to the FX and finally the H & H as the power amp. He's also running the Marshall at below mains voltage (below 120v) which is key.

The sound was Marshally but more controllable.

The big issue was the plexi was too loud. By running the AC in "brown out" mode (hence the term Brown Sound, that is the AC was lowered in a way that would be like a brownout in your house) and then through the resistor he was able to get his tone at a lower volume.

VH2 was done differently - I don't think he cascaded the amps. He went back for women and children.
 
So - uh...I was right, but now we all know a whole lot more - thanks Chrispy!
 
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