Album: Fair Warning
. . .
The third and final time I saw Van Halen was on June 18, 1981, which capper of a two month spree where Tim & I saw nearly a dozen shows from artists ranging from, well Van Halen to the long-forgotten DB Cooper, who actually released a couple of albums on Warner Bros. (So I just went down a DB Cooper rabbit hole on Discogs, AllMusic and YouTube and it turns out he was like an Elvis Costello / Graham Parker guy and I even recognized his “Forever Rock ‘n’ Roll”).
Of course, that 1981 show was the fourth time Van Halen had played Fresno. For whatever reason, I’d missed their 1980 jaunt, and all of the other ones after that. And once again, I witnessed a Fresno crowd totally decimate an opening act for Van Halen. This time, it was The Fools, whose Talking Heads parody “Psycho Chicken” was half-funny the first time, and whose album Heavy Mental, I had no use for. Maybe it was good. In any event, it was yet another mismatch.
The album that Van Halen were touring at that point was Fair Warning, which took the heavyness and weirdness that dominated Women and Children First and added synth experiments, reggae beats and a huge dollop of weariness. They were obviously burning out from the tour/record/tour/record cycle, to the point where my favorite track on the album — “Unchained” — wasn’t nearly as joyous as the title would suggest.
I cannot get there from here, baby
And I don’t care where I’m goin’
Here’s to your thin red line
I’m stepping over
Even the pre-chorus, Roth assisted throughout by Eddie and Michael Anthony, comes on more tough than fun, like a character description in a 1930 film noir.
Thought you’d never miss me
‘Til I got a Fat City address
Non-stop talker, what a rocker!
Blue-eyed murder in a size five dress
While there’s some great band interplay going in that pre-chorus — check out how Alex Van Halen fucks with the beat — “Unchained” of course, is dominated by its famous opening riff. Eddie Van Halen” alternating crunching the normal chords with a swirling whooshing noise that sounds both incredibly cool and a fantastic link to both halves of the riff, which reappears after the chorus.
The other famous part of “Unchained” — and definitely the most fun part — comes during the breakdown, which happens after a swirling jazzily discordant solo from Eddie, who then trails off into some amazing-sounding near-random notes, as David Lee Roth has a moment with producer Ted Templeman, which somehow reminds me of when producer Lou Reizner trades vocals with Rod Stewart in future Certain Song “I Wouldn’t Ever Change a Thing”. Which is insane, because outside of the fourth-wall-breaking of hearing the producer’s voice on the album, the two moments are nothing alike.
As the story goes, Templeman had a meeting after the recording session that he needed to dress up for, so naturally David Lee Roth started making fun of him, and they decided to incorporate into the song.
And while Eddie swirls around him playing sparkly echoing notes, Roth exclaims:
Take a look at this!
Hey man, that suit is you!
You’ll get some leg tonight for sure!
Tell us how you do!
Whereupon, Templeman, speaking for all of us, responds: “C’mon Dave, gimme a break!”
And as they build back into the chorus, Dave exclaims: “Hey, hey, hey, one break coming up!”
It’s a transcendently silly moment on a record that was definitely trending in the opposite direction. Though I always thought the missed an opportunity by not having a guitar solo after Dave said “one break coming up,” but of course the music had already been recorded.
After that, “Unchained” roars to its finale, getting ever more intense with every repeat of the chorus until it finally collapses in a hail of Eddie guitar.
This is the last of the Van Halen songs I’m going to write about for now. I’ll do some more when I get there in, let’s say, 2023: a couple more from the first four albums, as well as Diver Down and 1984. No Sammy, though. While he was fine in Montrose, and his early solo stuff had some good songs, I just never liked his thing, and his dull-witted “There’s Only One Way To Rock” sealed the deal for me. I’m sure that Eddie played some amazing guitar on those records — how could he not! — but the pain of hearing Sammy ain’t worth he pleasure of hearing Eddie.
“Unchained” live in Oakland, 1981
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