Van Halen – 1984 – Rock’s Heaviest Pop Album

When the mere mention of Van Halen escapes someone’s lips, “Jump” instantly comes to mind. Despite being a band featuring the guitar god Eddie Van Halen, the keyboard-centric track is arguably their signature track. Guitar aficionados and rock n’ roll enthusiasts (myself included) will no doubt beg to differ. This is a band who revitalized rock n’ roll in such a way, their effects are still felt today. That’s the beauty of 1984. It has something for casual pop fans as well as those who eat, sleep and breathe guitar. While we celebrate the album’s 35th birthday this year, let’s have a look and see what makes 1984 Van Halen’s most popular records.

To appreciate 1984, you have to understand how important Van Halen was to rock music. 

Van Halen came on the scene when rock music is was in flux. In 1978 Disco and Funk were go-to genres for a good time. Punk was more than a genre, but a movement and New Wave spoke to those who felt indifferent to anything mainstream. This left rock in a bizarre identity crisis. Van Halen single-handly fixed that. Their breed of rock n’ roll had all the power of Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones, but with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Most importantly, they were fun.

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Frontman David Lee Roth’s showmanship was like watching Mickey Mouse do a striptease. He had the looks that women loved, and the confidence the guys wish they had. Alex Van Halen was cool and mysterious behind a larger than life drum kit, and bassist Michael Anthony felt more like a lovable jock than a sex diety. But it was Eddie Van Halen who stood out as the crown jewel of Van Halen. He did things on guitar the likes of Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck never even dreamed of. But he did it sometimes with an effortless smile or a face of amazement as if even he couldn’t believe he was doing it. It was endearing, and there was no way anyone could hate the guy.

With such emphasis on guitar, why does 1984 feature so many keyboards and synths?

Like any good record, 1984 was the product of conflict. Van Halen’s first 5 records set the golden standard of what mainstream rock would be throughout the early 80s: flamboyant lead man and a guitar virtuoso. But also like any good artists, Eddie was bored with going through the motions. Van Halen already conquered the world but where would they go? Their 1982 album Diver Down mostly cover songs, lead many to think the Van Halen train had run out of steam. Now with music videos and MTV becoming the dominant format for young music fans, Van Halen had to reach an even bigger audience or face pre-mature extinction.

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Despite being the primary songwriter, Eddie battled Roth tooth and nail anytime keyboards were brought to the studio. Previous radio hits “And The Cradle Will Rock” and “Dancing In The Streets” may have featured keys, but they were distorted beyond recognition. Roth felt Eddie was the guitar god and should stay that way. However, Eddie decided to build his own recording studio in his backyard with friend and future producer Don Landee. A place where he could demo and record anything he wanted without the brewing tension with Roth. During this time is when Eddie put the finishing touches on what would become the skeleton of 1984.

With a newly found progression in style, Van Halen would also find themselves conquering another medium: music videoes.

Going back to the theatrics of Roth and the rest of the band’s lovable bro mentality, it wasn’t difficult for Van Halen to become darlings of MTV. They were already a visual band to start with. Roth’s Vaudeville vanity and Eddie’s Frankenstrat striped guitar and yellow zebra shirts, Van Halen were just as recognizable by their look as their sound. All of which was showcased on 1984‘s lead single (and aforementioned) “Jump”.  Even with its zero-budget performance clip, “Jump” is just as popular as a music video as it was on radio.

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Van Halen upped the ante with the video for “Hot For Teacher”. With a humorously quotable intro and epilogue, “Hot For Teacher” is a whirlwind of Van Halen kids and would-be strippers. Its everything Van Halen was about rolled into a tight, 4-minute package. Is there anything more iconic than seeing Eddie play “Hot For Teacher”‘s blistering guitar solo while walking across desks in a classroom?

But 1984 is more than keyboards and music television visual gags. It’s still a solid rock album.

Van Halen had a bonafide with 1984. “Jump” would become Van Halen’s first and only number 1 song on Billboard, and the other 3 singles, “Hot For Teacher”, “Panama” and the Michael McDonald co-written “I’ll Wait” remain staples on modern radio. But popularity aside, 1984 wasn’t Van Halen selling out. Despite 2 of the synth-heavy singles and futuristic title track, 1984 was still a hard rock album. In fact, “House Of Pain” is probably one of the heaviest tracks in the band’s history.

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With the success of 1984 and the music industry carried by MTV, the honeymoon for Van Halen was over. Tensions would boil over which would result in Roth leaving the band the following year (or kicked out depending on who you believe) and replaced with hair-metal frontman Sammy Hagar. Although Van Halen would continue to be both commercially and critically successful during the Hagar era, the game would change dramatically. I won’t get into my personal opinion on that particular subject, but 1984 was a worthy finale to the lineup that changed the face of rock n’ roll. When they reunited with Roth for 2012’s A Different Kind Of Truth, I was blown away with how good it was but for different reasons. 1984 may not be Van Halen’s best album, but it certainly deserves its place among the most important albums in history. It may very well be the only album to successfully cater to both pop fans and metalheads adequately!

Happy 35th birthday 1984, go ahead and jump.


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Aaron The Audiophile

Son, brother, uncle, musician. I enjoy music of all genres, shapes and sizes, preferably the good kind.

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