Defending Van Halen’s Much-Maligned ‘Diver Down’
Van Halen‘s fifth album, 1982′s Diver Down, turns 33 years old today (April 14). As a hastily-recorded collection featuring only four full-length original songs, this record should by all rights be a disaster.
Instead, it’s just about the most fun thing you can play at your next summer family picnic.
Having barely completed an exhausting world tour in support of their 1981 album Fair Warning, their fourth record in as many years, Van Halen was as you can imagine looking forward to taking a break.
But first, lead singer David Lee Roth reportedly convinced the group to release a cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” as a time-buying, stand-alone single. This move backfired in the best possible way. The track became a sudden hit, and Warner Brothers pressured the band to record an accompanying record… and fast.
Understandably short on new material, Van Halen whipped together a thirty-one minute hodge-podge featuring five cover songs (including their brief album-closing take on Dale Evans’ “Happy Trails”), three short Eddie Van Halen-showcasing instrumentals and just four full-length original songs.
Although some critics, understandably not grading on the curve to account for the rushed recording schedule, criticized the album’s lack of original material, with Rolling Stone declaring it appeared the group was “running out of ideas,” the four original songs on Diver Down prove this was hardly the case at all.
The album’s two new rockers, “Hang ‘Em High” and “The Full Bug,” the latter of which featured Roth on both acoustic guitar and harmonica, have clearly stood the test of time. In fact, the group has been treating fans to occasional renditions of both of these dusted-off gems on their current world tour.
Even more impressively, the album features two of Van Halen’s most textured and mature tracks; the lilting, Spanish-influenced “Secrets” and the exotic pop-rock guitar symphony that is “Little Guitars.” Anyone who thinks that Van Halen couldn’t have grown up musically with Roth on the microphone should pay attention.
Despite telling Guitar Player magazine at the time that putting together Diver Down at such a hectic pace was “fun” — he and his brother Alex even got to recruit their father Jan to play clarinet on their version of “Big Bad Bill (is Sweet William Now)” — Eddie later revealed displeasure with the album’s reliance on outside material, and for having to graft a riff he had planned for an original song onto the band’s synth-pop cover of “Dancing in the Street.”
This realization led to a major change in how Van Halen operated. In an effort to retain more control over his music, Eddie built a recording studio — named 5150 — at his own home and has used it to create at least part of every one of the band’s albums ever since.
Van Halen would go on to record one more album with Roth, the career-and-genre defining 1984, before splitting with the singer and entering an entirely different phase of their career with Sammy Hagar on vocals.
Roth immediately kicked off his solo career with the audacious Eat ‘Em and Smile, but after a couple of decades, the Van Halen brothers and Roth apparently realized they brought out the best in each other, reunited, toured (minus bassist Michael Anthony) and released the excellent A Different Kind of Truth.
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