VAN HALEN: Fair Warning

BEFORE THE CABARET: A DARKER TURN

Note: This review was started and left unfinished months ago, long before Eddie Van Halen left us. But the notes informed this EVH post and some of its sentiment will be repeated here. RIP EVH.

Why are we wrapped up in Fair Warning?

This time, it’s because of Music Blues. The suicidal filth scuzz guitar draaaaag Music Blues. The Van-tithesis Music Blues. How so? Well, by my amateur reckoning, the diabolical dirge crawling out the back end of Things Haven’t Gone Wellreviewed right here – just has to be a deranged warping of Van Halen’s strangest moment, and that moment happens to be on Fair Warning. Which means it’s Fair Warning replay time. Again.

Fair Warning: less cheer

Every time I play this 31-minute 17-second gem, bought more than a decade after my first Van Halen love-in (a summer ’91 purchase of I, II, Women and Children First, and the then-new F.U.C.K.) wore off, it’s a reminder of how much it caught me off guard. Still does. It’s Shock and Awe with a smile, as the best Van Halen always is, but with less sunshine. With Fair Warning, you get no cover versions. No ballads. No cheese. No synthy rock-lite breezers. Even the artwork tells you a different mood is lurking … how un-Halen is that painting on the cover? Absolutely nothing like the action band shots of before. Fair Warning is where Van Halen Gets Serious – well, as much as they ever could – by turning the VH attack into something a little tougher and meaner …

…which brings us to track 1. Mean Street.

Fading in fast on a cosmic fretboard wave, Eddie’s unaccompanied intro swoops and hangs for a second like a UFO beaming an unearthly rock entity into your brains. GAWP TIME. But the best comes next – a standalone riff, pure A.F., bridging to an almost-funk full-band VH groove that drives HARD. No indulgence, no hanging around. Just effortlessly dextrous interplay which shows that Eddie’s liquid rhythm is easily the equal of his virtuo-so-hot leads.

For a masterclass in how to use space in a rock song, check the breakdown at 3′ 20”. It’s one of their weapons: knowing when to break down, drop out and rebuild a song is a massive part of their explosive early vibe. It’s what separates Van Halen from itself, too – those first four albums are a stylistic block, distinct from what came later. There’s a precision around each instrument that’s ultra clean and cut-throat sharp, yet there’s no bleed.

And let’s not forget that, with Mean Street, Fair Warning has a track #1 that matches the insanely high bar set by Van Halen’s previous album-starters Running With the Devil, You’re No Good, and And the Cradle Will Rock. Heavy menace radiates from each.

From that colossal start, Fair Warning doesn’t falter. “Dirty Movies” rubs sliding riffy sleaze up against Michael Anthony’s totemic bass, Sinner’s Swing! shifts like a rough Hot for Teacher prototype, and the 2′ 44” breakdown in Hear About It Later is one of many Eddie Moments – check that rhythm play, just before the solo. Sweet. Every track brings its own moments, too many to go into, so let’s skip to the un-Halen ending for a minute.

So This Is Love? is the last track of lit-up harmonies before a two-part downer finale, starting with Sunday Afternoon in the Park – the one copped by Stephen Tanner in Music Blues, the electronic instrumental that’s part symph, part dying cyborg. Really? Yeah. You can see where 1984 (the track) came from, right here in this John Carpenter-ly chill. Then One Foot Out the Door fades in with a couple of verses and two Eddie solo flurries that absolutely burn before the fade to black. It’s as if they decided halfway through that they didn’t need a proper song so they ditched the lyrics and Eddie just played the shit out of what was left, calling it a wrap in under 32 minutes.

This is what makes Fair Warning a really great Van Halen record: the unresolved ending and the out-of-character electronics that sign off half an hour of hard-rock manna. Sure, there’s a lot more to peak Van Halen than just Eddie, especially the rhythm section and vocal harmonies, but the joy you get from hearing him play gives you a lift, even when you’re already flying. It’s fucking exciting. And you’re struck by how much he plays too, never stopping but never overplaying either. Room to shine? Absolutely. Out of control? Never. Look how short the running times for those early albums are. All virtuosity is within the structure of the song.

No-one’s pretending Van Halen are the band you’d take to your grave, even though many will. But if you haven’t heard Fair Warning, either because you just never got round to it or because Van Halen are a joke to your metal sensibilities, you’re missing out. It’s Van Halen with zero weaknesses – and not even the debut managed that (hello, Ice Cream Man). If it doesn’t convince, fair enough. But to me, Fair Warning is the strongest eruption from the white-hot years.

And if it’s good enough for Music Blues …

Van Halen: Fair Warning (Warner Bros, 1981)
Mean Street
“Dirty Movies”
Sinner’s Swing!
Hear About It Later
Unchained
Push Comes To Shove
So This Is Love?
Sunday Afternoon In The Park
One Foot Out The Door

Eddie Van Halen … overlooked?

EDDIE VAN HALEN PASSED AWAY YESTERDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2020.

Is it possible for the most influential guitarist of his generation, a guy whose band was one of hard rock’s biggest-selling stadium-slaying behemoths, to be overlooked?

I think maybe, and here’s why: it’s because we’re too cool. At least, we think we are. Maybe not all the time, but enough to overlook Van Halen’s musicianly credibility. And why do we do this? Because of Jump. Because of mega sales. Because of hair, smiles, girls, lights, showmanship, entertainment, innuendo, feuds, all that stuff. Because Van Halen weren’t alt, avant, art, fringe, prog, hostile, underground or anything ‘credible’ once you’d discovered thrash, grunge and the Lollapalooza bands. They were a catchy California sunshine crew at a time when Seattle matched our late adolescent moods better. So, we moved on. Sidelined the records we’d bought when younger, denied them as we got a little older. Van Halen are a band it’s easy to be a bit sniffy about.

But this isn’t cool. This is Poserville, a place we’ve all visited and maybe even stayed a while. It’s important to see the place, sure – but you’ve got to leave.

Eddie’s death might prompt more of us to leave. It might get more people to simply sink into the glory of Van Halen’s prime, whichever track, album or era it might be for each person, because there IS glory in those records. Not everything for everyone, though that may be true for some. But there is something for pretty much anyone – just gotta dig around and listen with guards dropped and scepticism binned. Then enjoy Eddie and his band’s music for what it is: highly musical, highly melodic pop-formatted rock with revolutionary playing that never gets in the way of a song. Ever. They were a song band, a popular song band, not a deep band or an issues band or a muso band, and this is why Eddie’s ability could be overlooked by the broader music world and the more tribal music fans.

Van Halen entertained and delivered a good time. They just happened to have one of the all-time rock sound innovators within. They didn’t really step outside that. Didn’t do a Beatles, didn’t do a Radiohead. But the guitar playing was already far enough ahead and the first album proves it. So do the next three.

There are many people who’ve passed away whose music means a lot more to me than Van Halen’s does, and yet I felt the need to write a little something. I think it’s because there’s conflict between what we think Van Halen is/were, which puts us off, and the pure joy (and awe) that comes from the best of their music when you play it and surrender to it. Going back to those first albums is revelatory. And they make you feel good, too. They are celebratory.

But if you need an outsider musician’s validation before giving yourself permission to cue up a Van Halen record, check Julian Cope’s review. He knew. His review might even get you to read David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat (it persuaded me and was entirely worth it).

Right then. Better get on with that review that’s stalled, unfinished. So long, Eddie.