Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Van Halen- Fair Warning

When critics discuss Van Halen, they usually focus on their self-titled debut or the multi-platinum juggernaut of 1984. This makes a lot of sense, because those records sum up everything that was great about Van Halen. The riffs, the songs, and the attitude were perfectly in place. Both records established the myth that Van Halen was America’s greatest party band. However, one record nearly destroyed the band’s carefully constructed good-time image.

The early Van Halen records follow an arc. Van Halen I and II show a young, hungry rock band desperate for stardom. The songs are carefree, energetic and eager to please. On Women and Children First, Van Halen are legitimate rock stars, indulging in all the spoils. A year later, the stardom was beginning to take its toll. Fair Warning shows a band under considerable strain. It is not so much an album, but a war between two dominant personalities.

The tension between David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen has always been the force behind Van Halen. Their partnership follows an age-old rock n’ roll cliché: The extroverted showman and the guitarist with mystique. Roth and Eddie were able to keep the peace for three albums, but by Fair Warning they were jockeying for position.

Eddie’s intense solo in the beginning of “Mean Street,” sets the tone for the entire album. If “Eruption” was a cocky kid showing off his revolutionary style, then “Mean Street” is the mature musician who is confident in his ability. The solo is only a few bars, but the message is clear: “This is my band!”

Eddie’s guitar is the most dominant trait on Fair Warning. Roth attempts to rise above it with his usual chatty banter, but Eddie’s guitar chops him down to earth with a blast of distortion. Eddie’s guitar solos are still technically brilliant, but are much more focused. The signature hammer-ons, pull-offs and two hand tapping are structured so every note means something.

Eddie’s tougher guitar sound gives way to tougher songs. David Lee Roth tries hard to keep up his heavy metal lounge singer persona, but it seems transparent. “Dirty Movies” is the most obvious example of this. On an earlier record, this song would have been a joyous ode to adult entertainment. On Fair Warning, Diamond Dave is clearly getting sick of hotel room VCRs loaded with the finest in silicone based cinema.

Fair Warning’s greatest moment comes in the middle. If “Unchained” is not the best song Van Halen ever recorded, it is certainly the heaviest. It is the one moment on the album where Eddie and Dave come together. Eddie’s riff tries to subdue Dave, but Dave’s personality finally breaks through with a triumphant “ALLLLRIIIIGHT!” When Dave says that line, you can imagine him jumping off a drum riser. It is the most vivid moment of the Roth era.

Fair Warning is the lost album of the David Lee Roth era. It is an album of anger, resentment and weariness sandwiched between albums about pretty women and dancing in the street. Fair Warning gave us the real Van Halen, not the myth that we all wanted to see. This was Van Halen unchained.

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