If the Beatles' crucible were the rough-and-tumble clubs of Hamburg, Germany, Van Halen's were poolside backyards in sunny Pasadena. Greg Renoff's new book VAN HALEN RISING puts the reader in the crowds of teens paying $1 admission for illicit outdoor keg parties where an ascending Van Halen provided the entertainment, and forged its spirit.
An immersive, well-researched tale of pre-fame trajectory, VAN HALEN RISING also makes a convincing case for how revolutionary they were upon arrival — a conceit that's easy to overlook beyond the considerable chops of Eddie.
His two sons, who didn't even speak English when they arrived, dutifully took piano and violin lessons until their restlessness for experimentation became too great and they morphed into aspiring rockers. Drummer Alex and guitarist Edward fronted a variety of cover bands playing under names like the Broken Combs, Trojan Rubber Company, Genesis, and Mammoth. The latter two names would be retired upon learning that other bands went by the same handles: The eponymous surname they eventually settled upon, Renoff reveals, came not from them but from an influential new frontman.
The Van Halens and David Lee Roth first came across one another as musical rivals, and they could not have been any more different. The son of a wealthy ophthamologist, Roth pursued stardom as obsessively as Eddie pursued guitar. Drawn to what he recognized were the area's best musicians, Roth auditioned to sing for them only to be rejected — twice. Undeterred, Roth eventually wormed his way into Mammoth against the better judgement of its existing members, in part by relieving Eddie of unwanted lead vocal duties, but mainly by possessing a PA system they needed to gig. Using the PA as leverage, Roth would at times loan the equipment in exchange for a chance to sing and others just as an excuse to hang around. When they could no longer stand to be in Roth's debt, they surrendered and made him the singer. Renoff calls this "the greatest rock and roll power play of all time."
Then a cover band noted for their ability to deliver note-for-note renditions of heavy rock classics, Mammoth were an odd fit for Roth, whose influences included cheeseball crooners like Louis Prima and whose tastes leaned toward Motown, glam and funk. Beyond that, he wasn't anyone's idea of a good singer. But his influence was a crucial ingredient in the Van Halen formula, Renoff notes. He got the band to lighten up on plodding, blues-rock jams and aim instead toward tight, melodic rock you could dance to. He convinced them to cover songs like Billy Preston's "Will it Go Round in Circles." He also injected the band with a sense of style, encouraging his bandmates to adopt flashy stage clothes instead of the jeans and flannel shirts they typically wore.
This new approach also required the band improve their singing, leading to the addition of bassist Michael Anthony. Anthony, whose soaring background vocals would become another distinct element of the Van Halen sound, proved to be "the final piece of the puzzle," Renoff writes.
As Van Halen graduated from backyard jams to club dates it had several brushes with success — most notably a doomed come-on from KISS' Gene Simmons who not surprisingly had per$onal goals in mind. But in a time when metal was dying, disco was soaring, punk was coming, and California was still exporting soft-rockers, the notion of breaking a heavy rock act was considered a longshot by the industry, and several labels passed.
In the end, talent won out. Ted Templeman, a house producer for Warner Brothers whose clients included both heavy-guitar acts (Montrose) and three-part harmony singers (the Doobie Brothers) caught them at an LA showcase. "I saw Ed and I was fucking knocked out," Templeman tells Renoff. "He was the best musician I'd ever seen in person."
Renoff's case for Van Halen as rock revolutionaries was made not only by its fresh sound profile -- hard-hitting riffs with melody and vocal harmonies, accompanying Eddie's stunning virtuosity -- but also by the tours in support of their debut album. Aging metal masters Black Sabbath purposefully selected Van Halen to open a 1978 tour for them with the idea that casting an unknown would keep the fans' focus on them, but the scheme backfired spectacularly as Van Halen shocked one audience after another, while brashly going toe-to-toe with any musicians who'd outparty them. The tour so demoralized Black Sabbath that singer Ozzy Osbourne would soon set off on his own, and as the record took off -- peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard charts, but destined to stay in the top 200 for 169 straight weeks -- hard rock was the never the same.
Renoff ascribes the subsequent success of platters like AC/DC's BACK IN BLACK, the Scorpions' LOVE AT FIRST BITE and Judas Priests' SCREAMING FOR VENGEANCE to the cultural breakthrough of Van Halen. While Van Halen were never a "metal" band per se -- Roth preferred the term "Big Rock" -- they influenced the genre with bands like Priest, KISS and others shamelessly borrowing their best tricks, while a generation of young guitarists had a new hero.