…Wings not Rings….

I have never liked the song ‘Jump’.  It’s a soppy, bland, synth heavy pop track and in 1984 it was a long way from the British Heavy Metal I was listening to. 

I still remember the first time I heard it though.  I was watching a ‘pop’ programme hosted by the coiffured mulleted, bearded lunatic Noel Edmonds.  Over the intro Edmonds explained who the band were had recently been paid $1,000,000.00 for a single gig which at the time was a world record.   The gig in question was the US festival which had taken place in San Bernadino, California and was reportedly attendended by 670,000 people.   To be fair it was a festival as opposed to a one band gig so that would explain the crowd but this mob headlined the prime Saturday night slot and got paid more that Bowie (Friday headliner) and the first boy band, The Clash who took the ‘let’s get away early’ Sunday night headline spot.

This factoid raised the pulses as a gig and a fee that massive must mean something so I stuck with this piece of tacky synth based fluff to see what all the fuss was about.  The track got going and it was nothing special…..and then the guitar solo kicked in.

….And in that moment my Van Halen obsession was born.

It wasn’t the song that did it.  It wasn’t the fuckin’ massive chrome drum kit, the regular Joe bass player who looked like a trailer park owner nor was it the yelping acrobatic singer with the spandex, mane and average scat singing…. It was the guitar player and it has remained only ever the guitar player. 

Edward Lodewijk Van Halen.  A diminutive Dutch-Indonesian naturalised American with a big beaming smile and rapid fire fingers…. Mr 5150.

Anyone who knows me will tell you what I am like.  I’m not big on empathy, sympathy, tolerance….I don’t suffer fools and I say what I want whether appropriate or not.  Most people have hated me at some point and I get that…. We were moulded by some half Irish Spartan leader who went in hard and heavy early doors even with his own kids.   The traits of nomal politness barely exist in my cannon. 

I could change but I reckon that would be wrong…. ‘not me’ and I’m a great believer in being me whether it’s popular of not.  I was born with a certain face, a ‘miserable fuckers face’ where many times I’ve been asked ‘What’s wrong?’ when nothing was.  My face doesn’t ooze friendly however I am utterly addicted to laughing and try to do as much of that a day as is considered sane.  Other than Guinness and Rouge laughing is my drug (no real drugs have been consumed) and so when I saw the the ‘Jump’ video and noticed the bloke  constantly  smiling and laughing I found myself drawn to him instantly as I like to see people having a good time.  He looked like a bloke enjoying himself (not like that), a bloke who would be a laugh all the time which is something I wished I looked like.  From that moment I was all in for life, I wanted to be part of the party…

Van Halen were in the Heavy Metal bracket but they weren’t really ‘Metal’.  Iron Maiden were Metal,  Judas Priest were Metal, Sabbath were Metal, Metallica were Metal.  At the time I was still listening to The Police (Miserable fuckers),  The Jam (Miserable Fucker) and Madness (Joyful Norf Landon filth)  but I had started to dip my toe into Metal due to Iron Maiden and the artwork they had on their record sleeves.  I figured if I bought the record for the cover then I might as well try out the contents.  It turned out I quite liked it so I fully intergrated myself with British Metal bands….a corner had been turned.  I had become a Man…

All British metal bands were ugly in the mid 80’s.  At the time no one knew this and bands like Def Leppard were considered ‘pretty’.  They weren’t.  They were factory workers with poor hair and teeth like a burnt down fence.  They were a grubby bunch who clearly were only employed in this music arena as most of it required minimal visual apprearence and their fans were equally as ugly and as I weren’t pulling up any trees in the good looking stakes I felt at home in Metal.  This was a time were sales ruled the world and not faces.

If you want an example of how rotten Metallers were find a picture of Diamond Head Guitarist Brian Tatler who could have easily lived under a bridge eating the odd wandering minstrel or check out the more famous Dave Murray from Iron Maiden who used to be an actual Dustman in London before realising he could play the guitar to a ludicrous level and therefore could make several bin lorries full of stinking sweaty cash.  I mean look at Lemmy,  christ alive….and then there was Girlschool, blimey Charlie, you’d think it would be difficult to get that much ugly into one group even by chance or bad luck. They were like young 80’s dinner ladies and far removed from your image of band that might get on the TV. They probably should have been playimng gigs behind the curtain with the lights off, the classic ‘faces for radio’ scenario.  All ugly, all surly, all called ‘Brian’, ‘Dave’, ‘Ronnie’, ‘Tony’, ‘Steve’, ‘Jackie’, ‘Denise’ and all obsessed with wizards, magic, darkness and death…. British Metal was never getting you a girlfriend in the 80’s unless you met a Metal Chick (preferably with some teeth) and there weren’t many of them floating about.  But they were my people…. I had found a musical home.

Van Halen were more ‘Party Rock’, they were the American equivilant of AC/DC, balls out fun….almost ballad free.   Everything was about fun and few songs were tales of yore.  They were a fun band singing about drinking, girls and having a great time.  It was ‘Goofy Rock’ in a sea of Dragons, Demons, Devils, fire and visions of Hell.  They were never serious, it was all a laugh formed around a hyper singer of poor vocal quality (although a good front man), an competent bass player whose real strength was that he could drink like a mule and he did as he was told, a fairly good drummer and an absolute God on guitar. 

Over the next few months I made it my mission to purchase the complete back catalogue as I assumed that the ‘Jump’ solo,  which had salvaged a, let’s face it, wank ‘rock’ track wasn’t going to be a one-off.  Almost instantly research revealed that it wasn’t, in fact it was very far from a one-off. 

The solo on ‘Jump’ is bog standard in Van Halen terms, ‘beige’, below par,  as is the iconic solo from ‘Beat it’ which is reveered and on the great timeline of rock moments earlier than ‘Jump’ by about 8 months.  I suppose the fact that Quincy Jones asked Eddie to do it is validation enough that he was special and that the band were suitably massive…in America anyway.  Popular doesn’t mean good….it merely means sales….

It’s hard to describe the impact Van Halen albums between 1978 and 1984 had on me from a musical perspective.  All guitar work regardless of genre was boringly compared to Eddie by me from purchase onwards.  The first six Van Halen records contain so many blistering pieces of guitar work that I’d need a much longer blog to really explain it.  Luckily I’m not going to do that as it would not only be fucking dull for you but would be fairly pointless as you don’t care.  Suffice to say it was clear from the debut album that Eddie was special and with every following album up to and including ‘1984’ (the final album of the orignal line-up) the performances got better. ‘Jump’ was clearly an attempt to conquer the charts which stateside it did and so was the ‘turd in the waterpipe’ on that album which has some of Eddie’s best work, all of which is a lot better and heavier than that mincy cobblers which appealed to a mass audience due to a fucking keyboard intro.

As I hinted, I could knock out millions of words on Van Halen but I won’t as I realise I’m the only one interested in this subject in my life.  Jen cannot believe I like them.  She has never understood it.  So count yourselves lucky that I’m not going to talk at length about Eddie’s innovative use of the Wurlitzer electric piano fed into a flanger and then a Marshall amp on ‘And the cradle will rock’ which was made to sound like a guitar riff.  Marvel at my restraint regarding the fret slide at 3:49 in ‘Mean Street’.  Revel in my lack of description of the iconic intro to ‘Hot for Teacher’ which batters ‘Jump’ to dust only to be followed in the same track by an even better solo and the ludicrous complexity of the rythmn playing in ‘I’m the one’.  I won’t even bore with the trivial nugget that their greatest song ‘Down in Flames’ wasn’t even released but was dismantled to make a couple of other classics instead, nor will I mention the stone cold fact that few bands have delivered cover versions better than Eddie reworked them. 

I won’t bang on about his philathropy not only to the public with improptu jam sessions as he simply loved playing with anyone who fancied it or the delivery of 75 signature guitars at $5,000 a pop to a music school but also to fellow musicians like Jerry Cantrell of ‘Alice in Chains’ who in the early days only had the one guitar.  When Eddie found out in a chat with him he sent a 2 guitar, 4 amps rig with a note saying: 

‘When I started nobody gave me anything.  Now I get everything for free when I’m happy to pay….. No one should have nothing….Enjoy’

Far be it from me to tell the tale of Eddie burying one of his most priceless hand made original guitars (The Bumblebee) with murdered Pantera guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell as a sign of his respect for a fellow guitarist with the Eulogy ‘Darrell was an original and an original deserves an original’.  That guitar is beyond price.

The bloke was a living genius.  He built his own guitars, created his own ‘brown’ sound, patented numerous improvements to the instrument, tweaked the inner workings of amplifiers, wrote the music, played live to an exceptional level even when stoned, pissed, ill and surrounded by lesser men. He was a master of the shredding rock guitar solo but to me he was the best rythmn guitarist in the genre. 

His rythmn playing is, in some ways, the real stuff here with some of it is being better than the solos created by others.  It was always complex rather than straight up rythmn and it flowed like a singer would sing a song.  He was to rythmn guitar what Keith Moon was to drumming in The Who.  Moon was the engine of The Who and never merely some monster providing the beat.  Moon was living the track by making his drums sing along with it.  Without Moon The Who were a Who tribute band as an integral part of the collective had gone.  A key driver in the evolution of a band had been unplugged and so the machine would never be the the same again regardless of who they got in to try and replicate it.  The same will be said about Eddie.  irreplacable.

Eddie was a relentless Guitar humanoid, a sound machine who pushed the limit of his ability until the end in a journey into what sound he could make and how he could make it.  He was famously rarely without a guitar strapped to him.  His mantra was ‘Play, Play’ Play’ as that is how you master an instrument, it has to be a life choice and more than a hobby even before you make it as a successful act.  One of my biggest regrets is never learning how to play a guitar to any level.  Given my love of guitar it seems ludicrous but I was born with tiny pixie hands….Damn you sweet baby Jeebus!!!!!

….and now Eddie is gone…..and there’s nothing we can do about it…

The reality is that this shouldn’t have come as a shock to anyone with my geekery of the great man. 

I have read, seen and listened to nearly everything about this bloke for the past 36 years.  My search history will not provide you with ‘MILF’, ‘out of control step sister’ or ‘Tena Pads’ but it will say ‘Eddie Van Halen’.  I am a sponge for info about him so was fully aware of the illness and the very likely inevitable outcome.  He’s was ill for a decade and so when it happened I was calm as it was clear from the clues in whatever you read.  The last couple of tours had shows cancelled mysteriously,  the periods of silence between tours were longer, it was staring us in the face but I didn’t really want to believe it and hoped for an announcement of somethng positive, alas, it wasn’t to be.

This isn’t Bowie though.  Bowie was shock, global shock.  Eddie dying just meant saddness as a bloke known to me as much for smiling, joy and laughter as he was for playing a guitar had gone in what appeared to be a drawn out and painful way.  I saw a photo of him a few weeks back and even though the smile was there he was unrecognisable due to the treatment.  

When David Bowie died all we really knew was that he had died.  It was simply announced to a global audience who could barely register it.  I can’t even accept Bowie is dead to this day as you only ever picture him relatively healthy.  There was no real warnings as there were prior to Eddie going,  Bowie died and the world rightly collapsed into chaos.   The saddest thing about both their deaths is when you look back at the historic photos.  Both are constantly smoking.  I’m on a Bowie Facebook forum and most of it is photos and I love photos but nearly every shot shows Bowie smoking,  it’s noticable.  Eddie was the same and as he wasn’t the lead singer a lot of shots show him smoking on stage.  Bowie was taken by Pancreatic Cancer and Eddie got mouth cancer which spread.  He tried to insist that he got it from holding a metal guitar pick in his mounth but this was clearly cobblers.  Tragic but you make your choices.

Will Eddie be remembered by me as the worlds greatest guitarist?  No… or course not.  Oddly he’s not even my favourite guitarist which will shock some people on social media who have been bombarded with photo’s of Eddie for decades by me.  Just to clarify Ritchie Blackmore is my favourite guitarist, is he the best…meh… who cares, you like what you like. The one thing all the photos of Eddie I’ve bored people to death with have in common is the joy of a man loving his work.  The happiness and the fun coupled with huge, huge ability is what I loved about Eddie.  He wasn’t born with the serious ‘Metal’ face or the need to find one, he just loved what he did.

Eddie was the King of Hard Rock guitar and the master of the flowing spellbinding pyrotechnic solo but he wasn’t the greatest guitarist in the world and couldn’t really play out of his element.  I would place Blackmore, Gibbons and Moore above him as players.  I don’t count Hendrix as he’s widely regarded as a true deity of Guitar and so it would be pointless to get involved in that discussion.  The only thing Eddie has in common with Hendrix is that he also changed the way a guitar was played but for his generation of players,  it was the next stage.

Blackmore and Moore particularly are both more eclectic in style and all round ability than Eddie.  Blackmore can play almost anything you like be it, Rock, Pop, Blues, Classical, Medieval, Lute, Mandolin or with an orchestra.  Blackmore is my man but he lacks any semblence of joy or happiness.  Nearly every photo is sullen nearly all gigs are a sulky chore where he fights himself to be better when that isn’t possible due to the level of ability he has already. At some point you ‘top out’ as Steve Vai or Satriani have proved. Blackmore’s attempts at ongoing improvement into his 70’s are admirable but some of us are paying to see it and a smile would be nice as we put you there in the first place and so we’d appreaciate an encore without him taking the piss out of both the band he formed and the public.

Eddie was the best at what he brought to the table but he wasn’t particularly great at other genres.   I recently saw footage of him on stage with Simon and Garfunkle improvising along to ‘The Sound of Silence’ and it was an excutiating mess.  His general attempts at proper Blues are amaturish and filled with metal elements and if he goes ‘Pop’ he’s generally making dated noises on synthesiser.  When Van Halen split with Roth and the Poodle Sammy Hagar took over the guitaring changed and was less incendary.  It mellowed in line with Hagar’s low rent pop writing.  Of course the odd moment of genuis burst free such as ‘Pleasure Dome’ but it was mostly two-bob general playing in a doomed attempt to be cool and popular.  Luckily we got one final Roth led album to end the career which brought us all full circle.  Even Eddie said that unless Roth was singing the fan base didn’t see it as Van Halen.  He was right of course and this was confirmed in his death when a tribute radio station only played Roth-era Van Halen tracks.

My love of Eddie was in his joy and his particular sound and tone which I can pick out at about 4-5 miles if the wind is in the right direction.  I once claimed in a pub that I could recite any metal lyric you liked word for word from beginning to end.  Obviously this kind of drunken 19 year old bollocks was bound to fail almost before the words had left my pie hole.  Within seconds I was proven wrong and so I was forced to slink off in a sulk to cry in a park alone by moonlight.    I do however reckon I know every tick and trick in Eddie’s playing now. Gawd knows how many times I’ve listened to the first six albums and watched all available bootlegs, it’s like a drug and I will continue to search out stuff I haven’t seen.

Eddie sounded like Eddie in whatever Rock song he played. There was and will only be one Eddie as the tributes and media coverage, even here where he is less known proved.  He inspired a million bouffant ponces in spandex who valiantly tried to reproduce his playing for the Hair Metal/Cock Rock genre explosion of the 80’s but nobody ever played his songs better than him, trust me, I know, I’ve seen the Steve Vai try and if he can’t then no one can.  A lot of rock and metal fans tell me that everyone can do the Van Halen stuff and that is true but not like the King and not in 1978 when it was released, that is the point that gets forgotten.  If you trawl the bootlegs you can find him doing this stuff in 1975 so he was way ahead of his time.

The final song on the last Van Halen album ‘A Different Kind of Truth’ from 2012 is ‘Beats Workin’.  As a true geek I know it as ‘Put out the lights’ from a 1978 demo session paid for by Gene Simmons of Kiss.  Like a lot of that last album it’s a reworked version of an unreleased track.  Some said ‘cop-out’ but not me,  I don’t actually think it’s unusual to do that.  If we go back to the start of this blog I should have have explained that ‘Jump’ was in fact written in the mid to late 70’s and rejected at the time by the band as they wanted a guitar sound and not a keyboard to dominate it.   Anyway, I digress, ‘Beats Workin’ ends with a sustained period of feedback as if the guitar has simply been left to hum out.  In hindsight it is a fitting last recorded track and as eerie as an epitaph as ‘The Show must go on’ by Queen which was the last track before Freddie died.  Eddie went out, on record anyways,  with the power very much on.

So goodbye to one of my Heroes, the tears have dried up so thanks for the Music, the smiling, the joyful memories and the explosive guitar which I’ll never forget…

The 5150 man, Flying Eddie,  The Lord of the Strings… x


One thought on “…Wings not Rings….

  1. Lee Drohan says:

    Insightful as always, although this type of music generally passed me by ( More a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll), I can appreciate the sentiments. Always tough to lose a hero!

    Liked by 1 person

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