Is Van Halen’s First Album Their Best? Our Writers Answer Five Burning Questions
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Van Halen's debut, we asked our writers to tackle five burning questions about this genre-redefining album. Is it their best album? What's the best song on it -- and, heaven forbid, if you had to take one track off from it, what would it be? Here's what they said.
Is Van Halen Van Halen’s Best Album?
Nick DeRiso: Objectively, this is their best album. I don’t think, pound for pound, there’s any denying that. For most of its length, Van Halen plays like a greatest-hits album, just one great song followed by another followed by another – and so many of them are radio staples. But that doesn’t mean it’s my favorite. On a windows-down summer day, I’m going Diver Down, every time.
Michael Gallucci: Yeah, it's their best album. From the very first song, it pretty much launched the direction hard rock headed for the next 10 years. It was a game changer as far as rock music goes. Few albums can take control of an entire genre and shake things up in ways that will be felt for years to come. Van Halen is one of those albums.
Annie Zaleski: Yes. Not only is it a marvel of sequencing -- is there a better rock album opener than "Runnin' With the Devil"? -- but the album is unselfconscious and ferociously original. You can hear the nods to classic bands, styles and eras throughout, but these aren't blatant ripoffs, and the energy is decidedly forward-thinking. They weren't interested in being lumbering dinosaurs, but a killer party band soundtracking your debauched night out. The songwriting is strong and streamlined, and the confidence and charisma everyone exudes elevates the music. Van Halen is one of those records that's completely its own thing.
Matthew Wilkening: For the world at large? Absolutely. Every nice thing everybody here or anywhere else says about Van Halen is 100 percent true. It completely redefined rock music's vocabulary, setting a template the band and most of their peers would be working from for years. But truly great bands don't peak with their first album. AC/DC didn't, Led Zeppelin didn't, the Beatles didn't and neither did Van Halen. So once you've fully immersed yourself in their music, the correct answer is Fair Warning. It's both their most consistent and most diverse batch of songs, and it's fascinating to see them ditch their usual party vibe and explore more serious and sometimes even downright unsettling moods.
Matt Wardlaw: I'm not sure that it's their best, but it's an astounding piece of work. It's hard to pick a favorite from that initial David Lee Roth era of Van Halen albums -- Eddie Van Halen was blazing new trails at that time with every song and every riff. But, like so many people, I can remember hearing the album for the first time and right from the moment that "Runnin' With the Devil" came on, I was blown away. The whole album is full of so many moments that you're just scratching your head going, "How did they do that?" 40 years later, Van Halen is still just as impressive as the first time that I heard it.
Jed Gottlieb: It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the best Roth Van Halen album is. Sometimes I think even A Different Kind of Truth is their best (although I never think Diver Down is). If I’m at a party or BBQ or on a road trip and someone pops this album on, I often think it’s the best, and by that I mean the best album ever!
Michael Christopher: It’s hard to say it isn’t. Hardcore fans are obviously going to point to Fair Warning. Casual listeners will say 1984. Honestly, though, you can’t debate the debut. From the opening roar of “Runnin’ With the Devil” through the blistering salvo of closer “On Fire,” it never lets up. Name a bad track. You can’t – it doesn’t exist.
What is the best song on the album?
DeRiso: "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love,” which serves as a microcosm of everything that made Van Halen such a lightning-bolt moment in the late ‘70s. They were brash, but had a way with a hook, and they brought a badly needed bit of humor to hard rock. From Eddie Van Halen’s fleet riffs to David Lee Roth’s cocksure vocals, from the period-perfect rock-star Lothario storyline to Michael Anthony’s meteorologic background vocals, it’s all there. That faux-introspective spoken-word part is just an added bonus.
Gallucci: "Runnin' With the Devil." It's one of the era's great album openers.Those pulsating notes that kick off the song, as well as the album, are both exciting and a little bit scary. You're not quite sure what's coming next, but by the end of the next three and a half minutes, we've got a clue: the future of hard rock. "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" and "Eruption" are pretty damn good too.
Zaleski: "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," because it exemplifies Van Halen's strengths. First and foremost, there's Eddie's main riff, which somehow takes cues from blues, heavy metal, rock and punk, but doesn't sound like any of those genres. The rest of his playing throughout the song is menacing and modern; it might be one of the best guitar clinics of all time, and certainly one of his best performances. Vocally, the song is also on point, between the classic stacked backing harmonies and David Lee Roth being flamboyant and charismatic, while not being too overly dramatic. The rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen is locked in, which propels the tune. And the song has an interesting arrangement -- it's not your standard rock song approach -- and that creates delicious tension. Close second I think is "Runnin' With the Devil" or "Jamie's Cryin'," the latter of which proved that hard rock could be poppy and melodic.
Wilkening: My personal favorite is probably “On Fire,” but under oath and forced to be even the slightest bit objective the answer is “I’m the One.” It’s the clearest example that the band wasn’t relying solely on Eddie’s flash and technique -- that Roth in particular was bringing something special to the table too.
Wardlaw: "Runnin' With the Devil." The opening sound of that intro is so cool, and the swagger that the whole band puts forth is undeniable. You instantly know that you've discovered the coolest band on Earth. The runner-up for me would be "Feel Your Love Tonight." Love the energy and the attitude and the power of that song. "Jamie's Cryin'" is a close second in that vein for me, as well.
Gottlieb: “I’m the One” certainly shows off what Van Halen does best. It’s fast, loose, fun. It features both Roth and Eddie Van Halen unique voices and swagger. But the tops is that between it all they pop in a perfect doo-wop breakdown. Runner-up: the first 30 seconds of “Atomic Punk,” because I’ve heard it a hundred times and still can’t my mind around that sound.
Christopher: “I’m the One.” Underrated, yet played by the band every time in concert with Roth, and when Gary Cherone joined it was a staple in the set. So there’s obviously a fondness from the creators. The song is the perfect juxtaposition of the tastes of Roth and the musical leanings of the Van Halen brothers. It’s got that fiery rock 'n' roll drive and then a blast of funk and shimmy. The harmonies are spot on, the breakdown a thing of beauty – it’s brilliant all around.
If you had to cut one song from the album what would it be?
DeRiso: Many might say “Ice Cream Man,” but I think that’s more because Roth eventually took this song’s punny fun and turned it into a beat-to-death schtick. For me, it’s the album-closing “On Fire,” the only song here that feels slightly unfinished – in particular when paired with all that came before.
Gallucci: "Ice Cream Man." I can't think of anything more embarrassing than having the car polished, the windows down, the tunes cranked ... and then David Lee Roth's minstrel show comes on. By the time the song reaches its climax, the band manages to swing a little, but the blustering, hammy showoff bits that weighed down later Van Halen albums surface for the first time here.
Zaleski: "Ice Cream Man," sad to say. Although live it transforms into a showcase for David Lee Roth storytime, on record it feels dispensable, and its double entendres grow old after a few spins.
Wilkening: “Little Dreamer,” and it’s not a case of “bad” by any means -- just a matter of least great. The rest of the album instantly turns me into Beavis / Cornholio, and I don’t particularly need things to slow down like they do with this song.
Wardlaw: I don't think it can be done -- they all bring something important to the party and so much of it is driven by amazingly unique riffs from Eddie that I can't imagine not hearing on a Van Halen album. But if I were going to pick one, I'd probably strike "You Really Got Me" from the mix.
Gottlieb: I often want to cut a cover on a Van Halen disc. I don’t need to hear “You Really Got Me” ever again.
Christopher: Guitar geeks will hate this, but “Eruption.” It’s become such a cliché at this point and ripped off so many times by lesser bands, it would be better if it didn’t exist outside of Eddie’s live solos. The fact that he makes a mistake at the top end of the track is a forgotten misstep in the annals of we’re-not-worthyism, so it’s not even a flawless number. Then again, this is hypothetical, and it’s hard to imagine the record without it.
Who did "You Really Got Me" better -- the Kinks or Van Halen?
DeRiso: Different eras, different approaches, different measures of success. I think Van Halen’s is quintessentially of their time, and it wildly succeeds by that measure.
Gallucci: The Kinks -- no question. They not only wrote it and got their first, it's one of their signature songs, and a cornerstone record of the British Invasion, '60s and garage-rock movements. The Van Halen version -- even though it's heavier and has way more tricks up its sleeve -- is little more than a new-generation tribute with the volume turned up.
Zaleski: The Kinks, simply because that version has an innate rawness I think works better with the lyrics.
Wilkening: Listen, I can’t help when I was born, or what I heard first. I envy the people who knew what music was like before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. Both versions of "You Really Got Me" are awesome, but when you’re introduced to the song via Van Halen’s technicolor version, it’s hard not to see the original as a tad bit monochromatic.
Wardlaw: I'll give the nod to Van Halen on this one. It's anything but a straight retread of the Kinks version -- and like so much of the album, it just sounds like it must have been a blast to record this song as a group. You can hear the chemistry and the enthusiasm for days.
Gottlieb: Kinks. The Van Halen cover is excellent, but listen back and you realize it doesn’t add much to the LP. Sure, the harmonies are great, but they do better harmonies on the album (see "Feel Your Love Tonight"), and while Ed doesn’t take bad solos, the "Got Me" solo may be the least awesome thing he's ever done with Roth.
Christopher: The easiest argument would be if the Kinks hadn’t done it, Van Halen’s version would never exist. The thing is, when retooled by VH, “You Really Got Me” turns into a completely different beast. It might piss off Ray Davies to no end, but Van Halen bettered the song by giving it a harder, more dangerous edge.
Was Van Halen the official start of the ‘80s for rock music?
DeRiso: Yes. 'Van Halen' came out on Feb. 10, 1978, opening the door for one of the decade’s signature sounds. The rest was quickly filled out: The Cars’ first album followed in June, then the Police and Gary Numan issued debut records that November. By early 1979, Joe Jackson and Joy Division had arrived. It took a few more years (and the birth of MTV) to make it official, but the ‘70s were already over.
Gallucci: You can certainly make a case for it. By the end of the '70s, rock music had swerved into so many different directions, thanks to the excesses of the bands that helped shape it. Punk undoubtedly had a hand in how rock music changed course in the '80s, and there were plenty of milestone records in that genre before Van Halen came out. But as far as hard rock music of the '80s? This album is ground zero.
Zaleski: If you look at the charts, 1978 itself felt like the start of the '80s, between the Stones' disco hit ("Miss You") and the Cars breaking out. I do think Van Halen was part of this trend, as it felt fresh and had punk rock's revolutionary spirit, without actually being a punk rock record.
Wilkening: Absolutely, it’s where the decade’s mix of pop and hard rock was established. And then five years later they redefined the genre’s sound all over again with the keyboards on “Jump” -- although the net effect of that move, as interpreted and regurgitated by their peers, was more of a mixed bag.
Wardlaw: It's certainly the moment that gave any band making music going forward a huge mountain to climb.
Gottlieb: Yes. There is no Journey or Bon Jovi, no Ratt or Poison without this album. They took the extremes of the ’70s -- Led Zeppelin and ABBA -- and made them work all at once. Don’t believe it? Go spin “Feel Your Love Tonight.” It’s “Black Dog” and “Dancing Queen.”
Christopher: Only in an image sense. The acrobatic, spandex-clad lead singer and guitarist who is right at the forefront, sharing the spotlight with him changed the visuals of rock 'n' roll. Was it for the better? Probably not. The imitators came from far and wide around the world, but none ever held a candle to the mighty Van Halen.
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