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.

MUSIC FOR TWO-YEAR-OLDS

SEPTEMBER REWIND: BIRTHDAY TRADITIONS, MORE DRORE AND STADIUM ROCK TOP-UPS

It’s probably not how Sam Evian wants his music to be known, but that new album of his, Premium? Music for a two-year-old.

At least, it was two weeks ago. That’s when I was in Truck Store, asking which albums came out that very week (thanks for your help and patience, Truck staffers). Why was I seeking a CD for someone too small to listen to CDs? Well, I started this thing when my daughter was born: I bought an album that was released the week she arrived, as a memento of the time. And then I thought, why not do this every year? One day, if she’s piqued by music, we’ll have a nice little story to share, so here are the trez complexico rules wot I made:

  • CD must be released in the week of my daughter’s birthday
  • It must come from my local music brewery, aka Truck Store

And this is how I stumbled on a never-heard-of Sam Evian. Not music for tots, but instead – to steal Truck’s sticker wordage – ‘…a strange yet seductive listen that adds synths and sax to his whispery take on downbeat funk.’ Sounds about right for what we want…Sam Evian, you’re in, following New Order (2015) and spelling rebels Deap Vally (2016) into the birthday collection. To be listened to again in about 10 years, no doubt.

OK, bit of a diverting start – let’s get some quickie first impressions on September newbies, and we’ll start by keeping it local.

DRORE

It landed. Tape Two, JOY OF FUCKING JOYS. Heavy post-Undersmile Oxon rage, streaked with non-Billy childish pranks… New Skids on the Block, anyone? YES. At eight minutes, New Skids is the sole squatter on side two of the tape, but all four of these Life Regrets do what you want Drore to do: drag you through sewer hell, just like Tape One did. A filthy racket. Nice tablecloth cover design, too. Tape Two here.

BLAWAN

Burial’s new release Rodent isn’t what you’d expect from Burial – and not in a good way. Tension-free dullness, no edge, no ice. But the track that followed Rodent’s tail on Mary Anne Hobbs’s Recommends show the other week – Calcium Red by Blawan – shuts the light right down, packing some dense night-time menace over unrelenting beats. You go for Burial, you leave with Blawan techno.

GREG FOX

That man Colin again. EX EYE crossed our ears last month, and now it’s the turn of Stetson drummer Greg Fox to push adventure our way. Restless, machine-gunning drum ‘n’ tenor sax here on By Virtue of Emptiness.

TRUPA TRUPA

Hazy, warped post-ish rock from Poland that comes off like Dead Meadow tripping through bogs with Holy Mountain. Or maybe it’s the drunkest, most arse-rough Sigur Ros wannabe you ever heard. Works for me, make your own mind up with To Me from the upcoming album.

NEIL YOUNG

At once familiar and fresh, like most of Young’s work, Hitchhiker shows him at his most solo and most urgent, chopping a rhythm off that acoustic like only he can. Certified future classic from 1976, available on the now un-unreleased Hitchhiker album.

GY!BE, Myrkur and Chelsea Wolfe among the other heavies making September sound waves – not caught them yet, some other time.

BACKTRACKS

Get the Van in. Not Morrison, not Der Graaf Generator, not a paraphrased Rollins book but Van Halen. The early gold, the Hagar dynamite, the unabashed stadium rocKAKAKAKAKA – that’s where we’ve been this month. Big harmonies, tasteful shred and many a heavier, sharper riff than you probably dare remember, there’s much to revisit on the first four albums. However, it’s two percussion-heavy Hagars that take top backtracks billing this month.

Mine All Mine

OU812. What an intro. Not industrial exactly, but not far off. Percussion and keyboard dominant, which ain’t exactly what you think of with VH, Mine All Mine is surely one of Van Halen’s best. Alex up front, urgent momentum and a half decent lyric for once.

Pleasure Dome

A long-time highlight from 1991’s F.U.C.K., Pleasure Dome sounds at least as good as it did back then. Proper songcraft and musicianship that is, again, rhythm-driven while Eddie’s guitar dives, bombs, twists and spirals through to a tough-nut finale. A beast of a hard rocker from a guitar-driven record. 

Sorry about the lack of proper reviews of late, just been short of time.

til the next one, then!

amplifier wordsmith: the monthly rewind

amplifier wordsmith: the monthly rewind