Van Halen’s 1984 came out in January of 1984 but my first memories of it are from that summer. We were visiting old family friends in upstate New York and Brian, who was my age, had it on casette. We sat in a loft in his garage and played both sides of it on a boom box, along with other tapes like the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks, U2′s Under a Blood Red Sky and maybe the Dead’s Greatest Hits or something.
That type of musical surface grazing is perfectly acceptable for 12 year old boys trying to feel their way into the rock and roll landscape. Everything is new, even the old stuff, and–for the most part–yet to be decided upon. In the context of that summer, 1984 was pretty great.
But that’s likely the last time in decades I listened to 1984 with any real conviction.
At some point in your musical maturation you have to make a decision. In the early teen years your cultural affiliations–and to some degree who you hang out with and what you stand for–are defined by your tastes in music.
My older brother was a Deadhead, among other things, and older brothers tend to dominate access to the turntable. He had an impressive and discerning vinyl collection that ruined me for what was going on while growing up. 1984 was not to be included in the process.
The album has to placed in the musical context of the era.
–Led Zeppelin was only five years gone and still dominating in a very large way. FM radio still mattered and Zeptember, Zep 10-O’clock, Get The Led Out and all the other Zep blocks had not yet exhausted their shelf life. (People also still went to Led Zep and Pink Floyd laser light shows at the planetarium. In retrospect, these were like watching Pong on mushrooms.)
–The Clash had put out London Calling a few years earlier, which was and is undeniably epic but it still did nothing to stop the skinny-tie new wave and record-label “punk” that was about to happen.
–There was a lot of pop out there that people supposedly liked from bands like Naked Eyes, Men Without Hats, Men at Work and Culture Club.
–U2 and REM were on the cusp of being big but were not yet major acts. (REM still had that effete college radio feel to them and U2 would not release Unforgettable Fire until later that fall.)
–The Grateful Dead had no mainstream impact in this era, existing outside of it by the grace of the wandering lifer head scene and also college kids trading soundboards on cassette.
–Punk existed underground but that’s what it was, underground. The hardcore kids were few, far between and out there. The two kids who had lo fi recordings of DK and Black Flag did not like you.
–Nobody took 80s hair metal seriously.
The pre-1984 Van Halen fan, though, was not like the typical metal fan. They were punks not in a Western Civilization way but in the Alfred E. Newman sense of the word, smirking outsized personalities who the girls actually liked but who also had the potential to humiliate you in front of large gatherings. They were, in essense, an army of 13-year-old David Lee Roths.
They drew the VH logo over everything.
Still, with all that, it is easy to underestimate the mainstream impact 1984 had when it first came out. The songs, combined with the MTV videos, were huge.
There were four ridiculously seminal albums in the 80s and 90s of my youth: U2′s The Joshua Tree, Guns N Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, Nirvana’s Nevermind and Metallica s black album. (You also have to add Run DMC’s Raising Hell, which made rap ubiquitous, so that makes five. Five is the number.) Whether you like any of those bands or not the musical U-turns they created are undeniable.
Others that seemed big at the time of their release, like Synchronicity, have been relegated. (Possibly due to Sting’s subsequent tantric gasbaggery.) I’m not sure what 1984 is or why it isn’t remembered like it was when it was new.
Van Halen’s problem may be the same as one Led Zeppelin has–they never were and will never be the obscure act that gets discovered in a grass roots sort of way where a fan can claim they are “my band.” They’re everyone’s band. In some history of heavy metal I watched somewhere, Chuck Klosterman
described Van Halen as casting the widest of all nets, and saying you liked VH was akin to saying you liked the NFL. If you’re everyone’s band, no one’s going to drop a knowing reference to you in a conversation meant to reinforce your musical sophistication. Unless it’s done in an ironic way.
Maybe the pop hair metal scene that arose in Van Halen’s footsteps unfairly snared them in its wake. Maybe Sammy Hagar diminished the band’s legacy in the way that Hangover II does to the original. Maybe it didn’t have the requisite staying power; the mainstream kids who liked it moved onto the next mainstream thing by 1985. But Van Halen’s recent Roth reunifications refute that. They were legit.
So what, then, was the original problem with 1984? Van Halen, when it comes down to it, stands for nothing.They were not looking to effect social change or garble cryptic lyrics laden with intellectual gravity. They were looking to get off. When you go down a certain rabbit hole, this becomes problematic.
Weirdly, this is also Van Halen’s salvation.
You can’t run deep all the time, it becomes insufferable. It’s a fast way to get trapped inside your own intellectual snobbery, which does no one anywhere any good. (Besides, as David Foster Wallace wrote, “No matter how smart you thought you were, you are actually way less smart than that.”)
Critically, 1984 will never get the artistic benefit of the doubt like other 80s albums such as Remain In Light, but so what?
Objectively, has there ever been a better rock and roll front man than David Lee Roth? Was he not at the height of his powers in 1984? And is Eddie Van Halen not a genius? He is mathematically brilliant, bringing guitar technicality to the masses in the way The Elegant Universe
delivers quantum physics. Sure everyone can understand it better, but it’s still fucking string theory.
The Songs: ”Hot For Teacher” and “Drop Dead Legs” and “Panama” are spiritually equivalent to 50s rockabilly: women, cars and school rebellion in the Reagan era. Or, Eddie Cochran funneled through a heaping mountain of cocaine.
So I’m going to listen to it, unironically, both in my car and in front of people. Because 29 years later, I still like it.