Happy 35th Anniversary to Van Halen’s sixth studio album 1984, originally released January 9, 1984.
Van Halen's 1984 looms large in the history of the band. It's their last album with David Lee Roth, at least until their 2012 reconciliation, and an album that's broadly cast as guitarist Eddie Van Halen's desire to play keyboards versus Roth's desire not to stand next to a keyboard player.
The reality is, thankfully, more complex.
1984 does feature keyboards. "Jump," the huge single from the album, is keyboard-driven, as is the title track (which seems to have been written for an unproduced John Hughes horror movie) and “I’ll Wait.” But the band featured keyboards prior to 1984. They're prominent in Diver Down's cover of "Dancing in the Streets."
So 1984 isn't purely about keyboards. Instead, what makes it such a captivating moment is the pop songwriting statement Eddie makes with the record and how it set up the band's second act with singer Sammy Hagar.
Van Halen was always about the dueling energies of Eddie and Roth. Roth would do anything and everything to draw the audience's attention, and whatever he lacked in vocal talent he made up for with charisma. Between his long blonde hair, his bizzarely compelling patter, and his acrobatic stage moves, he was the archetype rock frontman. Eddie, almost as acrobatic, was much more mysterious, focusing all of his energy on his guitar playing. Eddie's playing indoctrinated a generation of guitarists, making them want nothing else but to play as fast as possible.
Eddie initially seemed to enjoy being a guitar hero, but by 1983, he was becoming interested in other things. He had built 5150, his home studio, which was where 1984 was recorded. And he was interested in exploring other sounds, which included keyboards. But mostly, it seemed like Eddie no longer wanted to be defined by his guitar playing.
When Van Halen's eponymous debut album came out in 1978, it revolutionized rock guitar. No one had ever heard that kind of fast, classical-tinged soloing on the radio. Eddie’s instrumental "Eruption," often played right before the band's cover of "You Really Got Me," was a minute and forty-two seconds of career-defining, world-changing guitar. It split the guitar world into either life before hearing that solo, or life after it.
If there's any doubt about how game-changing and genre-transcending that solo was, consider that Eddie provided the guitar solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" (produced by Quincy Jones) in 1982. It was the ultimate pop culture validation, demonstrating how guitar could exist within the pop framework.
However, the larger guitar community focused not on Eddie's pop appreciation, but upon his technique. Randy Rhoads, working with Ozzy Osbourne, would take Eddie's classical-influenced guitar work to another level just two short years after "Eruption,” via 1980's Blizzard of Ozz and 1981's Diary of a Madman. In 1980, Mike Varney would create a record label, Shrapnel, solely dedicated to impossibly fast guitar work.
1984 is a response to the guitar culture Eddie accidentally created. 1984 is Eddie declaring he's a musician and a songwriter, but not an athlete. Just as Jerry Seinfeld once declared "I will not race," when challenged by a high school friend who wanted another shot at beating him in a foot race, Eddie declared he would not treat the guitar as a game that could somehow be beaten, if just played fast enough. 1984 is Eddie asserting his loyalty to his musical voice and nothing else; it’s his refusal to race.
But don't forget that Eddie's voice actually involves lots of fast guitars. There's nothing particular restrained about his playing on 1984. There's plenty of jaw-dropping soloing that sent thousands of guitarists to their metronomes. What separates Eddie from most other guitarists of that era, is that these solos aren't the point of the songs.
When people think about 1984, they tend to focus on "Jump." It's an accessible song that made it to number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. But there are plenty of harder numbers, too. "Girls Gone Bad" has some sick soloing; in fact, the track is almost more solo than song. "House of Pain" has a chugging, heavy riff punctuated by flurries of Eddie’s guitar. "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" are classic rock radio staples that also showcase Eddie's ability to fuse epic guitar playing to catchy songs and almost sarcastically vapid lyrics.
Ultimately, 1984 broke up Van Halen. It showed both Roth and Eddie what Van Halen was capable of and that might have scared both of them. One never truly knows why a band fractures, the same way outsiders can never truly understand why a marriage dissolves. But by 1985, Roth was immersed in his own career and wanted Van Halen to stay its course and not change its sound, and, more importantly, its image. Roth's desire to bet on fans wanting a certain number of guitar notes per-second over musical evolution is seen in his follow-up band.
Upon leaving (or being asked to leave) Van Halen, Roth hired Steve Vai, better known as Frank Zappa's stunt guitarist, and bassist Billy Sheehan, who was probably a better guitarist than a good 25% of the players on the Sunset Strip. His debut solo album Eat 'Em and Smile was released in 1986 and while it made it to number four on the Billboard charts, it has not stood the test of time with non-guitarists.
Van Halen, the band, famously hooked up with singer Sammy Hagar to replace Roth. While Hagar has been unfairly blamed for the softening of the band's sound, some of the perception is because of the commercial success of the Hagar-era albums (although the Roth era band sold more records). Eddie Van Halen discovered a formula for success with 1984 that he would repeat on subsequent albums: a couple of keyboard-driven, radio-friendly pop songs (a la "Jump") paired with plenty of guitar-heavy hard rock for the guitar fans. 1984 showed Eddie how to create a Trojan Horse out of an album, hiding pop next to rock and rock next to pop.
Eddie learned he could exist in both worlds without alienating either side. Greg Renoff, in his amazing Van Halen biography Van Halen Rising, argues that the band created the pop-metal genre. 1984 changed the pop-metal proportions, though, with slightly more of an emphasis on the pop.
The commercial success of 1984 also showed Eddie he was on the right track with his songwriting and could trust his instincts. Instead of looking to the band's past to create songs, he could look forward. The cover of 1984 features an angel smoking a pack of cigarettes. One could speculate Eddie felt like the angel, tempted into poor choices by Roth and his baser, safer instincts. But on 1984, Eddie learned to trust his own inner voice, and to not allow himself to be tempted to stray from what he knew to be right. 1984 was also Eddie’s declaration of freedom from producer Ted Templeman, who had, like Roth, parochial views on what the band should sound like.
Van Halen seamlessly and successfully pushed along for four albums with Hagar. Hagar's leaving the band wasn't the sole blow to Van Halen. Grunge swept in, changing musical tastes while the music industry became much less about albums. Even had Hagar stayed, there's no guarantee the band would have thrived. Van Halen briefly took on a third lead singer, Extreme co-founder Gary Cherone, resulting in lots of jokes and an album (1998’s Van Halen III) very few people heard. The band eventually and inevitably reunited with Roth. The resulting album sold well, but I have yet to meet anyone who owns it.
1984 isn't my favorite Van Halen album (1981’s Fair Warning is a timeless masterpiece for any band) and it hasn’t aged especially well, but it's their most interesting in the way it transitions them from hard-rocking party band into pop-aware hard rock band. 1984 perfectly lays out the band's future and even if you're not a fan of where that future took the band, it's fascinating to see how the album's nine tracks accurately predict a direction that took years to fully unfurl.