June 5, 2013 by NowhereButPop
*This may be the coolest album cover ever
Van Halen’s 1984 (named after the year in which it was released), is the sound of the band at war. On the one side you have David Lee Roth who wanted to continue with the band’s trademark hard rock sound, and on the other side you have brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen who wanted to pursue a more pop sound complete with heavy usage of the synthesizer. The result is an album that somehow satisfies the desires of both camps in that it serves as the pinnacle of the David Lee Roth years, but also serves as a foreshadowing of things to come on future albums during the Sammy Hagar years. As a result, the album is the perfect melting pot of who Van Halen had become by 1984, but also who they would turn into during later recordings.
The album starts off the instrumental “1984”, but it’s not the one we expect from Eddie Van Halen. There are no virtuoso guitar solos, or any guitar work for that matter; the intro to the album is instead an atmospheric (sic weird) mix of synthesizers grinding against each other in a way that leaves the listener perplexed as to what the hell is going on exactly. This can’t be Van Halen, there’s no way Eddie would trade in his guitar for a synth…but he does. Never is this more evident than on the biggest single from the album, “Jump”. Eddie dazzles us with his keyboard prowess while Roth somehow manages to inspire optimism in us, even though the lyrics were written in response to watching some guy jump off a building. As the rest of the album, “Jump” is a mix of the new and old, there is a strong guitar solo, but it’s subdued by a synth driven melody.
The next three songs “Panama”, “Top Jimmy”, and “Drop Dead Legs” bring us back to the Van Halen we all know, a hard rocking band with an egotistical frontman obsessed with sex. Although “Panama” is a song that has become an MTV classic, it does get boring after a few listens, as this is something we’ve heard before from the band, and even on this album they do it better on other tracks. “Top Jimmy”, an ode that Roth presumably wrote about himself, and “Drop Dead Legs” represent the album and the band at their best: a group heavily inspired by Led Zeppelin II, but good enough as musicians to add their own kick to it. On both of these tracks the drums, courtesy of Alex Van Halen blisters through a thick guitar riff almost as sexy as the lyrics are.
Rounding out the strongest third of the album along with “Top Jimmy” and “Drop Dead Legs” is “Hot For Teacher”, a track about every 14 year old boys’ fantasy. Despite Eddie’s subtle but ferocious guitar riff, it is the other Van Halen brother that steals the show as it is his relentless drumming that keeps the song together and as memorable as it is today. “I’ll Wait” along with “Jump” is Eddie Van Halen’s baby. This is the song he fought hardest for to keep on the album, and it’s also the same song that Diamond Dave wanted off the album for the same reason Eddie wanted it on: it’s incredibly synth heavy and shifted the band towards a poppier sound. It’s an enjoyable song, but it does get repetitive midway through, and unlike “Jump” there is no sweltering guitar solo to save it.
The penultimate track, “Girl Gone Bad”, is a decent enough song that we’ve heard from the band countless times before. However, it does setup the final song “House of Pain” which sounds like it could have come of Led Zeppelin II. The riff is evocative of late 60s Jimmy Page and Roth wails on the final track like he’s Robert Plant. Ironically enough it’s not a progressive, synth oriented song that closes out their most mainstream album, but one that harkens back to the Fair Warning, their darkest album.
Even though the rock songs outnumber the pop songs 2:1, 1984 will always be remembered as the album that changed Van Halen. This is for two reason: 1) it was the last one with David Lee Roth during the band’s golden years, and 2) it introduced us to Eddie Van Halen pianist extraordinaire. Amongst the greatest of tension and strife over the band’s musical direction, they somehow managed to find the perfect marriage between proggy-pop and hard rock. 1984 serves as the perfect summation of the band up to that point, but it also served as a stepping stone for what was to come during the Sammy Hagar years. It wrapped up the previous 8 years nicely, while forging a new path that the band would embark on for the next 8 years. 1984 works because even in hindsight it manages to reconcile the desires of two giant egos, giving us what is truly the best of both worlds.