My introduction to Van Halen’s music was not an auspicious one. My friend’s brother had a copy of ‘Women and children first’ and on first play through I thought it was very raw, even a bit ‘punky’. I couldn’t pick out many melodies and their lead singer seemed to be squawking all the time. So when the same friend offered to lend me VH II along with another of his albums I nearly turned him down. But he insisted. He said “listen to it, you won’t regret it.”
Well, I had heard their guitarist was a pretty hot player so I gave it a spin.
I could hardly believe it was the same band. The vinyl version I had been lent had a picture as the centre label on one side and the track listing on the other. So I mistakenly played side 2 first (I recall making a similar mistake with Rainbow Rising.)
What an opener – lighting up the skies, followed in quick succession by the crazy acoustic instrumental, ‘Spanish Fly.’ Now this was the band living up to its reputation. I promptly recorded it on to a C90 cassette and played it incessantly over the next few weeks. It wasn’t long before I acquired their first album and, if you know VH I, then you know that this album put them on the map. From then on, I snapped up every album they put out up to ‘1984’. Like every guitar player, I tried to perfect ‘Eruption’ and mastered the finger-tapping bit, but it was the rest of it that I found more difficult – I didn’t even know what a ‘dive-bomb’ was in those days. I once asked a guy in ‘Guitar-guitar’ in Newcastle how this technique was achieved – he said ‘Oh, so you want to play like Eddie Van Wang-nasty, do you?’ He showed me what was involved, then told me I was trying to emulate the wrong player. He suggested I check out Joan Jett’s guitarist instead because he achieves the same thing by bending the neck of his Les Paul. I declined the suggestion, which was just as well. Just ask Slash about the injuries you can receive from a weakened Gibson neck!
I missed out on seeing the mighty VH live. I went to Donington ’83 and heard there was a rumour that they would be playing the following year – which they did. Unfortunately, by then I was starting my years in the wilderness divorced from rock music. I probably won’t ever get to see them now as they never tour beyond the US and, anyhow the same cracks seem to be appearing in the relationship between Dave Lee Roth and Eddie. So, I take comfort in watching YouTube videos from the late seventies and eighties that show the band at their peak.
So, on to the album itself. Recording of the album took place hot on the heels of the aforesaid debut album. Apparently it only took three weeks.completed in three weeks. Many of the tunes had been written and road tested well before the first album had even been brought out. Demos had been laid down in 1976 by Gene Simmons and in 1977 by Ted Templeman, including an early version of “Beautiful Girls” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” (one of my favourites.) It’s clear that VH had a wealth of material available as Eddie experimented with new techniques and styles. In later interviews he would claim to write most songs on the piano and then transfer them to guitar. This, to my mind, gave their songs a depth and originality that made them stand out from the tired re-hashed riffarama that abounded at the time. DLR’s dance/vaudeville approach also added another dimension that made them stand out from the crowd.
Watching those old YouTube clips now makes you realise what a fun band they were too. Hell, they even smiled while they played and every gig seemed like a gigantic party. Roth had his high kicks, spins and leg warmers, while Eddie had his signature scissor jumps, holding the Frankenstein striped guitar neck up for his solos and a unique way of holding his pick between thumb and middle finger.
So, what are the highlights of the album? Well here comes the track listing in the order I should have listened to it in. But, I have to confess, I still listen to side two first. (All title links are to youtube videos.)
- “You’re No Good” was originally a song by Clint Ballard, Jr. but VH’s version is extremely rocked up and has a brooding atmosphere that’s absent on the original. This vibe is embedded with Michael Anthony’s flanged bass intro, and built upon with Eddie’s bowed chords. The instantly recognisable vocal mix of Eddie and Mike’s backing makes this an eminently listenable track.
- “Dance the Night Away” is an up-tempo, major-key contrast to the first track. Complete with DLR’s vocal whoops and impromptu giggling, this is a light-hearted track showing that VH have plenty of light and shade.
- Speaking of shade. The next number is a real bludgeoner of a song. “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” is a highlight for me and was a staple number in the band’s earlier gigs. Check out the extended live version at Largo, US If ever there was along that featured the gamut of EVH’s techniques (bar finger tapping) then this has it: harmonics, dive bombs on the wang bar, bowing, double-picking on one string in linear fashion as well as those indefinable, overdriven bluesy licks glueing it all together.
- “Bottoms Up!” Is a bit of cock-rock with suggestive overtones. Was this a projection of VH’s desire for the backstage antics they were anticipating or simply reiterated biography? The song includes a technique VH would often return to where they ‘take it down’ a little bit before launching the bombast again with a blistering solo from Eddie. The end of the song features an original technique of Eddie’s called ‘The Elephant’. I won’t go into how it’s achieved but just look it up in EVH guitar tutorials – you really need three hands to accomplish it!
- “Outta Love Again” to me is the weakest track on the album, but saying that, it’s still pretty damn good, mainly because of Roth’s vocal histrionics. It’s a shame his voice isn’t up to that mixture of yodelling and screaming these days. It seemed to come so effortlessly at the time.
- “Light Up the Sky” OK, so this is what I thought was the opener, and in my view it should have been. The lyrics seem to point to some cataclysmic, portentous event that defies description. Eddie’s solo is superb with its pinched harmonics combined with extreme tremolo bending. The whole solo ends with four unison bends which segue into a short lull carried along by Alex VH’s drumming. The final harmonic vocals make a superb ending to the song, reversed as they are by Ted Templeman’s studio trickery.
- “Spanish Fly” is an incredible guitar performance, short as it is. It is reminiscent of both the insect and it’s crazy buzzing, and the possible effects on the body of partaking in the aphrodisiac that bears it’s name. Eddie would incorporate elements of this instrumental in his on-stage ‘Eruption’ solo but this original acoustic version on the nylon string makes the best listen. If you want to see how it’s played, check out Rick Graham’s guitar tutorial. You still won’t be able to play it but at least you’ll see where the fingers go!
- “D.O.A.” or ‘Dead or alive’ has the coolest lyrics and has VH’s signature all over it. DLR drawls out:
We was broke and hungry on a summer day.
They sent the sheriff down to try and drive us away.
We was sittin’ ducks for the police man.
They found a dirty faced kid in a garbage can.
I’m mentioning a lot of EVH’s signatures in this review and this song is no exception. The four piece format meant Eddie had to make the sound fill out. He accomplished this with amazing guitar ‘fills’ interspersed between Roth’s lyrics. This technique was also emulated by Randy Rhoads in such tracks as ‘Crazy train’ and ‘S.A.T.O’ Alex VH speeds up the drumming at the end, then changes to a staccato double beat. I can’t help thinking that he was trying to catch his brother out as the whole ending has a ‘jam’ feel to it with Roth squawking over the top of the whole thing.
- “Women in Love…” opens with an amazing melody line played by Eddie using stopped harmonics and a chorus effect. I suspect he’s put the pickup selector switch perched between two settings on the toggle as well. The effect can only be achieved with extreme over drive at the pre-amp stage – or in EVH’s case by using another amp to drive a second one in tandem! No wonder he blew an amp up every week in the early days. This is another example of where the supposedly tone-deaf Roth sings with consummate style and feeling. The Van Halen/Anthony harmony vocals make the track a real treat to listen to.
- “Beautiful Girls” ends things in typical Roth style extolling the virtues of the fairer sex – probably dressed in bikinis on a California beach somewhere.
A quick word about the photos on the album (because we all know that’s what we stared at while listening to it in those vinyl days.)
Eddie’s shots featured his black-and-yellow guitar. It is now buried with Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell, who was killed on December 8, 2004 by a crazed gunman at one of the band’s gigs.
Eddie Van Halen placed it in his casket at the funeral because Darrell had said it was his favourite. Funnily enough, the guitar was not actually used on the Van Halen II album, as it had only just been built.
David Lee Roth is shown in a cast in the inner liner notes, as he allegedly broke his heel making the leap also seen in the picture on the back cover art.
Van Halen 2 saw the dutch brothers flag flying high. It could only fly higher in the coming years.