#8: VAN HALEN
“Black Sabbath,” the first song off the first album by Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath, perfectly drew up the blueprint for metal. It was gloomy, disturbing, and fucking HEAVY. It was music for outsiders, those ranging from annoyed to enraged at having to exist on the fringes of society because they were too fat/lanky/socially retarded to listen to Three Dog Night and get laid all the time. Eights years later — almost to the day — Van Halen released their eponymous debut. “Runnin’ With the Devil,” that album’s first song, is also heavy in its own right, but the near-decade length of time between the two couldn’t be more apparent. While its one-note bassline and massive riff was undeniably fucking great, it wasn’t dark anymore. In fact, it was kind of fun and incredibly catchy. It was pop music with heavy guitars.
Suddenly, things were different. Metal wasn’t frightening anymore, but a good time, and inviting. It wasn’t just for weird guys and bad girls, but for regular, well-adjusted guys and not-just-regular but pretty girls. Van Halen were unquestionably heavy on their debut, and the album was filled with songs that were not only catchy, but perhaps some of the best-crafted in rock thus far. It sold a shit-ton of copies, and metal slowly moved from being dangerous to being a blast for the better part of a decade.
Now, this isn’t to say the genre was all about brooding and being miserable; in fact, if anything, metal bands could drink The Bay City Rollers under the table and snort a mountain of coke that would kill Stevie Nicks, all while stumbling back to their doomed hotel room with a girl under each arm (well, unless you were Rob Halford). But while metal bands before Van Halen had songs about enjoying drugs and booze, the music was usually its own entity separate from their leisure activities. But VH took the “have a good time all the time” aesthetic to heart and made albums that sounded like they were written by good-spirited dudes, encouraging other good-spirited dudes to join in. They weren’t a band that could act as a vessel for pent-up aggression, but a band you could throw on while pre-gaming, or were out at a bar with mixed company. They didn’t write grouchy bedroom anthems; they wrote HITS.
Of course, they serve their purpose. Who wants to be pissed off all the time? And unless you live in Alaska or Scandinavia, it’s sunny every once and a while, and what better band to make you feel good than Van Halen? They’re fun, obscenely talented (well, the brothers, anyway), great songwriters, and loud as fuck. It’s excellent music to put you in an excellent mood. But the issue with Van Halen is what followed them: a decade of assholes who made metal into a pop-friendly poon escapade, complete with a uniform of neon spandex and ridiculous toy poodle hair. While fathers were afraid to let their daughters go out with fans of Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden because they assumed they’d wind up dead on a Satanic alter, they were leery of Van Halen’s disciples because they didn’t want their little girls getting chlamydia.
When Kurt Cobain mercifully put one in the brain of hair metal once and for all in 1992, even Van Halen themselves were done with the groupies ‘n’ blow approach to music. They had hired a burly screamer (with a name suspiciously similar to this author’s) after noted gigolo/assless chap enthusiast/vocalist David Lee Roth‘s departure, and started making “serious” music (that, of course, got co-opted to hock Crystal Pepsi). But it wasn’t fun anymore, and thusly, really wasn’t that great: who wants to hear socially relevant music from a bunch of guys previously known for writing songs about wanting to fuck their teachers? This would further mirror the plight of mainstream metal in the post-spandex era: it’s either fun but completely void of substance (see: Limp Bizkit and their rap-metal cohorts, screamo-crunk), or humiliatingly earnest and self-serious without being cathartic or badass (see: Staind, Disturbed). And while Van Halen at their best and worst were never completely either of those things, the metal world after they hit embodied these extremes with a pretty vast wasteland in between. That is, if you judge metal by the radio or MTV.
But being the unintentional fathers of metal’s vapidity and goofiness also greatly benefited the genre as a whole: the brutal, uncompromising, repulsive-to-99%-of-the-population variety the underground has provided us over the last three decades was born when things started to get too soft. So, in a way, whether meaning to or not, Van Halen had to destroy metal in order to save it. Perhaps it helped weed out the assholes who just wanted to get rich and get laid from the crop of unlovable diehards that dedicated their life to very angry men making very angry music. And if cheesy videos and power ballads are the cost of having Reign in Blood and Vulgar Display of Power exist, then so be it. But every time you watch VH1 Classic’s Metal Mania expecting to see some awesome Pantera and Tool videos and instead get a heaping dose of Jem-looking motherfuckers playing loud odes to sleeping with women you’ll never sleep with while pouting for the camera, you have Van Halen to thank. Their music may be some of the best popular music the world has had to offer, but at what price to those who gave them the heaviness they needed to make it?
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