Van Halen Rising Captures The Eruption Of Heavy Metal

Greg Renoff, the author of Van Halen Rising, holds a PhD in American history from Brandeis University, a distinction that separates him from other chroniclers of hard rock lore and he wields his skill in swift, understated fashion throughout his wildly entertaining and revelatory chronicle of the heavy metal quartet’s rise to power. Renoff starts his narrative in the ’60s, just prior to Edward and Alex Van Halen’s emigration to California, and he ends it as the supporting tour for 1978’s Van Halen comes to a close with the LA party kings routinely blowing the feeble Black Sabbath off the stage. If there ever was a passing of the metallic torch, this it: the doomy thunder of Sabbath was exiled to the underground as Van Halen’s good times defined the next decade of mainstream metal. It’s a sea change that often gets treated as a footnote in classic rock histories, the responsibility for the revolution laid solely at the feet of Eddie Van Halen, the greatest guitarist since Jimi Hendrix but Renhoff’s painstaking history illustrates how clearly Van Halen was the work of a band — or, perhaps more precisely, the result of the creative tensions between the brothers Van Halen and lead singer David Lee Roth.

The Van Halens never cared much for Roth. He auditioned for them years earlier, back when the group was called Mammoth, but the brothers rejected him immediately. True, Dave couldn’t sing — he got better over the years, but singing always was secondary for Roth. From the beginning, Roth acted like he was a star, strutting down the hallways of his high school, attracting as many people as he alienated. Neither Van Halen could stand being around this shtick. This is a common theme in Roth’s life. The act that would later turn him into the beloved Diamond Dave kept potential collaborators at a distance throughout the ’70s; many musicians dismissing him as little more than a shameless imitator of Black Oak Arkansas’ Jim Dandy, who had long fallen out of fashion among serious rockers. The Van Halen brothers were undoubtedly self-styled serious rockers. The guitarist in particular spent hours practicing his instrument, first absorbing all he could learn from Eric Clapton by slowing down Cream LPs to a crawl and then branching out to Alvin Lee, the Ten Years After six-string slinger who was known as the fastest guitarist before Eddie blew him away. One of Eddie’s early set pieces was a replication of Lee’s “I’m Going Home” solo in one of his early set pieces, a move that dazzled audiences but also suggested the limits of how he and Alex conceived Mammoth. Both brothers were drawn to heady, heavy virtuosity: they played for the love of playing, not caring much about tempering or shortening their songs to make their music palatable for the unwashed masses. Roth was their opposite, a borscht belt comedian by way of James Brown who lived for the show. No wonder they couldn’t get along: they were living in two separate worlds.

Eventually, those worlds collided on Southern California’s backyard party circuit of the ’70s. One of the best things about Renoff’s book is how it captures this largely undocumented era where word of mouth passed along so slowly that subcultures could thrive within subcultures. Information simply wasn’t that easy to come by in the ’70s: the Van Halen brothers had to change their band’s name to Mammoth from Genesis only when they discovered an LP from the British prog-rock band lying in a record bin. This slow crawl would eventually work in their favor, as their scene exploded around them: at some point in 1976, Hollywood hustler Rodney Bingenheimer discovered the band — now called Van Halen at Roth’s urging — playing a dive bar on Sunset, stunning with a set they perfected by playing covers in dumps in the San Fernando Valley. If the brothers had their way, they may never have even gotten as far as these seedy clubs. Roth, who eventually blagged his way into the band partially because he had a PA system the Van Halens desperately needed, helped excise their excesses and push them toward a pop that was palpable to the wider audience, creating a good-time sound that evoked beaches and bikinis as surely as the Beach Boys.

Renhoff wisely ends his narrative at the point where Van Halen is triumphant, after their debut album turned into an unexpected smash. There may be plenty of story left to tell — the subsequent years were not easy, nor was the Van Hagar era — but the real revelations lie in these early days, when the opposing forces of Roth and the Van Halens (plus bassist Michael Anthony, who comparatively seems like the Derek Smalls of the outfit) found common ground and briefly became a gang, one that conquered Southern California from Pasadena outward. Van Halen Rising is filled with indelible stories — back yard parties busted by police, sly publicity scams, Gene Simmons attempting to poach Eddie for Kiss — but this isn’t tawdry gossip or hagiography. Renhoff chronicles this neglected rock underbelly with care, wit and precision, illustrating how Van Halen’s rise mirrored the chaotic rock subculture of the pre-punk, pre-MTV ’70s and also wound up presaging the hedonistic ’80s to come. It’s as good as rock history gets.

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