He might not have been the first man to put all of his trademark licks and tricks into practice … but he was unquestionably the first man to put them all together in one exhilarating, joyful, exuberant ball of sheer rock and roll adrenaline
Guitar photos: Bryan Cline
On Monday 6 October the news filtered through, from one or two outlets at first before quickly becoming a virtual tsunami, that Eddie Van Halen had passed away following a long battle with throat cancer. The internet, and every corner of social media, lit up almost immediately, and didn’t dim the lights for over 24 hours. Everybody seemed to want to say something about the man, pay some kind of tribute, or just post links to some of his greatest musical moments. Not because this was a shock, some kind of Lynyrd Skynyrd or Randy Rhoads accident, or even an unexpected heart attack – because Eddie had been ill for years without any cloak of secrecy, and his passing was far from unexpected. Rather, people were jolted into an instant reassessment of just how much his guitar playing, and the sheer joyous originality of it, had turned their musical lives around. Musicians of every stripe, be it prog, punk, metal or grunge, have queued up to acknowledge just how influential this solo or that lick had been on their own development. So, why was that? After all, Van Halen (the band), despite producing some great music, did not have the depth of catalogue as did Neil Peart with Rush, the last man to turn the internet on its head in this way.
No, with Eddie it was different. Millions of people who were teenage rock fans in the late ’70s, especially in the US, grew up with Van Halen as their soundtrack to school, work or just hanging out with their mates. Some wanted to be Dave Lee Roth for sure – the charismatic and larger than life frontman with the flowing mane and questionable spandex – but more, many many more, wanted to be ‘just like Eddie’, as the old song has it. Because when Van Halen released their first album onto the world stage in 1978, people simply hadn’t heard anything like that guitar tone and technique, and certainly not hitting them between the eyes from every radio they walked past. He might not have been the first man to put all of his trademark licks and tricks into practice – Steve Hackett, for example, is generally accepted to have pioneered the recorded use of the ‘tapping’ technique in 1971 on the Nursery Cryme album – but he was unquestionably the first man to put them all together in one exhilarating, joyful, exuberant ball of sheer rock and roll adrenaline. That was Eddie, and that was the effect he had.
Everyone has their own story about when they first came across Eddie’s playing. For me, he inspired me to pick up the electric guitar in a serious way, in an almost second hand fashion. At the time of the first album, soon before I left school, I had a friend who played, and having only tinkered on an acoustic now and again with a few basic chords, I’d sometimes idly thought about going a bit further. One day, that friend pulled out the newly released Van Halen debut and simply said ‘I want to play like him!’. He had songs like Running With The Devil and Ain’t Talking Bout Love down pretty quickly before he (like many others) embarked on a lengthy quest to attempt to master the astonishing showcase Eruption. I took a listen myself, intrigued by hearing him play those riffs, and within a month I had my first electric guitar and years of fruitlessly trying to get anywhere near that good began.
I never met or spoke to Eddie. My nearest association came when, as a rock writer first dipping my toes into interviews, my very first interviewing commission was talking to Michael Anthony, original and longtime bassist in Van Halen, and even some time after his own departure from the band he still acknowledged Eddie’s particular genius. Confession time, in fact: I wouldn’t even count myself as a die hard VH fan in terms of their entire output. While I always held many of their songs up as examples of peerless rock classics (Running With The Devil, Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love, Dance The Night Away, The Cradle Will Rock, Unchained, Panama, even Jump), I always felt that the albums contained some weaker material among the gold, to a greater or lesser extent. I largely got off the bus in the Sammy Hagar years, although there were still some great songs in there. Ultimately, though, that wasn’t the point. You didn’t listen to Van Halen for album after album of consistently brilliant songwriting, any more than you cared that the albums tended to be here and gone in under 35 minutes. That sort of thing defined other bands, but it didn’t define Van Halen.
Two things came together to represent the real essence of Van Halen as both a band and as a complete force of nature. One of those was Dave Lee Roth – the image of ‘Diamond Dave’ frozen forever in photographic amber hitting the splits in mid air on stage, or giving yet another interview full of attitude, humour and more one-liners than you could count, lives in the minds of fans even today. The other thing of course, and the one which really counted as to the music, was Eddie. The surge of excitement and jaw-dropping disbelief as he peeled off another lightning-fast run with surgical precision, the visceral thrill of his peerless guitar tone defining the very essence of young-and-restless teenage party rock. The later years and reunions may have been disappointing in many ways, both musically and visually, but it’s the young Eddie that we remember. The timeless Eddie, captured on stage mid-song with that goofy grin as he became lost in the joy of what he was doing, the shoulder length curls and utterly distinctive ‘Frankenstrat’ guitar.
Those are the times, the sounds and the images that the world is missing now. The world of social media is like one giant candlelit vigil, as people share common memories of a man most never met, yet who seemed like a friend in those long-gone days, turning up the radio or indeed, ‘with their back against the record machine’. To capture the imagination of a generation in such a way is a rare and special gift. Eddie Van Halen had that gift, and we all raise a glass to him now.
‘And the cradle will rock
Yes the cradle, the cradle will rock
And I say, rock on…’
Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, 1955-2020. 65 years lived and lived well. Countless lives impacted. He will not be soon forgotten.