I first saw Van Halen in 1978, opening for heavy metal stalwarts Black Sabbath on their tour supporting Never Say Die. I had their debut album, but was completely unprepared for the new face of hard rock to utterly wipe Sabbath off the stage. It wasn’t even close. And that might be the last time I’ve given Van Halen much thought. Until, that is, Greg Renoff’s book Van Halen Rising came out.
It’s important to note that Renoff’s book is more a “pre-history,” focusing on the high school years and early growth of the band. It effectively ends with their landmark debut album and tour, with a few pages at the end detailing their world domination that would follow. But the fact that the focus is not on their glory days but rather their formative years is not a weakness; in fact, it’s a strength. Immensely talented, it’s hard not to root for the band to achieve the success that would come.
Born to an immigrant musician family, the Van Halen brothers worked hard at their craft, supported by their “working musician” father (and their mother). Their story paints a vivid picture of high-school backyard keggers when parents would leave town, and Saturday night Battle of the Bands at the local movie theater that a generation grew up on. Anyone living in sunny climes and the 70s probably remembers these with affection; it was certainly a unique, but no less competitive, environment to grow a band.
Playing strictly covers to a sizable and loyal following, they would eventually hire crosstown rival David Lee Roth, who first cut a deal holding his PA as hostage. It was a controversial and contentious move amongst the fans; Dave was cocksure, flamboyant and wanted shorter, more danceable tunes. The move was not without turmoil, but Diamond Dave did move the band from a loud metal plod to a more swinging brand of rock music. Love or hate the guy, he’s a born showman and the quintessential frontman, as well as a shrewd businessman and an avatar of style. He comes off very well in the book.
Edward, of course, is talent overload. Producer Ted Templeman would say “there’s Art Tatum, Ornette Coleman and this kid.” That's some pretty prestigious company. But Eddie takes his business seriously — from practicing, to designing his own amp controls, and eventually to his stagecraft and showmanship. The dude is indeed a once in a lifetime talent.
I did not know Gene Simmons of KISS would bankroll and produce the band’s demo. At the height of KISS’ popularity, it would seem to be little more than a move born out of ego. Simmons met his match, however, in Roth, who was onto the bassist’s plan to oust him early on. Point, David Lee Roth. Interestingly, producer Templeman would also later consider replacing Roth with, ironically, Sammy Hagar, who cut his teeth in the hard rock band Montrose. Again, credit both the singer’s survival skills and the band’s loyalty to continue to move forward intact. However, it is easy to see that the band would eventually come to a head with the VH brothers pitted against DLR, even in these early stages.
Like all great bands, Van Halen is a sum of all parts; the supremely talented VH brothers, bassist Michael Anthony — who Roth called “arguably one of the greatest high tenors ever” — and Roth. The singer “sang with brio and sass, power and energy, personality and charm. He was having a great time fronting Van Halen and it sounded like it” and that, in my opinion, is a huge key to their success.
Great quotes and stories abound: of Eddie —“I was standing around with a bunch of guitar players. You could tell. They were the ones with their mouths open,” and then of Dave: “the best looking man in the world walked in and said hello” to the headliners. He introduced himself (and) "at that moment, Sabbath knew they were in deep trouble.” Good stuff.
Funny. The book concludes with that Van Halen/Black Sabbath tour, with lots of insider recollections. Nice to see I wasn’t the only one who noticed an epic ass-kicking that hastened a much-needed changing of the guard in hard rock. Author Paul Wilkinson, a Sabbath fan, observed “Van Halen were incandescent. Sabbath was simply in decline.”
I picked this book up, casually reading a couple of pages at a time. Soon, I’d be looking for it in earnest in my free time. Greg Renoff has penned one hell of a fun read.