An appreciation of Van Halen's 1984
The year was MCMLXXXIV. Or, yes, 1984. On Jan. 9 of that year, in full command of their rock powers, Van Halen unleashed 1984 into the world. The band's sixth and final album with the original line-up (Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, and Alex Van Halen) brimmed with the raucous riffs and yelps that its fan base could pump their fists to, whether via the revved-up boogie shuffle and Eddie's finger tapestry of "Hot for Teacher," the double-time hop and harmonic runs of "Top Jimmy," and a most excellent hard-driving anthem about not a Central American country but a fast car, "Panama." With these headbangers, though, came a few head-turners by way of keyboards: The bright synth pep of "Jump" showcased Eddie’s fleet fingers in a whole new way — and resulted in the band’s first (and only) Hot 100 single — while the lamenting ballad, "I’ll Wait," landed in the Top 20. 1984 would ultimately reach diamond (Dave) status by selling more than 1o million copies, a feat that the band previously accomplished with their revolutionary debut disc, 1978's Van Halen.
After a massive tour, and with tensions rising in the band, Roth exited Van Halen at the apex of success. (The band wouldn’t release another album with him for 28 years, and for the second half of the '80s and the first half of the '90s, that Sammy Hagar fellow helped VH keep banging out hits.) Today — which marks the 37th anniversary of the release of 1984 —EW brings you an excerpt from LIFE's Van Halen special issue, which pays tribute to Eddie Van Halen, the guitar legend who died last fall at the age of 65. The 96-page issue features deep (whammy bar) dives into the Roth era, the Hagar years, and beyond, while Chuck Klosterman provides his essential VH playlist. Here, Kostya Kennedy explains why 1984 made everyone snap, er, "Jump" to attention.
There were any number of reactions to the first two singles released off of 1984, and among those reactions was this: “What the f---? This is Van Halen?” Synthesizer everywhere, electronic bass drum — this was not your big brother’s VH. Or was it? The irrepressibly uplifting “Jump” became, and remains, the band’s most popular song of all time, driven by Eddie’s triumphant chord pattern on the keys. (Sales of synthesizers spiked in the aftermath.) “I’ll Wait,” with the pleasant, layered vocals and the new drum sound from Alex, settled in as a solid earworm. And when the album’s full track list was unpacked, the band’s happy, randy soul was not only intact but thriving. The nine songs included some gorgeous stompers: “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher,” the hard-shuffling “Top Jimmy,” and the biting, semi-sweet riff in “Drop Dead Legs” that Eddie said was inspired by AC/DC. 1984 went to No. 2 on the Billboard charts and wound up as Van Halen’s best-selling album since the debut.
The year itself had a ring to it, of course, echoing off of George Orwell’s extraordinary dystopian novel published 35 years before. Van Halen’s rendering was not nearly so ominous. The year 1984 had arrived! It was to be celebrated and embraced — right here, right now. This was the peak of MTV’s video influence and Van Halen found its form with a spliced, concert-footage rendition of “Jump” and with a naughty-but-chaste and absolutely rollicking unspooling of “Hot for Teacher.” Dave drove the school bus, mini-me band members ruled the lunchroom, and Eddie unleashed a guitar solo in the library. The clothes, the colors, the hair, the laughter! You’d have sworn the guys winked at you during those videos, but only because they were winking at you all along. The official album title, MCMLXXXIV, was its own kind of spoof.
With smart phones decades away from stealing teenagers’ attention, and before much on-demand anything, hours could be spent in front of MTV, hoping to hear and see the songs you loved. “Teacher” could provide the happiest five and half minutes of a day. By and large the adult versions of the ’80s-era teenagers who surrendered so much potential homework time to the veejays, now look back without regret. If they had stopped watching MTV, just think of all the education they’d have missed.
Pick up a copy of LIFE's special Van Halen issue, available now wherever magazines are sold or you can order it online.