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Forever No. 1: Van Halen's 'Jump'

Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer -- a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Eddie Van Halen, who died this Tuesday (Oct. 6), by diving into his eponymous group's lone No. 1: the eternally triumphant "Jump."

By 1984, Van Halen weren't just one of the biggest rock bands in the world, they were already a cultural institution. Their epochal self-titled 1978 debut album and subsequent tour opening for (and by many accounts, showing up) metal gods Black Sabbath had set new standards for harder, faster and uh, limber-er in American hard rock. Each of their first five albums peaked as high or higher on the Billboard 200 albums chart than the one that preceded it, and the most recent of those albums (1982's Diver Down) had also produced their biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit to date in the No. 12-peaking "(Oh) Pretty Woman," thanks in large part to heavy airplay of its naughty and surreal music video on a then-nascent MTV.

Still, whether or not the band realized it at the time, the stakes would be raised in 1984. It was the year when MTV's impact on popular music would most profoundly be felt, with the channel's galactic pop stars like Madonna, Prince and George Michael (with Wham!) and new wave imports like Culture Club and Duran Duran all scoring their first Hot 100 No. 1s. But it was also a year for MTV-assisted veteran breakthroughs: Thanks largely to the channel's added exposure, '70s rock survivors The Cars, Bruce Springsteen and ZZ Top also scored the biggest pop hits of their career and were elevated to new levels of sales and stardom. If Van Halen were going to continue to compete in a field this crowded -- saying nothing of the band's countless spandex-wearing, fret-shredding acolytes, who would soon flood MTV to take their party-rock-turned-to-11 example to its logical extreme -- they were going to need to step it up.

Luckily, they had a song with such a next-level leap built into its very DNA. If it was unclear from the band literally titling their new album 1984 that they were ready to take on all comers for the year in question, it would certainly be obvious from its lead single: "Jump," a song as upwardly aspirational as any character from Wall Street. The song's sense of buoyancy and lift are head-smacking from its opening chords, and simply float higher and higher throughout the song's relentlessly chugging four-minute runtime. Even if it didn't quite explicitly shout "JUMP!" at you a couple dozen times, the intent was unmistakable.

Which isn't to say "Jump" was necessarily conceived of as a motivational anthem. In fact, the hook was ironically inspired by a cruel chuckle frontman David Lee Roth had with himself at watching a recent news story of a man contemplating suicide at the edge of a high building and imagining the onlookers below shouting the title command at him. (Band roadie Larry Hostler, who Roth used as a sounding board, helped shape the lyric into something less cruel or despairing.) The song's eventual go-for-it message ("I get up, and nothing gets me down," "You won't know until you begin") had some unlikely roots of its own: David Lee Roth had been a student of martial arts instructor-to-the-stars Benny "The Jet" Urquidez, and he credited Urquidez's teachings as inspiration for "Jump."

Really though, the true spirit of "Jump" isn't found in its words, but rather in an element entirely new to Van Halen's band alchemy: synths. By the mid-'80s the synthesizer was established (along with the drum machine) as the defining instrument of the era, and Eddie Van Halen -- the guitarist for Van Halen, as well as its primary sonic architect -- was excited to explore their potential. In fact, he composed the signature Oberheim OBX-a riff for "Jump," with its earth-rumbling low end and shooting-star major chord streaks, all the way back in 1981. But the band (Roth in particular) held firm against adding the instrument to their mix -- according to Eddie, out of concern for what adding keys to his repertoire might mean for his "guitar hero" status -- until producer Ted Templeman finally came around to the "Jump" riff, their Warner label agreed, and the band relented to recording the track.

They needn't have worried: Rather than overwhelm or undermine Van Halen's (or its guitarist's) arena-rock largesse, the majesty of the "Jump" synth hook highlights it in blindingly bright magic marker. It's a riff as immediately iconic to rock history as any Eddie Van Halen (or really any other guitarist) ever performed on guitar, a "Satisfaction" for the mid-'80s. And if worries lingered that his new fascination with tickling the fake-ivories had robbed EVH of his six-string virtuosity, the group even throws in a quick mid-song intermission for Eddie to tear off a jagged eight-measure guitar solo, one that casually jumps across octaves and time signatures with look-Ma-two-fingers bravado before settling into a triumphant final passage.

That closing run dissolves back into a swirling synth climax, one which quickly accelerates and then decelerates into a gorgeously woozy haze, ultimately bringing the band to a lurching halt. And that might have been enough for old-school Van Halen, but 1984 Van Halen had to bring it back one more time following the fake-out faux-ending. So they wind up a reprise of the song's intro, and head straight from there to a final half-minute of chorus high-kicking, Eddie sprinkling in some new rhythm guitar patterns to keep the repeat-to-fade from getting stale, as the band digs further and further into the groove and rides out on an impossible high.

Remembering Rock Legend & Guitar Hero Eddie Van Halen | Billboard News

It didn't take long for that high to translate to the charts. The song debuted at No. 47 on the Hot 100 in Jan. 1984 and bound to No. 1 on the chart dated Feb. 25 just six weeks later, an unusually quick ascent for the time, holding at the top spot for five weeks. The 1984 album would peak at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, held off by Michael Jackson's still-unsinkable juggernaut Thriller -- which, of course, contained a guest solo from Eddie Van Halen on its Hot 100-topping hit "Beat It." But it still went on to be the group's second album (following the '78 debut) to be certified Diamond by the RIAA, as its videos dominated MTV for the entire calendar year and two more of its singles ("Panama" and "I'll Wait") followed "Jump" to the Hot 100's top 20, reaffirming Van Halen as the biggest rock band in America.

The victory was short-lived, as the group would split acrimoniously from their original frontman the next year. After replacing Roth with solo star Sammy Hagar, they would quickly return to rock and pop relevance, scoring another seven Hot 100 top 40 hits across the decade's remainder -- many led by the thick synth sound the majority of the band once abhorred. They never again reached the top spot, though, leaving "Jump" the unquestioned mainstream peak in Van Halen's catalogue. In truth, it was a peak for all of '80s popular music; a classic we're-not-so-different-you-and-I moment between the decade's most chest-beating rock and most glimmering pop, coalesced into an anthem that hurdled over most of the best and brightest that even 1984 had to offer, and still elevates pulse rates and spirits nearly four decades later.