Who could have imagined that a synthesizer, and not a guitar, would put Van Halen over the top? But that was indeed the case when the first blast of Oberheim OB-Xa announced the arrival of “Jump” and the quartet’s leap into the rock superstar strata with the album “1984,” the latter of which was released 30 years ago today on January 9, 1984. After five platinum previous albums Van Halen was already there, of course, and following a headlining performance (for a whopping $1.5 million) at the 1983 US Festival, it was clear that even bigger things lay ahead for the band. But how big, and how different, was the surprise.
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Stylistically, Van Halen staked its reputation on the combination of frontman David Lee Roth’s clown prince personality and, primarily, Eddie Van Halen’s six-string heroics, so the prominence of synthesizer on “1984” — on the short title track instrumental, “Jump” and “I’ll Wait” — marked an unexpected new direction that caught many of VH’s guitar-loving fans off guard and uncertain, although ultimately assuaged by many of the set’s other six songs.
Most of the world could’ve cared less, though; “Jump,” with its cheerfully lo-fi (and low-dough) video, became VH’s first and only No. 1 Hot 100 hit. “I’ll Wait” went Top 15 as well, and the Ted Templeman-produced “1984” reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and was certified Diamond by the RIAA. But while it marked the beginning of a hugely successful era — the next four VH albums would debut at No. 1 — it marked the end of Roth’s first tenure with the band; he quit in 1985 over increasing creative differences, replaced by Sammy Hagar. Roth would return, however, briefly in 1996 and with staying power since 2006, and anyone who’s seen VH on the road since then knows well the staying power of those songs from “1984.”
The 67-second title track instrumental gently introduces the synthesizer riff that shocked the world in “Jump” — an idea Eddie Van Halen had as far back as 1981 but didn’t pursue until he built his 5150 home studio. He may have locked horns with Roth and Templeman over the idea, but the resulting tune was just over four minutes of pure pop fun, with a hook (inspired by the synth track on Hall & Oates’ “Kiss on My List”) that was tailor-made to become a sports arena anthem — especially for jump balls at basketball games. And lest we get carried away with the synth angle, don’t forget there’s a guitar break as well as a subtle and slinky guitar line throughout that gives the tune a bit of spine.
How to best come back after the synthesizer shock of “Jump?” How about the molten guitar attack of “Panama,” a muscular rocker that stacks up well alongside previous VH classics such as “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” and “The Cradle Will Rock.” Roth has said the song’s about a stripper and a car — the latter because the flamboyant frontman, after being accused by an interviewer of writing only about sex, drugs and fast cars, realized he’d never actually written a song about a car yet. Released after “Jump” and “I’ll Wait,” it hit No. 13 on the Hot 100 to become VH’s third Top 20 single from “1984.”
Though it pales after “1984’s” striking opening attack, this tribute to James Paul Koncek of the Los Angeles roots-punk band Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs lets Eddie strut his stuff from the airy opening patterns to the blues groove of the main song. And how many times do you hear Roth conceding that somebody else may be “The King?”
“Drop Dead Legs”
Driven by Alex’s stomp and Eddie’s gritty hard rock chordings and colored by the group’s effortless harmonies, it also features one of “1984’s” more inventive and off-the-cuff guitar solos. There’s a lot of songs like this in group’s catalog, but this one sits particularly well with those who like their Halen heavy and hefty.
“Hot For Teacher”
The final single from “1984” is an urgent shuffle that builds to explosive choruses with a booming start created by four bass drums played at once. The latter part of the song, meanwhile, incorporated a portion of a late 70s outtake called “Voodoo Queen.” Roth co-directed the video, which featured Norwegian model Lillian Muller as the sexy chemistry teacher and was targeted by the Parents Music Resource Center for its suggestive lyrics and explicit exhibitionism — which only attracted more eyeballs to it.
The pulsing second single from “1984” — co-written with Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan veteran Michael McDonald — also featured prominent keyboards, including a synthesized bass line by Michael Anthony, as well as Alex Van Halen’s Rototom drums. It was one of the more hotly contested tracks on the album, with Roth and Templeman voting no and Eddie and engineer Donn Landee pushing, and ultimately prevailing, for its inclusion. Roth’s lyrical inspiration came from a female model appearing in a print ad for Calvin Klein’s men’s underwear, which he reportedly taped to his television set while he wrote the lyrics.
“Girl Gone Bad”
This is the moment of “1984” where it sounds like Rush snuck into 5150 and slipped a track into the mix, at least until Roth starts singing about the titular subject. Eddie’s having fun with his harmonics here, and the song’s prog edge provides yet another welcome change of pace.
“House of Pain”
The Van Halen brothers kick into a heavy, metallic groove for “1984’s” closing track, a song that dates back to the mid-70s and was also recorded during demo sessions for Kiss’ Gene Simmons. It’s certainly more album track than anthem, but rest assured there’s plenty of pleasure in this “Pain.”