Album: Van Halen
. . .
R.I.P Eddie Van Halen, definitely in the conversation as the greatest rock guitarist of all time.
I was a sophomore in high school when Van Halen came out. And there was definitely a before and an after.
There, of course, had been artists that had combined pop and hard rock: short, catchy songs with thundering riffs, screaming vocals and swirling guitar solos. Obviously Grand Funk, Kiss, and Aerosmith — and don’t forget Alice Cooper — all succeeded, and Montrose and UFO certainly tried, though commercial success on a mass scale eluded them.
And then Van Halen came along and perfected the form. From the very first song on their self-titled debut, which faded in like a thousand car horns getting closer, right into a Michael Anthony bass rumble, and then Eddie’s riff, which is basically playing call-and-response with itself.
As the riff fades into the background, David Lee Roth opens his mouth to spit some bravado.
I live my life like there’s no tomorrow
And all I’ve got, I had to steal
Least I don’t need to beg or borrow
Yes I’m livin’ at a pace that kills
At first, it almost seems too slow, too plodding. I mean, Anthony is just playing a couple of notes back and forth, not even really trying. But then the chorus comes in and it’s mindfuck #1.
Runnin’ with the devil
Runnin’ with the devil
Yes I’m, yeah, hoo
The harmonies come out of nowhere and totally take over as the lead vocals: somehow macho and gorgeous at the same time, a massive massive hook. It’s of course Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony, and the great trick of their harmonies, not just on “Runnin’ With The Devil,” but the entire DLR Van Halen catalog, is that they sound like Roth, but wayyy better. I dunno if that was a Ted Templeman trick, or just something they naturally developed.
But holy fuck, it worked. As did Eddie’s guitar solo, which came zipping out of the right channel from three or four planets over and was completely singable — duhdoodledoodledoodledoodledoodledoodledoodledoo — while sounding like pinwheels on fire. I mean, it fucking glistened. And Roth’s joyous “whoooooooooooo” early on was just him speaking for the rest of us. Mindfuck #2.
But of course, it isn’t just Eddie who kills on that guitar solo: the whole song changes for the duration. Michael Anthony totally changes his bass part pumping out note, and Alex Van Halen hammers his ride cymbals like there’s no tomorrow. It’s just that you don’t really notice it because they’re totally overshadowed by the light show Eddie is putting out.
In fact it’s so awesome that after the third verse (which was basically the same as the second), Roth screams “one more timmmmeee” and they go into the same exact solo again! What kind of devilry were they running with? Imagine Jimi Hendrix or Jimmy Page or Ritchie Blackmore or Michael Schenker having the balls to play the same guitar solo twice in a song!!!
But, of course, that’s because Van Halen were writing pop songs, and they realized that Eddie’s guitar solo was as much of a hook as Roth’s screams and the harmony vocals. Conceiving of the guitar solo as yet another building block of the song proper as opposed to a temporary transport out of the song was weird and revolutionary. And it also set up something else about Eddie Van Halen: out of all of our guitar heros, his thing was quick bursts of mind-blowing intensity and then massive amounts of space. So you had time to figure out what had just happened. Even if you never quite did.
Of course, its with 40+ years of hindsight I can wax theoretical about Van Halen. In 1978, it was all about screaming “Running With The Devil” — which was metaphorical, not literal — and singing that guitar solo out of high school parking lots and Volkswagen Beetles. Or out of my brother Joseph’s room, as — for reasons that escape me — he was the one who owned Van Halen in our household. But I didn’t have to own it to memorize it. Not in 1978.
Because Van Halen were everywhere. And “Runnin’ With The Devil” was just the beginning of an album that made them instant legends and influences.
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“Runnin’ With The Devil” Official Music Video
“Runnin’ With The Devil” Live At the US Festival, 1983
id you miss a Certain Song? Follow me on Twitter: @barefootjim
The Certain Songs Database
A filterable, searchable & sortable somewhat up to date database with links to every “Certain Song” post I’ve ever written.
Certain Songs Spotify playlist
(It’s recommended that you listen to this on Spotify as their embed only has 200 songs.)
Support “Certain Songs” with a donation on Patreon
Go to my Patreon page