Van Halen Rising: Can’t Get This Stuff No More

Classic, 1978 vintage Van Halen never really blew up out here in the Antipodes.

Sure, the band’s legend is now cast in solid platinum, but I’d imagine that, back in double-denim triple-bourbon late-70s Straya, these flashy Californian wunderkinds would have presented as a musical bridge too far for the sticky carpet blooded, Acca Dacca indoctrinated rabble.

I mean: the tunes are danceable, the musicianship is impeccable, and, seriously, who does their lead singer fucken think he is…?

In the ensuing years, of course, David Lee Roth dropped in for a solo jaunt (1988’s ‘Skyscraper’ tour), and the band made a belated visit in 1998 with ill-suited (watch the tour videos) singer number three, Extreme’s Gary Cherone, a paltry scrap of an affair after years of anticipation for the main game.

Trust me, I was there, bro…and in the interests of full, shameful disclosure, I’m here to admit that my first fully conscious (nonetheless misguided) Van Halen exposure was via 1991’s bloated, Sammy Hagar fronted album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (such scallywags!), an album perhaps best remembered for its lead singer’s dedication to gentlemen’s exercise wear and its virtuoso guitarist’s deployment of over-sized blouses paired with white jeans.

Second shameful disclosure: I’ve trialled the odd blouse/jean combo, and had a few of the Ed Van Halen hairdos over the years (fuck you, Guitar magazine cover with Jimmy Page, circa 1994).

(Quick caveat: I very quickly realised the original lineup was the real deal, and tortured the parentals with marathon listenings on long family drives, breathlessly rotating the original six albums, on tape, for hundreds of kms on end).

Drilling down into some serious, autobiographical pedantry, yours truly punched in for six months drawing the extremely unauthorised Van Halen: Strange & Twisted Tales, written by Mr Lance Watts, and, as a consequence, ended up drawing a short-lived web comic for Diamond Dave himself (also scribed by the venerable Mr Watts).

Which is all an extremely roundabout way of saying: I’ve given the brothers Van Halen, their totemic original lead singer and the minutiae of their cartoonish, soap opera hijinks an embarrassing amount of consideration down the years.

Greg Renoff’s excellent Van Halen Rising, then, strikes out boldly into completely uncharted realms of the band’s pre-history.

Where, traditionally, the group’s biographical details followed a rigid, tightly controlled (potentially elastic) narrative (the Van Halen brothers) or were beholden to fantastical, free-style embroidery with a wild, myth making eye on the spotlight (Roth), Van Halen Rising offers a forensically researched insight into the nascent, priapic evolution of the combo’s original sunshine sound, look, dynamic and power structure through the insights of over 200 interviewees from way back when.

Renoff deftly sketches his tale’s quirky dramatis personae — the migrant siblings, inseparable; the ADHD, driven rich kid; the series of dodgily mustachioed bassists and their eventual, lukewarm (okay, amiable) replacement.

Charting the band’s rise from junior high novelty act to gigging bar band, Van Halen Rising enlists a legion of former girlfriends, schoolmates, neighbours, managers, cops and riff raff to bring you a sense of the artful debauchery, calculated bonhomie, marketing chops and carnival antics of the nascent superstars’ early backyard parties, gigs and ongoing internal wars of attrition and egomania.

All the kinks, licentiousness, drive and persistence are in ready supply, Renoff’s bio is replete with refreshing colour, detail and heretofore unheard insight. Van Halen tragics (amongst whose numbers I’d cheerfully include myself) will be delighted.

Insiders like Ted Templeman, producer of the band’s eponymous, landmark debut, provide early testament to the band’s contradictory alchemy, while Renoff conjures scenes from pure anecdote, evoking an era of innocent hedonism sliding into the excesses of the ‘80s.

Ending in 1978 with the release of Van Halen’s first album, Van Halen Rising crescendos, much like Eddie’s signature six-string blitzkrieg, Eruption, with a note of sustained portent.

If you’re into the band, this book is a given; if you’re into well-spun behind the scene tales of acts in their ascent, ditto. This is an accessible, vastly entertaining, admirably researched prelude to the tale we tragics know so very intimately.

Final, shameful disclosure: your correspondent was once involved in the choreography of a high school aerobics class soundtracked to the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge single Runaround.

It was a time.

It was a time.

Buy Greg Renoff’s Van Halen Rising: How a Southern Californian Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal here!

Originally published at