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Backyard parties and unbridled genius: the story of Van Halen's early years

Van Halen in 1978
(Image credit: Lynn Goldsmith / Getty Images)

Before they became the Van Halen of fame, the brothers Van Halen, Dave Roth and Michael Anthony were all fixtures on the music scene in and around Pasadena, California. 

Eddie and Alex played in the same groups including The Broken Combs, Genesis, and Mammoth, while Dave was making little headway with his own Red Ball Jets, and Michael was with a group called Snake.

This is the story of those years, told by those who were there. 

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Eddie Van Halen: Broken Combs was the very first; Alex played saxophone and I played piano. This was in fourth or fifth grade. 

Alex Van Halen: I played tenor sax, Don Ferris played alto sax and Brian and Kevan Hill played drums and an Eminee guitar, and Ed played piano. 

Kevan Hill (former bandmate): That was in ’63 to ’65, and it was Alex, Ed, my brother and myself. Their dad was a trained musician and got them into it so young. His mother made us things to eat and gave us imported candy bars. I remember their house was on a big lot, but it was small. I think it was a one-bedroom house. 

The mother and the father had the bedroom. We had our band [Broken Combs] set up in their living room. Next to the piano we had a snare and a cymbal. Then we had our first set of drums. It made us look like a band; little kids hitting metal together. 

Robin 'Rudy' Leiran (Eddie Van Halen's guitar tech): The first time I saw them there they were playing at an assembly at Marshall Junior High School. This is when they were Genesis. I was blown away. They were playing Cream and all the stuff on the radio. I remember watching Edward – at this time it was Edward, Alex, and Mark Stone, the original bass player – and Edward stuck out in particular. I remember thinking to myself: “This guy is going to become famous”. 

Here he was, a kid my age, up there on stage, playing everything note-for-note, playing the Clapton riffs note-for-note. I was awed. The next time I saw them they were playing at a dance at PHS [Pasadena High School]. Lots of girls… And that was pretty much the diet – when you wanted to go out and look for girls, you asked where Genesis was playing. 

Martin Clarke (friend): I went to grade school with Ed at Marshall Junior and then at Pasadena High. We played handball every single day. This was seventh grade, and by then he was already practicing Hendrix and Cream every day in the local church basement. There were some early bands, like Genesis and Mammoth, doing backyard parties every weekend. 

They played at Bill Balasco’s house in the living room all the time. We’d drink beers and smoke pot. We had an English class together with Miss Azalena. She was a foxy teacher. She wore short dresses and would sit on her desk. I think that’s where the song [Hot For Teacher, on Van Halen’s 1984] came from.

We got busted for pot by Mr Purdie, the high-school principal. It was at an assembly. Somebody snitched, and he came down the middle of the aisle and and frisked us and found a joint in Eddie’s pocket. That’s how he got kicked out of Marshall. Then they started playing those backyard scenes, and eventually made it to Hollywood. All the Pasadena people supported him a lot.

Robin 'Rudy' Leiran: Dave [Lee Roth] came into the band and they changed it to Mammoth. And then there was another band called Mammoth, so in order to avoid the whole thing, Edward and Alex wanted it to be called Rat Salade. I believe it was Dave’s idea originally to call it Van Halen. 

Alex Van Halen: When we found Dave we auditioned at every club there was: Gazarri’s, the Starwood, Walter Mitty’s, Boomers, the Rock Corporation, Barnacle Bill’s… The band was now called Van Halen. It was Roth’s idea. And I almost said no, because I didn’t want to be conceited. We had been playing schools and doing dances, and we didn’t have a PA, and there were a couple of rival bands. 

Roth was in a band called Red Ball Jet, and Ed and I couldn’t stand the motherfucker – we couldn’t stand the band, we couldn’t stand the music. But I realised Ed could not be the singer. When Red Ball Jet didn’t have a gig, I would approach Roth about renting his PA. I’d give him $10. This went on for a few months. I said to Ed: “Rather than paying Roth $10 every time we rent his stuff, why not just get him in the band?” 

At that time Roth was a very cocky guy; he had long blond hair and chest hair and he walked around with a certain confidence. I figured his singing would improve as the years went along. Because I’ll tell ya, the guy couldn’t sing for shit. Seriously. He compensated for it by being the outspoken, loudmouth, and different-looking person. We called Dave to come over and audition, and I was completely and thoroughly appalled. Ed and Mark left the room, and I had to tell Dave this was no good. 

I gave him another shot; I gave him songs to work on and come back in a week. He came back, and it sounded like pure hell. The intonation was completely out of whack, the timing was completely off, and it was an abysmal failure. I remember one song was Still Alive And Well, by the old Winter boys, and it was bad. I told him he didn’t make the audition, and he walked off in a huff and a puff and that was it. 

Then we were doing a show at Pasadena High School – our first real full-fledged, big-stage production. Into the picture steps Michael Anthony, whose band named Snake – they were opening for us – had a PA. Our PA blows up, and he offered us the use of his. That’s how we first met Mike. He was a really energetic performer and had a great voice, although I didn’t care for the rest of his band. So we got together with Dave, Michael Soboleski [as Michael Anthony was known] at that time, Ed and me and we rehearsed and right off the bat we hit it off.

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Pasadena was not big enough to contain Van Halen – the band. Although they were still appearing at the infamous ‘keg’ parties, slowly the group started getting bookings to play shows outside their local area.

Mike Wolf (Local musician): I saw them play at a backyard party in Azusa. They used to put out these fliers that said: ‘Three kegs… Van Halen… $2.50 donation.’ They just switched the name [to Van Halen]. They had flash bombs, some on top of the PA cabinets, and they’d always be going off. They had these car horns that Alex triggered with foot switches. Edward had this bomb and put his Echoplex in there and he’d walk over and fool with that. 

Ron (Bongiovi) Masterjohn (Fan): They used to play in a place called the Handlebar Saloon in Pasadena – a restaurant and bar/club kinda joint; sawdust on the floor. It had a stage that was only as big as a kitchen table, but Van Halen would play there and pack the place. Then they played the Pasadena Civic Center and packed the joint. 

David Lee Roth: For a long time before the big record company discovered us we were just doing our natural selves, and everybody was screaming: “No, you can’t play this bar, that’s the wrong kind of music”. “No, you can’t wear that haircut”… And we had a little saying, coming from Southern California, when you get pressure like that, and the people start nailing you to limitations and everything. It’s a very old folk saying, and it’s two words: fuck ’em.

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It was later, when the band moved west and started playing clubs in Hollywood, that the true Van Halen mythology was created.

Bill Gazzari (Club owner): They called for an audition. And every Sunday we had the Battle Of The Bands Showcase where we would hear seven or eight bands and they would do one set. This started back in ’64, The Doors auditioning, and Iron Butterfly and all of those. In Van Halen’s case, we hadn’t called them back right away, so David placed a call. I said we could bring them in one night, and they’d be the opening band for two other bands. So they came in, and they were pretty good. ‘They needed a little more work’, was the way I classified it. 

I talked with David, because he did most of the business. And he was polite, which was a rarity in rock’n’roll. In the three years that they played here, they played two and three weeks at a time, then they started headlining. Then they would headline at least two weeks a month, five nights a week, and in some cases three weeks a month. 

Eddie Van Halen: [Gazarri’s] was a breakthrough, yes. You know, I got kicked out of clubs for playing too psychedelic. We had to audition there at least three or four times. A guy would come running up in the middle of a song because I was too loud. But I didn’t play that loud deliberately, the amp only sounded like an amp if it was all the way up. So I did everything – from keeping the plastic cover on it, to facing it against the walls, to putting styrofoam padding in front of the speakers. 

Ron (Bongiovi) Masterjohn: Eddie was doing stuff no one else was doing on the guitar – so fat, and so much bottom end, that all he needed to happen was what did happen – they hit it big. People responded to David Roth differently. Females that saw him could not stand him. And neither could the guys. He was the Jim Dandy, Robert Plant wannabe in his black leather vest and pants, sweating like a mule on and off stage. Loud and repulsive. I would hear girls say: “He is gross”. 

You didn’t see Ed and Dave between sets talking much or hanging out together. Alex and Michael and Dave would come out and see bands in the VIP area more than Eddie would; Roth would mingle more than the others. The other three would hang out in the dressing room quite a bit. I personally did not see any drugs and not much alcohol in the VH dressing room. Basically, they were not rude or stuck up, just kinda quiet and kept to themselves. 

One night I was at the top of the stairs to the stage at the Starwood, and I said to David Roth, while Eddie was doing the solo Eruption: “Eddie is an incredible player.” And Dave responded, saying very nicely to me in that raspy voice: “Yeah, I spend six hours reading comic books before I go to bed, and Eddie will spend six hours playing guitar before going to bed."

Kim Fowley (Manager of The Runaways and self-proclaimed legend): I first saw the group at Gazarri’s, where I met David and he told me for a full hour how this was the ultimate band in the world and how all four members had tremendous reasons for being in it. And he went on to give elaborations of the other three – even over himself, which I thought was pretty unique. 

I remember we had the conversation on the flagstones in front of the parking lot. Somewhere around this time, around ’77, maybe ’78, I was producing a group called The Runaways. And they told me about this song called Runnin’ With The Devil, and they said it was a good song.

Rodney Bingenheimer (Hollywood scenester): My friend and I went to Gazarri’s to see Van Halen one night, and the crowd was just incredible – a lot of girls. I always thought that bands who had a lot of girls going crazy were gonna make it big. I used to see them setting up. I’d say: “You should come over to the Starwood.” And Eddie would say: “No, we like it here. Bill [Gazarri] treats us so well.” And I said they should get more happening. 

Then they finally said: “Yeah, maybe you’re right.” I spoke to this guy Ray who was at the Starwood at the time and he said: “Well, I don’t know. We’ve never heard of Van Halen, and they’re a Gazarri’s band.” 

Back then, if a band was labeled as a Gazarri’s band, they never played outside of Gazarri’s. But I said: “Yeah, but these guys attract a lot of beer drinkers.” And he said maybe they’d give it a shot. So we got them into the Starwood. After a few times, I brought Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley down to see them. The rest is history.

Gene Simmons (Kiss frontman/bassist): I was invited in 1977 to go see a band called The Boyzz play at the Starwood, by, I believe, Rodney Bingenheimer. They were the headlining act. But I never got to see them, because the first act up was a group called Van Halen – which I thought was the dumbest name I ever heard. I thought it was like Van Heusen, a shirt company. I thought the name really blew, they won’t go anywhere. 

The first thing I thought was Dave looked like Jim Dandy, and they had kind of an old-fashioned look. But within two numbers I thought: “My fucking god, listen to these guys!” I was waiting for them in their dressing room and when they got back there, I pulled Eddie and David aside and said, “Look, I’d like to help because I think you guys can make it. I’m not stroking you, I’m not interested in doing anything for myself, but I love your band and I’d like to help you.” 

There was this fat guy sitting in the room, who was a yogurt manufacturer and about to put money into them. I told them I’d advance them some money, they didn’t have to pay me back, but don’t let anybody put money into the band because you’ll never own anything. I said if they’ll give me two weeks, I’ll take them into the studio. I wanted a cassette of everything they had. They even played me [live] things like Ice Cream Man, which I was not crazy about. 

We went into Village Recorders, and they were signed to my company, Man Of A Thousand Faces. What amazed me was when we got into the studio, Eddie got a lot of his effects direct. Where you usually get the effects after, from the board, he had the effects down pat, so all you had to do, basically, was mic it. He really knew what he was doing. 

After we did 13 tracks, I flew them to New York, got them into Electric Lady studios and finished off the tape. It cost about $6,500. And then the group I was in – and still am – had to go back out on tour three weeks afterwards. I told them I’d try to get them a deal right away, and if I couldn’t they’d be free to do whatever they wanted to. The first person I showed it to was my manager, Bill Aucoin, and he said: “They don’t stand a chance”. It was at that point that I realised my manager didn’t have it, and I left.

Billy Squier (Piper): Gene Simmons wanted to sign Van Halen but Bill didn’t want to. I didn’t know Ed, because I lived in New York and he lived in LA. I didn’t even meet Eddie until the 1984 album. Eddie is a genius. 

Gene Simmons: I remember taking the guys into New York and telling them they couldn’t walk around in sneakers if they want to try out for the labels. So I got them leather pants and boots. But to make a long story short, I couldn’t get any interest so I tore up the contract, told them they were free, and told them to go get a deal. And boom, [Ted] Templeman came down and saw the same thing. 

Dave Meniketti (Y&T): They got signed the night they played with us at the Starwood. They opened up for us, man. We were signed to London Records. Our following and their following was virtually 50/50, because they had, like, the biggest following of the local bands at that time, and we had a big following because we had been playing down there a lot [Y&T were based in northern California] and we were signed. 

We played a weekend at the Starwood, and they opened up for us there and the last night was when the guy from Warners [Ted Templeman] came out and signed ’em. We had a great time together. I liked him [Eddie]. I didn’t notice his playing being a helluva lot different than what a lot of other people were doing at the time. But when he was hittin’ on the guitar kind of thing, the two-handed playing, in that regard he had his own thing going. But he didn’t do that all the time back then. 

And Dave was Dave back then, the star before he was a star. Immediately, the first thing that hit every one of us and there was no doubt about it: Jim Dandy to the rescue here on ol’ David Lee Roth. The long, straight blond hair, the dirty raps in-between songs, the tight pants cut down to his crotch. I’d seen Black Oak Arkansas, like, five times, whether I wanted to or not; they were always opening up for somebody I wanted to see. And what happened was, nobody remembered those guys [Black Oak] by the time Van Halen came out. 

Alex Van Halen: We started playing the Starwood and the Whisky sort of simultaneously and doing original songs, and we were doing You Really Got Me. And again, it started off slow. So, it’s a Sunday night at the Starwood, with maybe 10 people there. The word got out, and Ted and Mo [Ostin, Warner Bros. president] came down and were knocked out by the way Ed played. And the next day we signed. 

When we did sign, Ted wanted Sammy Hagar to be the lead singer. He waited three or four years before telling us this. Had he said something there and then, he might have changed the course of history. We were babes in the woods, and we signed the worst deal possible with Warner Bros. We had an attorney, and he cut the worst deal for us you could imagine. 

The first record sold a lot. And after touring 11 months a year for two years, plus having two platinum albums, we owed Warner Bros close to two million dollars. 

Eddie Van Halen: We didn’t have a whole lot to say about much of anything [on the first album]. The songs basically got recorded the way we played ’em live; very few overdubs. I guess it was Ted’s idea to make it come off as pure and simple and honest as it was live

Alex Van Halen: We took a very simple approach to the whole thing; it was not as if we’d sit down and write a song it was: “Let’s go and play.” Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love came together in about five minutes. Ed had the music, Roth would sing to it, and if it was good we’d keep it. And Ted was the final tuner. There’s not a single record that we made where Roth sang a song from beginning to end. That’s why he had such a hard time playing live, because he can’t do it. He wanted to be a movie star instead of making music. 

David Lee Roth: Look, I ain’t no Caruso, okay? But I could damn well get in there with our producer, Teddy Templeman, who’s one of the finest, and go over the same line 55 times for you and get it musically perfect. But you never heard that on the Van Halen record, because I don’t want it. 

Michael Anthony: The first album was weird. I hated the sound I got on that, with the exception of Jamie’s Cryin’ where I used a pick. Templeman was infatuated with Edward’s guitar playing and really made that known. 

I acquired this nickname of Cannonmouth. A lot of our harmonies we sang live out of one mic, and Edward and Dave would be right on the mic and I’d be all the way in the back of the room against the wall. Not to really slam Ted, but I wish he would have worked more with me, too. Ed was really natural. The nervousness was gone and he just played. I felt a bit [intimidated] by Ed, but playing with them was natural. 

I had to simplify a lot of things so Edward could go off and do his thing. But there was never any jealousy. I had a great time. Ted was Roth’s mentor when it came to lyrics and melodies for the vocals. For the most part, Dave had a few licks down that he did over and over, so Templeman was in there and tried to suggest different lines. And I would always sing a harmony to that, a third harmony. 

That was a big thing that set us apart from other heavy metal bands, because you had one singer sort of screaming away all the time and it [harmonies] made the album more than just a hard rock band with a lead singer screaming his head off.

Alex Van Halen: On the first album, if I was in the middle of a take and Ed told me I was rushing or slowing, I’d tell him he was out of tune. He’d throw the guitar down but… neither of us ever drew blood when we did that record. I was so busy thinking about my personal performance and sound that I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to what everybody else was going through. 

I’m sure he had things on his mind that bothered him, and I’m sure Mike did too. And since Roth only sang one line at a time I guess it didn’t make a hell of a lot of difference to him. I was originally not happy with the first record. It was great material, and at one point – and I’m sorry to say this, Donn [Landee, engineer] – but at one point he did not have all the mics plugged in properly and one of my kick drums was not on. 

So I’m playing kind of this intricate thing on the kick drums but nobody can hear it. I’m serious. That’s on I’m The One. Donn apologised and I accepted his apology. What’s there is there and that’s it. There’s nothing you can do about it now. Still, we did that album in seven days.

Eddie Van Halen: Ted heard me practising Eruption for a Whisky show while I was waiting, and he asked: “What’s that?” I just didn’t think it would be something we’d put on a record. He liked it, Donn liked it, and everyone else agreed that we should throw it on. I played it two or three times for the record, and we kept the one which seemed to flow. I like the way it sounds; I’ve never heard a guitar sound like it. It’s not that my playing was so great, it just sounds like some classical instrument. Donn really made it sound like more than it is, in a way. 

Loss Of Control, which ended up on Women And Children First [VH’s third album, in 1980], was recorded for the first album. We wrote Loss Of Control and Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love at the same time. We were actually making fun of punk rockers – Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love was actually a stupid thing to us, just two chords. It didn’t end up sounding punk, but that was the intention. 

David Lee Roth: On the first album, we went to the edge and we looked down. 

Eddie Van Halen: Before we went into the studio to do the first album, we did a demo tape for Warner Bros. with Ted and Donn. There were 30 songs on it, and afterwards we picked songs from those for the first album. But after we did that demo tape we came up with other songs, like Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love. That and Jamie’s Cryin’ weren’t on the original demo. 

Richard McKernan (Second engineer at Sunset Sound): Their musicianship was incredible and they were the greatest guys. It’s a band that loves their music and they show it. Those guys came in and started playing and I started rolling tape. They’re pretty fast. 

Of all the big name groups I’ve worked with, they’re probably the quickest and easiest to record. I think that’s what actually makes them a step ahead of everybody else, because they don’t spend a long time in the studio. They cut what they feel, and if it feels right they put it out. There are bands like Toto who spend a year-and-a-half doing overdubs and stuff like that to perfect it. 

Donn was a real quiet, shy type of guy. He’s a real perfectionist and an incredible engineer. There are a lot of engineers in this town, and his scope of engineering goes far beyond most. That explains a lot why Eddie takes a liking to him – the superiority Eddie has on the guitar, Donn has in the studio.

Van Halen in 1978

(Image credit: David Tan/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Eddie Van Halen: Donn and I work together at structuring things. We understand each other well. To the point where the way he makes things sound is basically the way I hear things in my head. 

David Lee Roth: Edward used different ways of playing the guitar, taking the same old six-string instrument and fuckin’ it all up. He saws his guitars into pieces and then glues them back together and gets these strange sounds out of them. Then he figures out a way to play it differently, by putting his fingers over here instead of there, and by twisting this and turning this down and breaking this off or whatever, and he’s always coming up with new ways of playing the instrument. 

Eddie Van Halen: A couple of guys from Angel were friends, acquaintances. One day – I forget where we were, it might have been the Rainbow – I was braggin’ about our album, saying: “Hey, this is bad. You ought to listen to this,” because they had been talking about their new stuff. So we went up to [drummer] Barry Brandt’s house, and they were all blown away by the album. They were all listening very carefully to this and that, and I left there feeling real good and proud. 

The next morning Ted Templeman called me up and said: “Did you play that tape for anybody?” And I said: “Yeah, I played it for all kinds of people.” He was pissed. I didn’t know, nobody told me not to play it for anyone. I guess they figured I knew. And he said: “You asshole. Why did you do that?” Because through the grapevine, Ted heard that Angel went into the studio and was trying to put out a single of You Really Got Me before us. 

So we released it as soon as possible – even before the album was out, I think. We had performed that song live for years. When we recorded demo tapes with Ted and Donn, that was actually the last song we did. Ted said then: “Well, you got anything else?” And we said: “Well, we’ve got some cover tunes.” He said: “Play ’em.” It kind of bummed me out that Ted wanted our first single to be someone else’s tune. I would have maybe picked Jamie’s Cryin, just because it was our own. 

David Lee Roth: You take something like You Really Got Me and that’s a terrific song, no doubt about it. But when I listen to it on the old single, it sounds like a bi-plane. Van Halen took it and streamlined it and made it into a jet. 

Alex Van Halen: It’s a strange thing to describe, but from the beginning Ed and I knew what we wanted to do and we put everything into it. Countless times our parents would say get a job, get out of bed – because we’d be working until three or four in the morning. And the only thing I think that made our parents really tolerate us was that they could sense something there.

This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 87, in November 2005.