Before Eddie Van Halen, if one word defined rock guitar aspiration it was this one: blues. Eric Clapton’s moody sincerity was a sacred rite, his means of communing with the spirit of Robert Johnson. Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin was a bluesman to his core, albeit one with a weakness for elfin mysticism. Even Pete Townshend of the Who claimed his band delivered “Maximum R&B.” Townshend and Jimi Hendrix offered revolutionary zeal, or at least cathartic rage, in the way they destroyed their instruments. Rock went best with a frown or a scowl: serious business. British art rockers such as Pink Floyd and its guitar genius David Gilmour veered off into lonely unease, Benedict Canyon optimists such as Roger McGuinn of the Byrds promised dreamy, trippy escape. Even rock’s punchiest classics — “Satisfaction,” “Street Fighting Man” — often came freighted with angst and foreboding.
What hard rock needed was a rip-roaring, full-on party band that could fill a stadium with shameless ecstasy. Starting with their first album in 1978, Edward Lodewijk Van Halen and his bandmates gave us that. For me Eddie Van Halen, who died Tuesday at 65 after bouts with tongue and throat cancer, was the most colorful of all rock guitarists. When he played his impossible sounds I saw red, the dominant color of the 1982 Diver Down album and of Van Halen’s splendidly strange guitar, Frankenstein, which he spliced together with Gibson and Fender parts to create a sound like no other — a monster ax that would later be hung on a wall at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Eddie played it like a teenager taking a stolen Porsche for a joyride with three furious cops on his tail.
The band clarified its mission at the start: “Running with the Devil,” the first song on their first album, isn’t a postcard from hell: It’s about raising hell. In contrast to Sixties doomscrolling like “Sympathy for the Devil,” it’s not a warning, it’s an invitation — to a kegger or a roadhouse. The very next track, Eddie’s minute-and-a-half guitar solo “Eruption,” was a display of lightning-fingered virtuosity that blended into Eddie’s blistering update of one of the greatest guitar licks. The band’s take on “You Really Got Me” took what was already a fairly hard-charging Kinks song and rocket-boosted it. David Lee Roth smirk-sang the vacuously ebullient lyrics and Eddie made his guitar laugh in between the lines. On the album cover Roth had his shirt completely open to expose his big hairy chest, and at the end of the song he delivered a witty, “Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!” Van Halen was a laugh. In concert and in the videos, Roth did ridiculous yet awesome judo moves and Eddie never stopped smiling. This was the sound of fun, of wild and sticky Friday nights in crowded saloons, of young hormones past all control — the sound of sex. Eruption, indeed: Van Halen didn’t seek revolution or utopia and it wasn’t angry, even in a medium in which association with these elements sometimes seemed compulsory. Van Halen didn’t chase the blues, it flashed red — the color of lipstick, of fast cars, of excitement, of the blood it got racing. The girls duly went crazy. Who could resist a man as frankly carnivorous as David Lee? Van Halen’s combination of swagger, aggression, passion, delirium and jolliness made them America’s sexiest band.
You can’t dance to hard rock music, not exactly, and most of the guys you’d find at a Van Halen show are not the kind you’d want to see try. But Van Halen’s music was aerobic, the opposite of the weed-fueled or psychedelic sound of earlier bands like Yes or Pink Floyd or the Byrds, bound to lead to the sudden irresistible onset of bopping, leaping, jumping, pumping, bumping, thumping, possibly even humping. Even with “Eruption” appended to it, “You Really Got Me” runs less than five minutes, and a good thing too: Who could keep that up for much longer? Moving on to songs such as “Spanish Fly,” “Beautiful Girls,” and “Everybody Wants Some!!” (two slammers, get it right), Van Halen stayed fiercely on message. In “Everybody Wants Some!!” which begins with Eddie’s brother Alex pounding beats suggesting, “Welcome to my jungle room,” Eddie dialed his tone back to the seductive while Dave delivered a little sex monologue: “’I’ve always liked those kind of high heels too. You know, I . . . . No, no, no, no, don’t take ‘em off!” AC/DC’s Angus Young may have appealed to his fans’ adolescent sensibilities by dressing like a schoolboy, complete with a silly little cap and shorts, but Van Halen dove into more adult interests, albeit never forsaking the adolescent sense of humor that led the boys to entitle one album (in 1991) “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.” (Song titles: “Poundcake,” “Spanked,” “Pleasure Dome,” “In ‘N’ Out” . . . the Sammy Hagar-led incarnation of the band seemed aimed at making Beavis and Butthead chortle.)
In 1982, when Van Halen re-visited the “Eruption”/“You Really Got Me” combo with the combination of “Intruder” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” turning a drowsy Roy Orbison into a thrusting showcase for not only Eddie but also his brother Alex, on drums, Van Halen was the hottest hard rock act going, excepting possibly AC/DC. Then the band got even bigger: “I might as well jump. Jump!” Stupid, glorious, infectious, joyous. Play “Jump” at a party, and the room turns into a pogo contest. It was the band’s only number one, and though it somewhat betrayed the holy mission to rock the planet to its foundations by leaning on the synthesizer (just as Bruce Springsteen would do, six months later, in “Dancing in the Dark”), at least the album cover depicted a cherub having a smoke. The true naughty classic on that disc, 1984, was “Hot for Teacher,” in which Alex proved he could play as fast as his brother and Roth proved he could sound obscene by calling out, “I brought my pencil.”
In the late Eighties and Nineties, the band brought in its own substitute teacher, Sammy Hagar, for whom few were ever hot. Hagar never did approach Roth’s leering voltage, and Hagar seemed to lack Roth’s gift for self-mockery. Hagar was like the hard-working second husband who tries a little too hard to replace Dad, and as a singer he had more volume than talent. Still, Eddie kept coming up with clever wrinkles, notably his amusing synthesizer work in “Why Can’t This Be Love.” Love, though? Who said anything about love? Together with David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen created the sound of lust.