Van Halen’s Top 10 Under-Appreciated Songs

In 2015, Rolling Stone ran a piece entitled 20 Insanely Great Van Halen Songs Only Hardcore Fans Know.

At this point in life, I don’t begrudge anybody’s appreciation of the Sammy Hagar-era albums. I don’t even care if you happen to love Van Halen III featuring Gary Cherone. Just don’t confuse that music with the true genius of Van Halen and The First Six Albums – which I’ll get to in a minute.

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There are four tiers of Van Halen Appreciation:

Level 4 – Casual Fan

  • Familiar with the band’s biggest hits, c.g. “Jump!”
  • Can be forgiven for thinking David Lee Roth’s name is actually Van Halen
  • Unaware that a cassette copy of Women and Children First is wedged between the wall and the water heater in their parents’ basement

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Level 3 – Invested Supporter

  • Owns at least one of the six DLR-era records and 5150
  • Briefly took guitar lessons specifically to learn the finger-tapped sections of “Eruption” – gave up when left hand started cramping
  • Was upset when DLR left the band and ambivalent about Sammy Hagar, but whatever
  • Knows that Eddie Van Halen played the solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”
  • Can probably hum said “Beat It” solo
  • Did a double-take when they replaced Michael Anthony with Wolfgang
  • Listened to one track from A Different Kind of Truth and said “no thanks”

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Level 2 – Bandwagon Chump

  • Owns at least three of the First Six and has most of Van Halen I in current rotation
  • Owns at least two Sammy Hagar-era records, most likely 5150 and OU812
  • Didn’t flinch when DLR left the band and stayed on-board with Sammy
  • Probably spit out their Monster energy drink when they heard Gary fuckin’ Cherone – the cat from Extreme, Gary “More Than Words” Cherone, was the new lead singer of their most beloved and mighty party band from Southern California
  • Genuinely enjoys the complete bullshit of Van Hagar foisted on the listening public
  • Refers to the band as Van Hagar, depending upon which version is being discussed
  • Most likely plays a stringed instrument

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Level 1 – Freak

  • Owns all of The First Six and has them in current rotation on every listening device
  • Owns none of the succeeding albums with the tequila guy, but has several different versions of the Warner Bros’ demo tapes recorded with Gene Simmons
  • Has heard Van Halen III with Gary Cherone exactly ONE TIME
  • Has David Lee Roth’s isolated vocal tracks from “Runnin’ with the Devil” set as ringtone notifications on smart phone devices (courtesy of Soundboard)
  • Can rank The First Six by personal preference and provide reasons and examples to support their opinion
  • Has seen the classic line-up live at least once
  • Read DLR’s autobiography, Crazy From the Heat, and wished it was about 500 pages longer

Under-rated or Under-Appreciated? The First Six Albums

I’m a Level 1 Freak, but there is very little about the band that you could call “under-rated”, especially when you factor Sammy Hagar in the mix. When applied to the complete VH oeuvre, “over-rated” would be a far more accurate assessment than anything else.

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The six classic albums with David Lee Roth have sold 50+ million copies. Is it not safe to say the masses have dutifully shown their appreciation?

While these records – Van Halen I, II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, Diver Down, and 1984, i.e. The First Six – may contain a bunch of hits and a couple of misses, it’s hard to say we, as an audience, missed anything VH had to offer. This is especially true after DLR left the band, and, sadly, once he returned.

Nothing will ever touch Van Halen I, and it’s remarkable they managed to put out five more consistently entertaining records which may have paled in comparison but still touched all the right nerves for the fans.

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The classic DLR albums are also the only Van Halen records I’m interested in discussing at length. All great bands have a certain “prime” or “shelf-life”, and VH is no exception.

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Having said that, there are quite a few songs in the The First Six pantheon that most fans are familiar with but for whatever reason, forget about when it comes time to make a VH playlist.

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Of course, you’re gonna stack it with “Unchained”, “Panama”, “Runnin’ with the Devil” – the smash hits. However, don’t fail to look between the hits of those respective albums. That’s where you’ll find some of the band’s best work.

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For example, Fair Warning is the worst-selling of The First Six, but many hardcore fans consider it the best VH record, if you could possibly say that anything tops the debut album – and it doesn’t. Diver Down was completely trashed when it came out. But that shit aged very, very well.

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Right here. This is where we stop listening to Van Halen. They never got any better than “Hot for Teacher”. And for chrissakes, that’s enough. If they had never put out another song, they’d still be the best and most entertaining American hard rock act of the 1970s and early ’80s.

The Top 10 Most Under-Appreciated Songs

EDITOR’S NOTE: The four tracks listed here which also appear on the Rolling Stone listicle are marked with an *.

10. “Outta Love Again” – from Van Halen II

This is one of those songs that consistently comes up on random shuffle and I say, Oh yeah! I forgot about this fuckin’ jam. Anyway, the band is insanely tight on this cut. Give it a listen.

9. “Little Guitars” – from Diver Down

Diver Down is the most maligned and often overlooked record in the VH oeuvre, perhaps for good reason. Critics have called it “possibly the laziest record ever made” and you can’t argue with facts:

  • 5 of 12 tracks are cover songs
  • At least one of those covers “Dancing in the Streets” is one of the few shitty things VH/DLR ever did
  • The band has repeatedly stated they were pressured into making the record; hence, the rushed quality

On the positive side, Diver Down contains a handful of genuinely fantastic and overlooked songs – “The Full Bug” and “Hang ‘em High” could also easily be on this list. However, “Little Guitars” is the complete package.

8. “Dirty Movies” * – from Fair Warning

I’m just gonna go ahead and print the lyrics here:

Now who’s that babe with the fabulous shadow?
It’s only one scene, but to me it don’t matter
Her movies get down like you won’t find in my hometown
They won’t believe it when they see what they’re seein’
Go see baby now!
Pictures on the silver screen
Greatest thing you’ve ever seen
Now her name is up in lights
Everything turns out all right
Daddy’s little sweetie after some damn rainbow
Got the big deal in the back of a limo
Now showbiz is so thrillin’, the camera rolls she’s willin’
They won’t believe it when they see what they’re seein’
Go see baby now!
Hey, you remember when that girl was prom queen?
Oh wow! Take it off! Take it all off!
Pictures on the silver screen
Greatest thing you’ve ever seen
Now her name is up in lights
Everything turns out all right
Now they believe it, now that they’ve seen it
Go see baby now!
Pictures on the silver screen
Greatest thing you’ve ever seen
Now my baby’s up in lights
Everything turns out all right
Lights! Camera! Action!

7. “On Fire” – from Van Halen I

Of all The First Six, the debut album is the most scrutinized and beloved, and the only record that Levels 3 and 4 would play start-to-finish. It’s basically a toss-up between this jam and “Little Dreamer” in terms of under-appreciation. However, if there was a weak link on Van Halen I – and I’m not saying there is – it would probably be “Little Dreamer”.

Conversely, “On Fire” is just that: On fucking fire! and I challenge any hard rock band – punk and/or otherwise – to show me something that’s as hard-charging as this fuckin’ cut.

6. “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” * – from Diver Down

The band was no stranger to hokey Americana prior to Diver Down (“Ice Cream Man” and “Could This Be Magic?”) but this is the song where they fuckin’ nailed a certain wholesome exuberance. Plus, it’s got that sweet story about the Van Halen brothers’ old man playing clarinet on the cut.

However, I remember people rolling their eyes when they heard this cut. Fuck them. Still sounds great.

5. “Drop Dead Legs” * – from 1984

The one and only time I got to see the band was in March 1984 at the Rosemont Horizon. They opened with “Unchained” and absolutely crushed the set. It was glorious. However, I was so fuckin’ disappointed they didn’t play this jam, especially cuz they played “House of Pain”, which is a vastly inferior cut.

4. “Light Up the Sky” – from Van Halen II

If I were a Warner Bros. A&R dude in 1978 and the band delivered me Van Halen II, I would have picked “Light Up the Sky” as the first single – and “Beautiful Girls” is one of my Top 5 favorite songs of all-time. This track just fuckin’ explodes out of the speakers.

3. “Romeo Delight” – from Women and Children First

Some see Women and Children First as the beginning of the end – the start of the band’s creative decline. I say “bullshit.” While it had a couple of radio jams (“…And the Cradle Will Rock” and “Everybody Wants Some!”), the rest of the album got lost in the mush. NOBODY knows this fuckin’ “Romeo Delight” jam. You should put it on a playlist just to have it come up and school the first person who says, “Is this Van Halen? What fuckin’ record is it on? Jesus!

2. “Secrets” * – from Diver Down

What a beautiful song. Dave is actually doin’ some singin’. I always wondered why you never heard it on the radio.

1. “Top Jimmy” – from 1984

1984 is without question the band’s pinnacle of success and most polished effort. “Top Jimmy” is by far the band’s most under-rated song.

First of all, the fuckin’ riffs. It’s chock full of vintage Eddie: harmonics, pick slides, and whammy bar wiggles. And then, POW! Right into a cocaine-fueled boogie march that keeps ascending toward the ceiling before spiraling back to the carpet.

Meanwhile, there’s a great story behind the lyrics.

Honorable Mentions:

Little Dreamer
Sinners Swing!
The Full Bug
Hang ‘em High
In a Simple Rhyme
Women in Love
Could This Be Magic?

 

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