Classic Rock Corner

Van Halen's 1984 Turns 35 Today, Is At Least The Second Best Work With That Title

You know. For kids.
You know. For kids. YouTube
Your recollections of Van Halen (if you remember them at all) likely depend on generational affiliation. Oft-maligned Millennials (born in 1981 or later, according to the Pew Research Center) probably remember the band's Sammy Hagar incarnation, while those born into Generation X or earlier were fortunate enough to see the band's original lineup, one that ended (the first time) with 1984. And album that was released on this day in ... 1984.

Fusing the talents of guitar mutant Eddie Van Halen, his percussive brother Alex, Tarzanian lead singer David Lee Roth, and competent bassist Michael Anthony, Van Halen was one of the biggest bands in the world in 1984, but not necessarily the biggest. The Police were wrapping up a massive world tour in support of their most successful album to date (Synchronicity), for example, and 1984 would never dethrone Michael Jackson's Thriller on the Billboard charts (the latter was No. 1 every week from January 1 to April 14). Later that year, Prince and the Revolution would release Purple Rain, which affected the musical landscape in a way that Diamond Dave et al. could never really match.

But 1984 was still a monster success, and would end up being the band's second (and last) album to sell over 10 million copies. It represented a turning point for a group once exclusively categorized as "hard rock" (or even "heavy metal," which Eddie actively campaigned against), with many of the new songs showcasing the band's pop sensibilities.

click to enlarge The band in happier, hairier times. - YOUTUBE
The band in happier, hairier times.
In fairness, Van Halen never shied away from changing musical lanes ("Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now,)" "Happy Trails," that "Dancing in the Streets" cover Eddie loved so much), and while 1984 wouldn't approach the ballad-heavy heights of the Hagar Era, singles like "Jump" (still their only #1 hit) and "I'll Wait" definitely found the band a wider audience.

This wasn't an accidental development. 1984 was recorded in Eddie Van Halen's 5150 Studios, which the guitarist built after reportedly growing increasingly disaffected with producer Ted Templeman's actions during the recording of Diver Down (in point of fact, Eddie said the studio was built to "shove it up Templeman's ass"). These grudges would eventually doom their original lineup, but nobody was complaining too much when the album was a hit.

1984 catapuled Van Halen into mainstream success, but it also represented the swan song of the band's original double entendre-laden belle epoch even as it set the stage for the straightforward horndoggery of the post-DLR years.

The album clocks in at a lean 33 minutes, meaning you can listen to it in less time than it takes to watch Property Brothers while fast forwarding the commercials. However, I understand how precious your time is, so here's a song-by-song breakdown.

"1984" - The intro track gives one the impression Eddie just got done watching Tron. As VH instrumentals go, it's certainly uncharacteristic for the band that previously gave us "Eruption," but how else were they gonna get the kids to put down the Pac-Man?

"Jump" - As a Van Halen purist, I remember hating this song when it came out. So of course MTV played the video David Lee Roth bragged about spending $400 on a bazillion times. That this was arguably the band's most simplistic song to date probably explains its success, and getting rid of Roth was a harsh exclamation point.

"Panama" - The riff in this song is one of EVH's top 5 of all time, even if the "Reach down between my legs" part of the song made this really awkward to dance to at high school socials.

"Top Jimmy" - A tribute song to a famous (in Los Angeles) blues outfit, which arguably makes this no better or worse a song than "Alex Chilton" by the Replacements or "Sir Duke" by Stevie Wonder* (it's worse).

"Drop Dead Legs" - Never let it be said that Roth couldn't be a charmer, referring both to "giant butts" and the subject of the tune knowing that she(?) wants it. The final 90 seconds are just an outro Eddie solo, which almost but not quite redeems what came before.

"Hot for Teacher" - It doesn't get much more on the nose for a tune about schooboy lust than a video showcasing a Playboy Playmate writhing in front of a bunch of pre-teens. This was the song that helped 1984 straddle the line between the band's previous jocular sleazery and its eventual "Poundcake" days. And we still don't know what became of poor Waldo.

"I'll Wait" - Eddie's synth fetish coupled with lyrics by the Doobie Brothers' Michael McDonald and Roth's least inspired vocals might explain why the band never bothered to shoot a video for this, but not why it's the second longest goddamn song on the album.

"Girl Gone Bad" - Even for as criminally short as 1984 is (seriously, they charged $8.99 for this?), this cliche-ridden "Fallen Angel" prototype is distinctly perfunctory. Here's the final chorus:

Girl (ow, yeah)
Girl (oh oh oh)
Girl (yeah, yeah)
Girl (say, say)
[kisses fingers] Les mots justes.

"House of Pain" - The original band's final song together ends the album on a strong note, with Eddie and Alex as locked in as ever. A year later, Sammy Hagar would be the new singer (after rejections from Patty Smyth and Daryl Hall, among others). Roth rejoined the band in 2007 and they even released a new album (A Different Kind of Truth) in 2012. But it's probably better for all concerned if we pretend 1984 was classic Van Halen's swan song.

*Or "Van Halen" by Nerf Herder, for that matter.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar