Courtesy of Joe Bielawa/Wikimedia Commons
Van Halen’s first entry into what would eventually become the classic rock canon came in 1978, with their cover of the Kinks classic “You Really Got Me,” a song frequently played on radio with the instrumental “Eruption” as a lead-in (which also reflects its placement on the band’s self-titled debut album). The two songs, intertwined as they are, are nearly complete opposites. “Eruption” is a sheer demonstration of the frenetic finger-tapping guitar style of Eddie Van Halen; “You Really Got Me” is an example of the band’s ability to manifest Eddie’s playing, by far the flashiest element of the band, into a relatively pop-friendly sound. Both songs work and both songs have devoted fans because Eddie Van Halen had parts of both in his soul.
Eddie Van Halen, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 65, was defined by his unique style of play. Famously, upon the release of Michael Jackson’s seminal hit “Beat It,” some called the guitar solo of a Van Halen rip-off, before it became widely known that the guitarist himself had played the solo.
Eddie stands in a unique position in rock history not because he’s the only popular guitarist (though, outside of his idol, Jimmy Page, almost none reached his level of fame without also having an extensive lead vocal discography), nor because he’s the only – or even the most –virtuosic guitarist, but because he can represent both ends to different groups of people.
Van Halen, the band, was a hard rock group bordering on heavy metal for middle-of-the-road audiences, while they were considered a great pop group by true headbangers. It would not, in 1984, seem particularly unusual for a huge Van Halen fan’s second-favorite band to be Duran Duran, nor for it to be Iron Maiden. Van Halen, the guitar hero, could charm MTV audiences with his smile and stage presence, while also appealing to the kinds of guitar purists who typically preferred Yngwie Malmsteen or Joe Satriani.
But Van Halen, largely guided by Eddie, was not satisfied with simply being the band that made pop-rock crafted for driving around in Southern California. Their eclecticism began in earnest with their notably darker fourth album, “Fair Warning,” which was followed two albums later by their most dramatic stylistic departure, “1984.” The record is not devoid of Van Halen’s signature rock, but it also contains “Jump,” a song driven instead by Eddie’s synthesizer playing, and “I’ll Wait,” an icy, Michael McDonald co-written new wave track.
Following vocalist David Lee Roth’s initial departure and subsequent replacement with Sammy Hagar, the band’s repertoire became even more eclectic, as Hagar’s background was more of a traditional blues-rock, one which Eddie was more than willing to embrace.
In total, Van Halen became a legitimate pop chart force for parts of three decades, an extremely rare feat for a rock band.
The frequent line on Roth-era Van Halen was that the sound worked because David and Eddie were such different people, while so-called “Van Hagar” worked because Hagar and Eddie were similar. But perhaps this theory never gave Eddie enough credit as an eclectic and unusually diverse performer, somebody who could be, and occasionally enjoyed being, the unabashed king of enormous stadium rock, but also wanted to tinker with a Moog synthesizer in the studio by himself, placating his own greater musical desires. Eddie Van Halen was both and everything, and a far more interesting figure than a seemingly honorific title like “guitar god” could ever convey.