Let me get it out of the way here at the beginning by saying that I am a relatively new Van Halen fan. As a child of the 1980s and 1990s I of course knew who they were and had heard a ton of their songs on the radio and MTV (back when MTV actually played music), but I never considered myself a fan. In fact, at times I was openly hostile to them. I thought David Lee Roth was a clown, Eddie Van Halen a great but overrated guitarist, Alex Van Halen an average drummer, and Michael Anthony a barely competent bassist. And Van Hagar? I couldn't stand the power ballad cheese that oozed out of my speakers once Sammy Hagar replaced Roth. I had heard their Roth-era material so much that I knew all of the songs and words but just didn't like the band at all. Then something funny happened: as I got older, I started to find myself enjoying the Roth-era stuff more and more. When it came on the radio, I'd turn it up and listen and sing along. I started listening to the Roth albums over and over and realized "holy moley, this is great stuff!" As a guitarist, I always appreciated Eddie's influence but it wasn't I really listen to him attentively that I realized he was more than just a two-hand tapping shredder. There was a lot more to Roth's lyrics and vocals than his consummate entertainer persona let on, and the rhythm section was tight and solid and rocked hard...those two guys were great musicians. From there the floodgates opened and I became a huge Van Halen fan (I still don't like Van Hagar, though). A short while before I finally had this epiphany, I had come across a writer named Greg Renoff who was working on a book about Van Halen's prehistory entitled Van Halen Rising. We mutually followed each other on Twitter some years ago and I kept an interested eye on his project. The book was released near the end of 2015 and over the ensuing couple of years I saw nothing but effusive praise for it. Finally, this year I decided that I needed to read this book. I was hungry to learn anything and everything I could about the band's original Roth-era career and learning about the band's very earliest beginnings through their legendary backyard party and club days seemed like the perfect place to start. With the "original six-pack"albums (as coined by Eddie himself) as my soundtrack, I set out to read Van Halen Rising and see what the fuss was all about.
Most books that deal with a band's prehistory typically fall into two camps: they're either hastily dashed off and just pluck facts from primary sources, or they're extensively and exhaustively researched and detailed (think Mark Lewisohn's first volume of his Beatles biography, All These Years: Tune In). Van Halen Rising falls into the latter category. Renoff spent years researching this book and interviewing numerous people who were actually there from the very beginning as a part of the band's story. These even include Van Halen bassist Michael Anthony, Van Halen producer Ted Templeman, and original Mammoth/Van Halen bassist Mark Stone. Because of the richness of his sources as well as the numerous other print and interview sources he cites, Renoff is able to paint a richly detailed and vibrant account of the band starting from the very beginning. Alex and Edward Van Halen were young boys when they and their parents emigrated from the Netherlands to the USA and settled in Pasadena, California. Growing up in a musical family (their father was a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist and their mother was a singer) and bitten by the music bug in the 1960s after hearing the Beatles and other British Invasion bands, the brothers began to take piano lessons. In addition, Eddie started playing drums and Alex the guitar. They realized they both preferred each other's instruments and made their famous switch. After going through the usual succession of bands in junior high and high school, the brothers ended up in a power trio format (emulating Eddie's beloved Cream) with Eddie handling vocal duties. Another local kid, David Lee Roth, tried to join the band as their singer in the early 1970s but was rejected after a couple of disastrous auditions. Information like this was brand new to me and it was only one of the myriad new morsels of information unearthed by Renoff in his research. Eventually Roth improved his singing enough and, with the leverage of owning a high quality PA that the band desperately needed, he was asked to join. After jettisoning original bass player Mark Stone in favor of Michael Anthony, the classic Van Halen lineup was complete by 1974.
Van Halen Rising then traces the band's trajectory as they became legends in the Los Angeles area for playing wild backyard parties and relentlessly gigging at the smallest, most obscure, and sleaziest clubs around before they were able to break through onto the Sunset Strip. Along the way they became adept at playing covers of songs by everyone from Black Sabbath, Cream, and Led Zeppelin to the Who, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, and anyone in between. The personality clash between Roth and the Van Halen brothers that would splinter the original lineup in 1985 was evident from the beginning of their uneasy alliance, but Renoff does an excellent job showing how Roth's pop sensibilities forced the brothers to tighten up their original material and add catchy hooks to eventually culminate in the infectious "big rock" sound they became famous for with the release of their self-titled debut album in early 1978. The author also shatters the myth of Roth as a spoiled rich kid who sat around and used his father's money to become successful. While his father's connections and fortune did help in some cases (and in other cases, not so much), it was Roth's shrewd intellect, tireless work ethic, and constant encouragement that kept the spirits of his three bandmates up as they endured their years-long slog in pursuit of their ultimate goal. By the time Reboff chronicles the whirlwind of their first album recording sessions and first tour in support of it, you can't help but feel proud of the guys as if you had actually been there the whole time.
That feeling of being there in 1970s Los Angeles is one of the things that makes Van Halen Rising such a great book. Renoff uses the words of those who were there and knew the band well before they were famous to place the reader in those dingy clubs, crammed backyards, and basement rehearsal sessions. This not only paints a vivid picture of the band's ascendancy, but gives a wider immersion into the more innocent and frankly fun times of the 1970s. That feeling of being a fly on the wall, the engaging manner in which it's written, and the new information crammed in its pages made Van Halen Rising a book I couldn't put down once I started reading it. When I was finished, not only had I learned so much about the band's early history, but I craved more. Simply put, if you're a fan of Van Halen then you need to read Van Halen Rising. I highly recommend it as one of the best band biographies I've ever read. Word is that Greg Renoff is now working on the authorized biography of Ted Templeman which promises to be another must-read. After that, I pray it's not too much to hope that he'll write a book on the David Lee Roth-era of Van Halen's career because if he does, I know it will be every bit as good as Van Halen Rising.
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