40 Years Ago: Van Halen’s Debut Changes Rock History
Hard rock hadn’t really hatched a band like Van Halen before 1978.
There were groups with guitar heroes. There were metal bands that covered ‘60s classics with new-style flash. And there were corny frontmen with overeager libidos. But they were never tossed together into one simmering pot made up of part dinosaur stomp, part lightning-fast guitar acrobatics and part Hollywood arrogance before Van Halen’s self-titled debut album was unleashed.
Van Halen ushered in a new wave of hard rock. The elements that classified the music throughout the ‘70s were still there: wafer-thin lyrical content, a preoccupation with sex and a standing philosophy that steamrolling over everything will get you out of any tough spot.
Between punk and disco, rock was barely holding on in 1978. Then came "Runnin’ With the Devil," Van Halen’s opening track, which sounded like what Tokyo probably heard right before Godzilla attacked for the first time. Its impact wasn’t immediately apparent, but now the song takes on changing-of-the-guard significance.
Listen to Van Halen's 'Eruption' and 'You Really Got Me'
From there, Side One marches from one side of the city to the other, annihilating everything in its path: the Hendrixian "Eruption," the blustery cover of the Kinks’ "You Really Got Me" and "Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love," which set the template for every great Van Halen song.
Van Halen isn’t perfect. Side Two sags in the middle, especially Roth’s innuendo-laden take of an old blues cut, "Ice Cream Man," the first of many groan-worthy moments by the campy singer. But the album inspired a generation of long-haired kids to pick up guitars and helped define ‘80s metal.
The album peaked at No. 19, their only record to not reach the Top 10. (It eventually went diamond by selling 10 million copies, as did 1984.) But it remains their best album and their most focused. After this, it would prove somewhat difficult to control the guitar heroics, the showboating and the corny frontman with the overeager libido.