Saturday, January 09, 2016
1984 AT 32
As an apple-cheeked, chemically altered 15 year old, it was my duty to buy this cassette in the week it was released because CIRCUS magazine had been talking it up.
Remember CIRCUS? Remember talking?
Long before the iPhone surgically removed the need for personality from humanity, the sixth Van Halen album was released to an unsuspecting public on this date, 32 years ago. Listening to Ed's technically dazzling fretwork is always a sonic treat, though this gift overshadows his fine sense of melody. This element was sadly lacking in most all of VH's imitators, poodles balanced on their heads, filling every space with "oodily-oodily-oodily" solos that were woefully unsupported by any evidence of a tune. David Lee Roth in mid-air, Alex Van Halen with 1000 arms flailing and Michael Anthony's harmonies were all key ingredients in making this band something special, though they remembered to mix hooks with instrumental chops.
With a running time of just thirty-three minutes, the material on this disc claims your attention by virtue of its brevity and variance in approach. Ponder that for a moment. Heralded by futuristic strains squeezed from an Oberheim OB-X, run through a Marshall stack, the icy instrumental "1984" showcased the most recognized guitar slinger on the planet at that time...on keyboards! This theme ends before it begins, setting up the intro to the monster-number one hit single, "Jump". Curiously, this would be their only trip to the top of the pops. Emerging with a grin from behind the synths, Eddie treats the faithful to the first of many perfectly executed solos midway through exhortations to attempt an escape from gravity. His salvos are a keen reminder that this is still VH. "Panama" steers the record back into more familiar territory, with a highly caffinated Roth tearing up his vocal alongside very innovative riffing. Just as the party is taken down a few notches to allow Dave to ease the seat back. there is a full climb up the scale as the players build to a crescendo and go out blazing on the chorus. The two tracks that close out the first half of 1984 veer in yet another direction. "Top Jimmy" arrives in water-droplet harmonics, with trademark squeals in the background, only to morph into Dire Straits territory, kicking in on steroids. The whole affair is capped by Mike and Dave in harmony throughout. It is radically different from everything else on this stunning set. "Drop Dead Legs" features an embarrassment of riches in terms of guitar figures with Alex keeping everything in the pocket. Saving the best licks for last, EVH wanders into frenetic free form jazz as he peels off a sequence of devastating runs, creeping well away from all boundaries, hypnotically into the fade.
"Hot For Teacher" begins the back nine with a wall of drums and could very well be classed as quintessential Van Halen. Humor, hammer-on hysterics and nerve all dressed up in a gut-bucket blues shuffle taken at an insane tempo. This remains a staple on rock radio, with an energy that is still felt three decades on. The synth returns from the closet for "I'll Wait", which also provides a much softer landing pad after the roller coaster ride that precedes it. Sporting a chorus made for heavy rotation, it leans more toward pop than the others, keeping things fresh from a stylistic perspective.
My personal favourite is "Girl Gone Bad" which takes you on a jaw-dropping slalom course of bass runs, if you're able to listen past the full fledged assault created by Alex and Ed. Hold one of your tinnitus-damaged ears close to the speakers and you'll hear sheer finesse alongside the urgency, with a minor key hint of sadness in the breakdown. Atypical of Roth, this only lasts a moment, though the atmosphere is perfectly framed by a dynamic arrangement. There is a remarkable amount of control on display from everyone in the room, reading the mood of the piece perfectly. One of their best compositions. "House of Pain" dated back to the demos that they did in advance of their first album, though it was retooled for inclusion here. Shifting gears and time signatures, it keeps the pulse of the proceedings high right to the end.
All this in a half hour? All you can do is play it again. I wore out my copy doing just that back in the winter of '84.
"1984" was Roth's last full length album with his cohorts until A Different Kind of Truth in 2012, bringing the Diamond Dave with Van Hef-lin in the 80s era to a close.
Van Halen fans missed him, too, because he brought a truckload of personality and humour to the table.
Does it hold up in 2015?
You bet! All killer, zero filler.
This is a creative and commercial watermark for the group. Exuding confidence on all levels, it is consistent and remains very listenable well outside of the time in which it was conceived.