Van Halen is undoubtedly a staple in hard rock. Winning several awards, including five Grammy nominations with one win, Van Halen was a group that was iconic in the late ‘70s, ‘80s, and early ‘90s, releasing 12 albums over their career. Their music is highly influential, and without them, hard rock wouldn’t sound the same.
The starting line-up made a great sound with their debut album, “Van Halen” (1978). David Lee Roth was the frontman and carried charisma onstage with his strong vocals. On lead guitar was Eddie Van Halen, one of the most memorable guitarists in rock history. Michael Anthony assisted as the bass player, adding rhythm alongside Alex Van Halen, the drummer.
The album was a success, introducing listeners to a new era of rock. Just in their first album, they already had legendary hits. “Runnin’ With The Devil” is hard on the guitar with its head-banging riff, and “Jamie’s Crying” tells the story of a girl failing to create a relationship after a one night stand.
For guitarists, it was “Eruption” that caught their attention. While “Eruption” is nothing but Eddie shredding his guitar in a difficult solo, it allowed audiences to know that this wasn’t just hard rock—it’s Van Halen.
A year later, “Van Halen II” (1979) was released. The standout song was “Dance The Night Away,” which was slower in pace, but still natural-born hard rock. The tune fits as a jam to play in the car or even at a dance.
The next four albums consisted of the same general sound, and carried big hits such as “Everybody Wants Some!,” “Unchained,” and their own cover of “Pretty Woman.” It wasn’t until 1984 when they struck gold with their album aptly named “1984.”
“1984” was successful, containing numerous songs fans immediately recognize. For example, most people have likely heard “Jump.” The ‘80s was the integration of electronic sound into music, and “Jump” creates its upbeat stride with the keyboard, despite the song’s depressing meaning.
Other songs cemented “1984” as a definitive album of Van Halen: “Panama” is loud and proud with its car-based innuendos; the pounding of “Drop Dead Legs” is unforgettable, and neither is the build-up to the crescendos of “Hot For Teacher.”
Roth left the group in 1985 due to conflict with Eddie Van Halen. As a replacement, Sammy Hagar took the stage as vocalist for the upcoming album. Hagar’s vocals went higher in pitch but didn’t destroy the flow. Van Halen still rocked.
Albums later, Van Halen achieved another definitive album with Hagar: “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (1991). Each song functions well because of the equal distribution of the instrumental sound.
“Poundcake” was innovative, as it utilizes a power drill with the same key as the guitar. “Judgement Day” is everything that ‘90s rock was turning into: rebelliously slick. “Right Now” is a fine tune but achieved greatness in music video design with mentions of real world events. “Top of the World” slowed down yet kept composure to discuss feeling glorious with your special someone.
With tunes like these, it’s no wonder why the entire album won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1992.
Years later, conflict sparked between Hagar and Eddie, making Hagar leave and allowing Gary Cherone to take vocals. While Cherone sounded like a faux-Hagar, “Van Halen III” (1997) was a sign that this was the end of an era. It was too different from the Van Halen formula, and the only passable song was “Without You” despite its opening.
The mark that Van Halen has left on hard rock is integral because hard rock is supposed to be loud and/or fast. Whether it was onstage or through a pair of headphones, the quality of Van Halen’s music never waned. There will never be anything like Eddie Van Halen’s guitar skills; nothing will ever match Hagar or Roth’s strength in their vocals. Most importantly, nobody quite delivers live onstage like they did.
In today’s world, hard rock would struggle to fit in. While to older folks that would seem sad, from a retrospective, this works. It defines a bye-gone era that exists for nostalgia and self-reflection.