Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Van Halen, before Anyone Outside Southern California Knew Who They Were

Not long after I'd completed comprehensive exams earlier this spring, I wanted to read something entirely different from what I had been poring over for months. So, I read Greg Renoff's book, Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal (Toronto: ECW Press, 2015).

The book starts with the early lives of the original members of Van Halen, and ends with the 11-month world tour that followed the release of their first album in 1978. During that tour, Van Halen usually opened for Black Sabbath, and they blew them off the stage every night. Renoff reports that the experience sent Ozzy and the rest of Black Sabbath into something of a depression. They were getting whipped every time they performed.

If, like me, you bought the first VH album and wore it out, then you simply have to read Van Halen Rising. Some of the more interesting aspects of this one-of-a-kind book:

Renoff has a PhD in American history. So the guy knows how to do research. Speaking of which, he conducted scores of interviews with people who "were there," and he quotes them on almost every page. I don't know the historiography of Van Halen, but I'd bet there's nothing else about the band that matches this book for its depth of research and attention to detail. This seems to be one reason why Renoff decided to write it. He's a fan, and nobody had told the story like this.

One of Renoff's main points is that with soft rock, easy listening, and disco (Fleetwood Mac, Eagles, the Bee Gees, etc.) dominating radio play and record sales in the late 1970s, there was no reason to assume that hard rock or heavy metal was going to survive. The author argues that Van Halen almost single-handedly "saved heavy metal."

Anyway, Renoff was trained to make an argument, and that's his. But that's not the heart of the book. What makes the work stand out is the way that Renoff acts like an ethnologist (seriously) detailing the backyard parties and dive-bar gigs that VH played for years on end before they were discovered by people outside of Southern California. And that dominance of all sorts of styles besides hard rock? That led record executives at the time to think that no new hard-rock bands could break through. So why sign them to a contract? That's why Van Halen were local heroes to teenagers and bikers in places like Pasadena and Hollywood for years before anyone else knew who they were.

All the while, whether they were playing for hundreds of kids in someone's big backyard, or for a dozen roughnecks at a bar on a rainy night, Van Halen always acted like they were playing Madison Square Garden. So when they exploded onto the world stage, it all seemed so natural because they'd been practicing hard for such a long time.

A few other details: Renoff makes the case that if there was an insecure member of Van Halen, it was their virtuoso guitar player, Edward Van Halen. On the other hand, David Lee Roth (who back in the day was simply "Dave Roth"), musically the weak link in the band, had all the confidence, charisma, and showmanship. And this rubbed off on all the others, especially Edward. Renoff suggests that had it not been for Diamond Dave, Alex and Edward Van Halen might have become two of the greatest undiscovered musical talents ever. When the brothers first met Dave, they played all of their gigs pretty stiff and wearing sneakers, worn out jeans, and flannel shirts. Dave is the one who taught them that they couldn't be just great musicians. They had to do more. They had to dress and act like rock stars.

From the other side: Going into the studio to make the first record, Roth realized that when it came to recording an album, his stage presence wasn't going help him much. He understood that if he didn't do something to improve his mediocre singing, next to the virtuosity of Edward Van Halen's guitar playing, Roth was going to sound terrible. So he took private singing lessons (insisting that anyone who knew about them should call them "voice lessons"). The guy devoted himself to practicing every day. And by the time VH recorded the first album, Dave's singing had improved. All along, he remained the perfect persona for fronting Van Halen.

Oh, and Michael Anthony? The last of the four members to join the original group, Anthony has always been rock solid on the bass guitar, and was easily the best singer and strongest voice in the band. He's the reason that VH was able to do all of those nice three-part harmonies, a feature that made the band stand out from other big-rock acts. Anthony was always the high tenor, and in the studio and on stage, he never missed a note. When the band was recording their first album, producers and engineers focused on how whiz kid Edward's guitar sounded. Anthony has since regretted that no more attention was given to the bass tracks. At the time, he didn't know any of the tricks for perfecting his own sound in the recording studio. So there are parts of the original record where he doesn't like the way the bass sounds.

Anyway, there's so much more to this book. So if you sometimes think of yourself as "the atomic punk," then you'll probably want to read it.

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