By Paul Robicheau
Not since Jimi Hendrix had there been such a game-changer for the electric six-string.
It takes moxie to drop a guitar solo as the second track to your band’s debut. But Eddie Van Halen, who died of cancer this week at age 65, fired a shot heard round the world with “Eruption.” Clocking in at 1:42 as a metallic phantasm of divebomb moans, skittering screams, and scales like Bach on speed, the track was only added to that 1978 album by chance as a warm-up exercise captured on tape. And it was buttressed by album opener “Runnin’ with the Devil” (which landed like a UFO spewing Van Halen’s monster riff and rainbow harmonics) and a cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” where his guitar cackled like a cartoonish hyena.
In that era of punk, new wave and disco, Van Halen’s eponymous debut put guitarists past and present on notice: there was a new kid in town ready to reinvigorate the sound of rock in general — and electric guitar in particular.
Not since Jimi Hendrix had there been such a game-changer for the electric six-string, a player whose technical approach and facility shattered rules established over the previous decade by blues-based icons such as Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton, whose solos with Cream gave Van Halen early inspiration. Van Halen was 22 when his band recorded its head-turning debut; he represented a new generation and created a template for countless others to follow, including the ’80s hair-metal bands and thrash metal kings like Slayer and Metallica.
Of course, most guitarists in Van Halen’s wake couldn’t match his originality with daredevil tones on customized guitars like his cross-striped Frankenstrat. They might mimic the two-handed tapping along the neck that became Van Halen’s signature from “Eruption” on, but he set that standard. The turbocharged facelift that Van Halen gave to rock was complemented by the rest of his namesake band in the pummeling drums of older brother Alex Van Halen, the root bass parts and rich vocal harmonies of Michael Anthony, and the aerobic levity of frontman David Lee Roth, whose shrieks also punctuated the party.
Before they were teenagers, Eddie and Alex Van Halen moved to Pasadena, CA, from the Netherlands with their Indonesian mother and Dutch father, who played clarinet and sax as a classically trained musician. The boys took piano lessons, but Alex moved to guitar and Eddie to the drums before they smartly switched instruments.
With Roth (who provided a coveted PA system) and Anthony aboard, Van Halen was discovered on the LA club scene, first by KISS bassist Gene Simmons — who made a demo tape with the band but lacked support from his management — and then Warner Brothers producer Ted Templeman. In his recent memoir, Templeman said that he was so blown away by guitarist Van Halen that he compared him to jazz game-changers Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and got the band signed the next night.
Van Halen went on to record a dozen albums, most of them multiplatinum. The band logged its only No. 1 hit with 1984’s “Jump,” where Van Halen played rich keyboards as well as guitar. He had also played a guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s 1982 smash “Beat It,” bringing his revolutionary fretwork to a new audience. Van Halen continued racking up huge album sales when Sammy Hagar replaced Roth from 1986 to 1995 (live solo below from 1986), before singer Gary Cherone of Boston metal-pop group Extreme joined for one unsuccessful album and tour in 1998. Despite squabbles, Hagar and Roth each rejoined Van Halen for later tours, the last with Roth in 2015 following Van Halen’s 2012 swan song A Different Kind of Truth, which drew on ’70s demos.
I first saw Van Halen in 1978 when the high-energy opening act effectively blew Black Sabbath off the stage at the Cape Cod Coliseum, and caught the band again during its MTV-age glory at the Providence Civic Center in 1984. When I last saw Van Halen in 2012 at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, NH, Van Halen’s son Wolfgang was on bass and Roth had lapsed into Vegas shtick, his voice shot, but the ever-grinning Eddie Van Halen still astounded on guitar as only he could.
Recent years were filled with rumors over whether Van Halen might return with Roth or Hagar – or whether the guitarist’s throat cancer, which forced him to lose part of his tongue in 2000 (a year after hip replacement surgery) had returned. Last year, he attended a Tool concert with Wolf, and a guy randomly handed his phone to the legendary guitarist to take his photo in front of Tool’s stage, not recognizing who he’d asked. His loss. Today, a greater loss is felt by many.
Paul Robicheau served more than 20 years as contributing editor for music at The Improper Bostonian in addition to writing and photography for The Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. He was also the founding arts editor of Boston Metro.