Straight outta Pasadena, Van Halen were America's ultimate party band, monstrously entertaining and gleefully ambitious, a classically Californian quartet formed by two Dutch immigrants. They also happened to revolutionise rock music.
When the band’s debut album was released on February 10, 1978 – on the same day as that other late-70s game changer, Judas Priest's Stained Class – singer David Lee Roth was typically hyperbolic. “This is the 1980s!” he boasted, keen to show just how far ahead of the pack his band was. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”
The key to that new sound was the genius of Eddie Van Halen, whose extraordinarily fleet-fingered playing created a template that's still in use today. Allied to his band's thrilling, fuel-injected anthems – and a liberal sprinkling of effervescent covers – Van Halen's songs were the soundtrack to a life lived more loudly.
Here are 50 of the best.
50. Dance The Night Away
Dance The Night Away was reportedly inspired by Fleetwood Mac’s Go Your Own Way, and indeed, the song is one of the few pure pop tunes of the Dave Lee Roth era. As such, the emphasis is heavily on the vocals and chorus harmonies (the title refrain was originally ‘Dance Lolita Dance’, until Roth was convinced otherwise). Although Eddie’s guitar is uncharacteristically restrained (no solo!), he still contributes some stellar harmonics work and a classic major-chord riff.
49. Best Of Both Worlds
This 5150 track, featuring a wide-open cowboy chord riff that sounds like AC/DC playing Kool & The Gang’s Celebration, is one of the most well-known songs of the Sammy Hagar era. A live version, lifted from the 1986 Live Without A Net home video, was a minor hit on MTV, allowing viewers who couldn’t make it to the show the opportunity to witness Sam, Ed and Mike march in line formation – and Day-Glo trousers – across the concert stage.
48. Top Of The World
Does that opening riff sound a little familiar? That’s because it’s more or less the same one Ed played almost a decade earlier on the fadeout to 1984’s Jump. Legend has it that Eddie didn’t want Top Of The World included on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, preferring to focus on fresher material. Producer Andy Johns convinced him otherwise, but not before Eddie could pull out another blast from the past – he recorded the song using the ’58 Gibson Flying V he played on another 1984 hit, Hot For Teacher.
The massive guitar sound on this track is the result of Eddie overdubbing three rhythm guitar parts: his main six-string, and two tracks of electric 12-string, for which he played a custom model built by English guitar-maker Roger Giffin. Combined with the cascades of guitar harmonics that ring throughout, a white-hot solo spot and an intro played with the assistance of a Makita power drill, Poundcake announced that EVH was still a major guitar force to be reckoned with.
46. Dancing In The Street
Eddie played this song’s riff on a Minimoog synthesizer processed with the same echo effect he used on Cathedral (also from Diver Down) – “two songs I couldn’t have done without an echo,” he admitted. “The riff was taken from a song of my own that I was in the midst of writing. Ted [Templeman, producer] heard it and said, ‘Hey, let’s use it for Dancing In The Street.’ Maybe if I played it on guitar on the record it would have been better.”
45. She's The Woman
After recording three demo versions – an early self-produced take, one with Gene Simmons in 1976 and another with Ted Templeman in 1977 – Van Halen finally released an official studio version of She’s The Woman on their 2012 album A Different Kind of Truth. Since Eddie had already lifted the original solo section and used it in Mean Street, he wrote a new one that, in addition to the intro’s cool chromatic bass figure, really allowed his son, bassist Wolfgang, to strut his stuff.
44. One Foot Out The Door
Fair Warning’s closing track was reportedly recorded on the quick, when the band literally had one foot out the door of the studio. Built on an ominous, burbling synth line carried over from the album’s previous track, the instrumental Sunday Afternoon In The Park, the song is a bare-bones rocker that fl ies by in a mere 1:58. Even better, more than half of that time is taken up by a furious EVH solo.
43. Why Can't This Be Love
Released in March 1986 as the first single from 5150, Why Can’t This Be Love was for most people the first music heard from the Sammy Hagar-led Van Halen. And indeed, the song’s bright, bouncy and downright pop sound, which features Eddie playing an Oberheim OB-8 synth, made it clear that, yeah, they were serious about that keyboard thing. How serious, you ask? When Van Halen performed this song live in the 80s, Eddie would often stick to the keys and leave the guitar rhythms – and solo – to Sammy.
42. Finish What Ya Started
With its twangy finger-picked guitar lines, dry drums and lyrics about unsatisfying sex (dreamt up by Sammy Hagar in a 2am session, after Eddie brought him a riff he’d just written), Finish What Ya Started is easily the most un-Van Halen song in the band’s catalogue. At times it’s near impossible to reconcile the suave, almost countrified infl ections and bright acoustic strumming with the group behind such beefy, all-the-way-to-eleven anthems as Hot For Teacher, Unchained, Panama etc. “Preposterous!” you’ll cry, just as you realise you’ve been humming the chorus for the last week…
Tattoo is based on an early Van Halen tune titled Down In Flames that was slated to appear on Van Halen II. Instead it emerged – with new lyrics, solo and other pieces – 34 years later as the leadoff single from A Different Kind Of Truth. The result is a comfortable and welcome link between Van Halen past and present. And take note of the guitar swells at the song’s coda, which did actually make it onto Van Halen II – as the intro to that album’s You’re No Good.
40. (Oh) Pretty Woman
Eddie came up with the idea to record a cover version of this early 60s Roy Orbison hit when Van Halen’s record label pressured them for a single after the Fair Warning tour. Eddie liked its riff, but much to his chagrin, the song became the band’s biggest hit, despite being one of only two Van Halen songs to that date without a guitar solo. “It shows you how much guitar solos mean to people,” he lamented later.
39. Hang 'Em High
The Warner Bros demo track Last Night had to wait five years before it made the cut for Diver Down, trading its lame lyrics about a suspicious boyfriend for one of Diamond Dave’s obtuse fables of danger and machismo. The reworked track is far more interesting, but Eddie’s solo was almost identical in both versions, right down to the midsolo key change, hammer-on trills and whammy workout.
After hearing the rapid-fire double-stops and massive cascading drums that fill the first full minute of 5150, you’ll wonder why Van Halen didn’t just carry on as an instrumental trio after the departure of Dave Lee Roth. To his credit, Sammy Hagar squeals his highest note ever on the outro, but Eddie’s solo is a stronger musical statement: a glorious 32-bar showcase of pure six-string skills. Let the man play all the synths he wants; this title track is his gift to his guitar fans.
37. Feel Your Love Tonight
During the 80s countless hair metal pop hits copied this song’s formula verbatim, from Roth’s horny lyrics to the guitar-and-vocals-only breakdown during the choruses. However, none of the imitations equalled this song’s lurid depiction of teenage lust, which was effective for inciting young couples into backseat action. Those of us who came of age during the 70s pity today’s teenagers with their Justin Biebers et al. It’s a wonder anyone gets laid these days.
36. Sinner's Swing
That was spontaneous, a first take,” Eddie said. That in-the-moment intensity is clear on the final product, as is some of the Fair Warning in-studio anxiety. An aggravated groove constantly shoves the song forward. Dave’s urgent vocals suggest a lothario on the prowl, and Ed’s frantic, slightly sloppy solo feels more like a panic attack, with rapid-fire tapping and hammer-ons barely constrained by six high-tension wires.
Plenty of guitarists (most notably David Gilmour, The Edge and Albert Lee) had exploited the dotted-eighth-note-echo trick previously, but Eddie gave the effect a new twist by playing his with volume control swells on his guitar. This combined with cavernous reverb, made his guitar sound like an organ. The first of three brief instrumental interludes on Diver Down, Cathedral stands alone as a complete musical piece instead of functioning as an extended song intro.
34. Girl Gone Bad
Dramatic and dynamic, Girl Gone Bad is the closest thing Van Halen ever recorded to a progressive rock epic, with Eddie and Alex interlocking with stunning, nearly psychic precision to create a mammoth wall of sound. Ed’s virtuoso guitar performance is like a condensed encyclopedia of his signature techniques, incorporating chiming harmonics, expansive open-string textures, melodic chord figures, brutal riffs, tremolo picking, tapping, squeals and dive bombs, but his “outside” jazzy flourishes may be the most impressive aspect of his tour de force solo.
33. I'll Wait
Although Jump is the 1984 song commonly credited with igniting the “to-keyboard-or-not-to-keyboard” rift in the VH camp, it was actually I’ll Wait that, as Eddie recounted, David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman “didn’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole”. And indeed, whereas Jump is a guitar-based rocker at heart, I’ll Wait is pure synth-pop, with Alex Van Halen on Rototoms and a co-writer credit for ex-Doobie Brother crooner Michael McDonald to boot.
32. When It's Love
The first song written for OU812 – hearing the music in the car en route from the airport, Sammy Hagar wrote the lyrics before they reached the studio – Eddie called this unabashed power ballad “a classic tune” in 1988. “It’s pretty, it’s heavy, it’s melodic, it’s singalong… it’s just a happening song.” Eddie, who always cited Eric Clapton as a major influence, intended this song’s solo as an overt tribute to Slowhand’s style.
31. I’m The One
At its core I’m The One is a hot-rodded blues boogie tune that provided a springboard for Eddie to show off his impressive shredding chops, with a jazz scat vocal harmony interlude thrown in for comic relief. The true inspiration for Joe Satriani’s Satch Boogie starts here, as Satriani copped everything, from Alex’s thundering double-kick shuffle to Eddie’s ascending triplet runs. Numerous shredders followed suit, but none were able to swing quite like Eddie did here.
30. Where Have All The Good Times Gone?
David Lee Roth once said that Van Halen learned six Kinks songs from a K-Tel greatest-hits album, but this song and You Really Got Me are their only Kinks covers that have surfaced. Considering the dearth of original songs on Diver Down, Van Halen probably should have retitled the song Where Have All Our Good Tunes Gone! but they still managed to deliver a spirited performance even if their revision of this Kinks classic wasn’t as earth shattering as You Really Got Me.
29. Right Now
Eddie wrote this with Joe Cocker in mind, thinking the band might use guest vocalists after Dave’s departure. It was a massive commercial hit with Sammy instead, using a dramatic piano riff borrowed from Eddie’s soundtrack to the 1984 teen flick The Wild Life. The addition of a Hammond organ-Leslie speaker combo made for a keyboard-heavy anthem that “some people thought was risky,” Eddie said, “but to me, it’s not even stepping out. It’s still a rock tune.”
28. Top Jimmy
During the early 80s David Lee Roth frequented a notorious Hollywood after-hours club/art gallery called Zero Zero, where he commiserated with a bohemian crowd of lowbrow artists, models, underground filmmakers and punk rockers. Here he met rhythm ’n’ booze singer Top Jimmy of Top Jimmy & the Rhythm Pigs, who passed away in 2001 but remains immortal thanks to this song. Ed used a DADACD tuning and played a Ripley stereo guitar with individual strings panned left or right in an alternating fashion.
27. So This Is Love?
"I definitely had a lot of pissed-off energy in me that I got out on Fair Warning,” Eddie admitted. “It does have kind of a dark underlying tone to it.” So why is this tasty piece of ear candy the only Van Halen song that can legitimately be called “jaunty”? Credit Michael Anthony – this strutter positively bounces on the bass line, flowing into a smooth groove that finds the band thoroughly in the moment.
26. Romeo Delight
Some of the rhythm and lyrical elements of this Women And Children First track were lifted from an earlier Van Halen tune, Get The Show On The Road, which appeared on their 1977 Warner Bros. demo. Although the song is a scorching rocker – David Lee Roth himself described it as “powerrock; twice as fast as your hearbeat”, it also features some more subtle ingredients, such asthe incessant ‘heartbeat’ sound heard during the verses and breakdown. Eddie explained: “Mike was picking quietly, and I tapped my strings against the pickup poles.”