It seems like not so long ago, but in reality, it was decades.
There are albums that seem to be in the collections of everyone you know — and in high school, with my particular group of friends, that album was Van Halen.
The debut LP by Van Halen came out in the late 1970s, but was still blasting nearly 10 years later when I was attempting to get a driver’s license — failing on three tries — and needing rides from my high school peers.
It wasn’t just the rides to school. Once school was out, especially on Friday nights, we burned up the old concrete on the Atlanta Highway in Montgomery running from one end to the other.
Back then, it was a circuit that started around Capitol Heights Jr. High School and extended out to Eastdale Mall. Once you made it to Frazer Memorial United Methodist Church, it was like the edge of town. There wasn’t anything left out there except maybe the Arrowhead Trading Post.
So picture if you will a group of high schoolers headbanging like Wayne and Garth in “Wayne’s World,” bobbing along to one of the most influential rock albums of all time.
I’ve been listening to that record again over the past week as the world remembers the life and career of guitarist Eddie Van Halen. He was more than a guitar player; he was a guitar inventor.
His self-made FrankenStrat was first seen in 1978 on the cover of the self-titled debut album.
The band was comprised of Eddie on guitar and keyboards; his brother Alex on drums; Michael Anthony on bass; and “Diamond Dave,” David Lee Roth, on lead vocals.
The brothers Van Halen were born in the Netherlands and spoke only Dutch when their family moved to southern California in the early 1960s. Their father, Jan Van Halen, was a Big Band leader who excelled at the clarinet. The brothers were fascinated by music early on, and in fact,
Eddie went to community college to study classical piano. Then the rock ‘n’ roll bug bit them, hard.
They formed a band and, thanks to the fact that Roth owned a p.a. system, hired him to be their front man. With the addition of Anthony on bass, the foursome made a name for themselves in the L.A. club scene of the mid-1970s. Gene Simmons of KISS happened to hear them one night and offered to produce a demo. While the Simmons-produced demo got made in New York City in a real studio, nobody wanted to give the band a chance and the tape sat dormant for a year.
After that year had passed, and the boys were still rockin’ the Sunset Strip, Warner Bros. Records president Mo Ostin and Doobie Brothers producer Ted Templeman happened to catch a performance by the band. This time, the spark Simmons had heard was even stronger, and Templeman offered to produce them.
The first Van Halen album was basically recorded live in the studio with a minimum of overdubs. Templeman said that Eddie’s guitar tones were already so good, all that was needed was a microphone pointed at the amplifier.
An innovation on this record that makes it sound so huge, and why I have always loved playing it: Templeman panned all the guitar to the left channel, with the rhythm section in the right channel, and vocals in between. To listen to this album is just like being in the room with the guys. Templeman’s production, and the outstanding performance by the group, make this one of the best debut albums of all time and are definitely part of the reason why it has been certified diamond for sales of over 10 million copies.
Drop the needle on side one: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” which leads into “Eruption,” which continues into their cover of “You Really Got Me,” then into their first single “Ain’t Talkin’
‘Bout Love” — one song right after another, just driving and pounding away.
When I put on the record last week upon hearing about Eddie’s death from cancer, I imagined being in a car on the Atlanta Highway on a Friday night. The cassette player blasting through a sound system of somebody’s older brother’s old car, playing these songs endlessly on a loop from Eastdale to Ann Street and back, and my mind’s eye all of a sudden felt sad and old.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools and a regular columnist for The Tribune.