Released on January 9, appropriately enough in 1984, Van Halen‘s mid-80’s masterpiece is a near-perfect slice of hairmetal hardrock, half an hour of Diamond Dave and Shredding Eddie at the peak of their game. I didn’t get a copy of this album until xMas, 1984, by which time “Jump,” “Panama,” and “I’ll Wait” had been well drilled into my earholes. The rest of the record proved just as vital.
It is so surprising to me now, going back to these older records, to find how short they are. Even with the minute-long synthstrumental title track intro, this album clocks in at just thirty-three minutes. It makes sense. In 1984, they had to fit the whole thing on a single slab of wax- there were no digital downloads, so there was less creative sprawl than there is now. While I appreciate the expanded formatting of online downloads and CDs, there’s something to be said for a band simply putting out the best possible 30-40 minutes they could muster.
The biggest difference between 1984 (MCMLXXXIV) and its predecessors is a much more prevalent use of synthesizers. The opening track seems to make that declaration as it introduces the album with a space age symphony of pads and synths before heading into one of the best synth riffs of the decade. The opening phrase in “Jump” could have been played on guitar and it would have sounded pretty damn awesome, but I doubt it would have become quite as iconic. Elsewhere on the album, synthesizers are eschewed entirely: the final track, “House Of Pain” is as close as they come to heavy metal on this album. Three minutes of scorching Eddie Van Halen licks tear apart your speakers while David Lee Roth‘s vocals are mixed down so low as to be an afterthought on this guitar showcase.
This album was released in the same year as some of my favorite records of the decade, but few come close to matching the fun and exuberance of this record. I have vague memories of the band being interviewed and fielding a question about their song, “Panama.” Their response was along the lines of, “We heard a critic saying all these rockers write about is parties and girls and cars. And we hadn’t written a song about cars yet, so we figured it was about time.” Twenty years later, They Might Be Giants released a song called “Damn Good Times,” wherein, describing the protagonist’s penchant for having fun, they sing, “She acts like David Lee Roth when he turned 21.” That sense of tearing loose and living it up pervades all of 1984. The whole record, to steal a line from one of its songs, is “full blast and top down.” Even a track like “Girl Gone Bad,” ostensibly about a girl whose dreams of the big city fell short and who ends up turning tricks – and which could have been a buzzkill if handled differently – is really just another excuse for Eddie and Alex to tear things to shreds. The lyrics are incidental, secondary, and Roth delivers them with a raised eyebrow and a smirk.
1984 is a thirty minute highlight reel, a studio album off of which practically any track could have been a single and been a hit. Alex Van Halen‘s drum intro to open “Hot For Teacher” is still one of my all-time favorite drum solos (and one of my all-time favorite rock videos). Michael Anthony‘s bass work is indispensable throughout the whole record. Eddie and Dave were never better together and Van Halen were never bigger. 1984 stalled at #2 on the charts, stymied only by Michael Jackson‘s Thriller (to which Eddie contributed a guitar solo), but it still has the feel of a Number 1 album. It was huge at the time and it is still, for me, the quintessential 80’s hard rock record.