26. Van Halen - Eruption / You Really Got Me

I'm fully willing to accept the criticism that I'm totally cheating on this one.  I've already talked about cover songs and that I didn't really want to put them on my list.  "Hallelujah," by Jeff Buckley was the first.  "You Really Got Me" is the other one.  It was originally recorded in 1964 by The Kinks and reached #1 in the UK and was named #82 on Rolling Stone's Top 500 Songs list, so it's no slouch.  For me, though, the Van Halen remake is superior.  And although I'm sure they'd never admit it, in their heart of hearts, I bet The Kinks would agree.  So cheat #1 is that this is a cover song.  Cheat #2 is that I'm including a whole other song in addition to it being a cover.  "Eruption" is actually the first track on 1978's Van Halen album (the band's debut album).  The second track is "You Really Got Me."

So how on earth can I justify either of these blatant cheats?  Since I already covered (yes, pun intended) that topic in my "Hallelujah" post, I'll address the second one.  Yes, technically, they are two different songs, but the first time I heard "You Really Got Me" on the radio, "Eruption" was played immediately before it, with the gap of just a second or two between them.  In the late 70's, the songs were often played together on the radio and although albums had track listings back then, it always sounded to me like "Eruption" was some insanely crazy awesome mind-blowing change-the-world-forever guitar introduction to "You Really Got Me."  Also, the copy of Van Halen that I had was recorded on a TDK 90 minute cassette with no label, taped by my brother Scott from his album.  He didn't bother to label anything, he just tossed the case to me and said something akin to, "Here.  Now stop buggin' me."  So although the 40 year-old me acknowledges the stretch (okay, cheat), the twelve year-old in me is putting on my dad's huge headphones with the 20' cord, getting ready to have my mind blown yet again.  And  that 12 year-old would say, "Don't make me angry.  You wouldn't like me when I'm angry."

The world's greatest guitar solo actually starts off with an Alex Van Halen drum fill (Guitar Player magazine actually rates Jimmy Page's solo in "Stairway to Heaven" as #1, while having "Eruption" at #2.  I'm no expert, but they're just plain wrong).  There's another small bit with drums and some accompaniment by bassist Michael Anthony, but it's a guitar solo, start to finish.  And that guitar solo changed the way I and many of my contemporaries (and by that I mean other teenage boys) listened to music forever.  The Beatles weren't my band.  Nor The Rolling Stones, The Who or even Led Zeppelin.  For the first time ever, I heard a band that could become my band.  It was me getting in on the ground floor, so to speak, and discovering a band while they were still relatively new.

Once Eddie starts to really cut loose, you're constantly barraged with sonic innovation.  The guitar sound, his technique, the speed at which he played was all something that had never been heard before.  The sound came from the Frankenstrat, the guitar that has become maybe the most recognizable guitar on the planet (at least in the pantheon of rock music).  It was his attempt to combine the two best features of great guitars.  He wanted the body of a Fender Stratocaster but the pickups from a Gibson, akin to putting the engine of a Ferrari into a Porsche.  He had to carve out some extra space and MacGyver it all together to get the guitar he wanted, hence the "franken" moniker.  In case you're not sure if you know it, you do.  Here it is:

I showed this photo to my wife, Jennifer and asked her, "Sweetie, what's this?"  I didn't want to ask any leading questions in my highly scientific experiment.  "What, your computer?" she said.  "No, the picture.  What's that?"  She paused, trying to figure out what I was trying to get her to say, but I didn't flinch.  Finally she said, "That's Eddie Van Halen's guitar, right?"  I smiled, nodded and knew my work was done.  Jennifer likes music (and knows more about it than most women, partially, I think, because she's married to a huge music geek and has a music geek for a dad), but doesn't pay much attention to guitars, drums or any of that stuff.  But she knows what Eddie Van Halen's guitar looks like.  And that's why I love her.

It's the Mona Lisa of guitars (cue Jennifer's rolling eyes while she says "Good Lord...") and its unique sound gave Eruption that never-before-heard quality that still sounds fresh, thirty-two years later.  The technique he used was also revolutionary, specifically his tapping on the neck of the guitar.  Now playing the neck of the guitar was nothing new, classical guitarists had been finger tapping necks of guitars since the Baroque period.  Even in rock songs, Steve Hackett of Genesis used to do some one hand finger tapping, with impressive sonic results.  What Eddie revolutionized, though, was the process where he used two hands in his fingering technique.  It's most prominently heard just about a minute in where the sonic resonance completely changes.  You hear so many notes so quickly that your brain struggles to process them.  Then there's the speed.  Throughout the entire song, the speed with which Eddie plays has your ears and brain frantically trying to play catch-up.  To this day if someone says they're great on the guitar, the real question is, "Yeah, but can you play Eruption?"  If the answer is yes, and they actually can, then they are in fact great on guitar.  If not, then they can go back to practicing on "Freebird" first and then trying again.  When it's finally over, less than two minutes later, you're breathing heavy just from listening to it, and if it were'nt for the awesomeness about to start, you'd go back and listen to it again.

That awesomeness is the opening refrain of "You Really Got Me."  It starts with a guitar sound that was so new at the time (and still sounds fantastic).  I love the fact that you can hear just the tail end of the echo, as if Eddie's playing across the room from the microphone.  There's a crisp sound to the distortion, giving it some real body.  It's probably how people felt back in '64 when the original came out.  Van Halen's pace is a bit quicker and (no offense to anyone in the Kinks), all the musicians are more talented.  Ted Templeman's production gives the song (and the whole album) a crisp, edgy feel with lots of body that still stands up today.  Not just with "You Really Got Me" but also "Jamie's Cryin'," "Feel Your Love Tonight" and the terminally underrated (and also a cover) "Ice Cream Man."

Eddie's guitar not only has the full distortion on, but he lets loose some squealing wails that he not only sustains, but also plays them back down the neck of the guitar, adding some great texture.  Just in case you were bored, he throws in some harmonics along the way to really blow your mind.  The guitar solo is actually pretty abbreviated for a hard rock song, keeping the song under three minutes.  But with Eddie's blazing note per second speed, it's jam packed full of sonic intensity.

When you add the rhythm section on top of it, the song's instrumentation completely comes together.  The drums and the bass get to play around some during the song, while holding down the rhythm fort, so it's more fun for them to play.  Alex spends most of the song keeping one crash cymbal or another in a constant state of movement.  The explosions of high end treble explode out of the speakers, matching the intensity of Eddie's guitars.  The rest of his drumming is pretty straightforward, solid and supportive, just what you want in a drummer.

If there's a more unselfish band member than Van Halen bass player Michael Anthony, I can't think of him or her.  And I've spent the last twenty minutes firing all my neurons trying to discover one.  It's almost a challenge to me at this point.  But for me, spending more than twenty minutes on one single thing is asking a lot, so I just went with it.  He is, and here's why.  He's the guy that plays along with the guitar riff to give it that extra thump and sings the harmonies that no one else wants to touch.  Just listen to what he has to do on "I'm on Fire."  Mariah Carey'd have trouble hitting those notes.  His bass lines serve the song and are pretty basic.  But next to Eddie Van Halen, pretty much everything's basic.  But after playing Guitar Hero:  Van Halen, I realized that I'd been selling Michael short.  If you play the bass on many Van Halen songs, there's a complexity to the bass line that can easily be missed.  Like Scottie Pippen when he played next to Michael Jordan, Michael Anthony just isn't Eddie Van Halen.  And who is?  

And I haven't even gotten to the vocals or the lyrics.  David Lee Roth has the greatest rock voice I've ever heard.  (My wife, Jennifer, would argue that it's Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, and although I still stand He can hit both low notes with authority and that great gravelly voice, yet also hit high notes and do those amazing squeals throughout the song where his voice hits a vocal register that you wouldn't think was possible.  This is most apparent when the song breaks down into the bridge, Dave does some real vocal gymnastics, hitting those squeals and screams, matched with moans and groans, giving a vocal complexity that you don't normally see in rock songs.  And to give a fair shake to the huge Sammy era Van Halen fans, sure, Sammy doesn't have as great a rock voice, but he still does have a great one.  And he can play the guitar 100,000 times better than Dave, so it probably more than evens out.

For a song like this lyrics are completely secondary.  You've got a single message - "You are so hot that I have to be near you at all times."  They're repetitive and sophomoric, thereby making them perfect for Diamond Dave to sing.  He doesn't understand vocal nuance or using his timbre to add to the subtext of his symbolic lyrics.  Dave wants to get laid, and he wants to get laid now.  Anything that doesn't propel that goal forward is a waste of his time.  So these lyrics work perfectly for him:

Yeah, you really got me now
You got me so I don't know what I'm doin', now
Oh yeah, you really got me now
You got me so I can't sleep at night

The song ends with a flurry of guitar notes before fading out Alex's 3,412th crash cymbal.  You're exhausted, but in that great way, and it only took four minutes.  So when you cue up "Eruption" again, following into "You Really Got Me," you've got the time.  So I'm putting in my new awesome stereo bluetooth headphones and cranking it up one more time.

Two videos - one of the album version, and another one from the iconic rock "Us Festival" in 1983.  The sound quality on this one is pretty crappy, but it's a great Van Halen performance and one not to be missed (and they add "Happy Trails" at the end).  And if I could pull off chaps with no jeans on underneath, I - well, I probably wouldn't, but the fact that DLR can just be chalked up to the wonders of fashion.

(Fun Fact #721:  While I think Van Halen's cover outshines the original (obviously!), I do have to give a lot of credit to The Kinks and specifically, guitarist Dave Davies.  In 1964 there weren't any pedals you could buy that had distortion settings on them that you could tweak to get that great fuzzed out sound.  No amplifier knobs, no modified pick-ups, nothing.  Dave knew the sound he wanted, but there was no equipment that could replicate it.  So he took a razor blade to the speaker cone of his amplifier, creating an opening for more air to escape, and at a much higher velocity.  The resulting increase in air flow caused the paper around the cut to vibrate frantically, resulting in the fuzzed out, distorted sound that you hear on the record.  Never before had that sound been heard coming from a guitar, and every time he needed to replicate it, out came the razor blade.  A little added fun fact:  at the time The Kinks recorded "You Really Got Me," Dave Davies was only seventeen years old.  Mind-Blowing Coincidence #4 - When Van Halen recorded their cover of "You Really Got Me," Eddie played with the finesse of a veteran.  His age, though?  Also seventeen.)

(Fun Fact #116:  In 1999, the Recording Industry Assosication of America (RIAA for short, and yes, the same people who sued thousands of music fans for downloading music) unveiled a new certification for records, Diamond Status, certifying sales of a staggering 10,000,000 copies.  Van Halen has two of its albums with this exclusive status, their 1978 debut album, Van Halen, and their 1984 album, um, what was that one called?  Just for fun I checked to see how many of the songs on my list came from Diamond Status albums.  19 of them.  I'm not sure if that's a good sign or a bad sign, but I was just curious)

(Story of My Youth #11:  As a fourteen year-old growing up with an older brother, the majority of the music I liked was music that he liked.  Scott would play records that he had discovered and some I'd like and become a fan of, while others didn't interest me as much.  We both, however, really liked Van Halen, and were anticipating the release of their record 1984 with bated breath.  For the first time, though, it was me who actually bought the record with my own money, rather than Scott buying it and me begging to listen to it.  We returned from Moby Disc and sliced through the plastic, putting side A onto the record player.  The title track started to fill the room and Scott and I looked at each other.  I'm not sure if Scott said, "What the fuck is this?" but it was either that or a very close approximation.

Much in the same way that the opening musical strains of "Eruption" blew my mind in that awesome way that it can be blown as a twelve year-old with limited musical knowledge, "1984" blew my mind in reverse way.  Keyboards on a Van Halen song?  And these keyboards.  At least Rush tried to make their keyboards rock a little.  This was like Eddie just discovered that keyboards existed and wanted to show off his new discovery to the world.  But this was crap that I could've written at 14.  Hell, my younger brother, Todd, 12, could've done it, and done it better.  And this was Eddie F-in' Van Halen!  It would be like Martin Scorsese following up Raging Bull with that "Don't squeeze the Charmin" commercial.  To make matters worse, Eddie had extensive piano training as a child and even won numerous competitions.  So he should've known better than to think this piece of crap was so important that it not only needed to be on their highly anticipated album, but it needed to open their highly anticipated album, like putting the trailer for The Adventures of Pluto Nash before The Fellowship of the Ring

As the lame keyboards began to fade, Scott and I still shared a look that encompassed shock, disappointment, nausea, I think, and anger.  Then came the introductory keyboard part for "Jump" and Scott just stood up, shook his head and searched for more words of disgust, which eluded him.  Finally, he looked at me and said, "Well, at least you were the one who bought it" and left the room.  Of course "Jump" became Van Halen's largest hit ever, becoming their only #1 Billboard single.  And I'm sure that the "1984" song has become "the thing that you don't talk about" at Van Halen reunion mixers, much like Cousin Oliver in "The Brady Bunch", Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars, or the Nikki/Paulo subplot on "Lost."  We all just agree to try to forget it ever happened.  I'm sure Eddie doesn't want to talk about it (Eddie, I beg that you not talk about it), but for that 1 minute and 8 seconds back in January of '84, and for years afterward, me, my brother and his friend, David Yagoubian, lambasted the decision that was "1984," the song.

Scott has since listened to the remainder of the album and "Drop Dead Legs" ended up becoming of his all-time favorite Van Halen songs.  I've always believed that any Van Halen is good Van Halen (I'm like Switzerland on the whole Dave/Sammy debate, I don't take sides), and thought the whole Gary Cherone thing would be awesome (unfortunately, it wasn't).  So this may be the last we speak of "1984," but I thought you deserved to know.....)
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