Music

Album of the Month Recap

May 2 — Van Halen — Women and Children First (1980)

So we just wrapped the inaugural Album of the Month Club Zoom meeting. It was a great discussion that covered a lot of ground.

Thanks to Noah Levy, Terry Barr, Stanley Clark, Alexander Briseño!

ICYMI:

Some of the cultural events taking place leading up to the March 1980 release of Van Halen’s third album, Women and Children First, included:

  • Americans were being held hostage in Iran
  • President Jimmy Carter bailed out the Chrysler Corporation
  • The US Hockey Team defeated the Soviet Union and would go on to win the gold medal
  • Bon Scott from AC/DC became another rock n roll casualty
  • And the Rubiks Cube was unleashed on the world.

Did these or any other cultural event make it into a Van Halen song that year? Of course not, this was the mighty Van Halen!

By this third album, their third in two years, you were either on the Van Halen train or … it would be another four years before you hopped on board with 1984.

I was on board … and all in.

After the success of Van Halen I and Van Halen II, Eddie Van Halen had been anointed the new guitar god, joining the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, etc.

Guitar god status secured, the band still had to earn its wings. So when Van Halen — David Lee Roth (vocals), Eddie Van Halen (guitar), Michael Anthony (bass), and Alex Van Halen (drums) — re-convened with producer Ted Templeman and engineer Donn Landee at Sunset Sound in late 1979, they secured the perimeter and for the better part of two weeks, laid down the thundering 33 minutes of rock bliss that became Women and Children First.

This album sounded different. Not only was it the first album of all originals, it had a harder and muddier sound than the two predecessors. And there’s also a white whale of sorts on “Could This Be Magic?” — it’s the only song in the Van Halen canon to contain a female backing vocal — singer Nicholette Larson sings on some of the choruses.

Because Templeman and Lanndee always pushed Eddie’s guitar work to the front of the mix, the albums have always been heavy on guitar. But on Women and Children First, they gave Michael Anthony’s bass more presence. This adds depth and texture to the songs that serve them, the band, and the album well.

[Fun Fact: There has been some scuttlebutt about who “actually” played bass on many of the Van Halen albums — there are those who say Eddie went in an re-recorded Anthony’s bass. That said, Michael Anthony is credited, so until we know something beyond conjecture, presume it’s his work.]

“HAVE YOU SEEN JUNIORS GRADES?”

Getting the business end out of the way first, Women and Children First opens with “And the Cradle Will Rock …” the band's first and only single from the album. It didn’t crack the Billboard Top 40 singles chart, peaking at #55 … but the album was a stone-cold smash, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.

Channeling the intestinal fortitude of a soldier landing on the beaches of Normandy, Chuck Klosterman reviewed ALL 131 Van Halen songs (including the brief Gary Cherone era) in 2018 and said this of “And the Cradle Will Rock …”:

“I’ve always found it a bit ponderous and uncompromisingly average, but I’ve also listened to it somewhere in the vicinity of 8,000 times.”

I couldn’t agree more.

“LOOK, I’LL PAY YOU FOR IT, WHAT THE F…”

The band eases into the second song, “Everybody Wants Some!!”, with a drum rhythm from Alex and some kind of battle cry/sex chortle from David Lee Roth. And then Dave screeches authorization for the band to storm the fort.

The song contains some of Roth’s spoken/singing senseless word jumbles as the band slogs its way into the chorus … everyone marching dutifully behind Alex’s rhythmic beats. This makes “Everybody Wants Some!!” one of the shining moments here … and a fan favorite.

They would perfect this senseless word jumble/beat combo with “Hot For Teacher” on 1984.

Again, Chuck Klosterman:

“Two exclamation points, just in case you didn’t quite accept the veracity of Dave’s nuanced socioeconomic argument. Roth’s improvised rap is lascivious and fetishistic, and I’m not sure how the tribal drumming and monkey screeches would translate in the modern landscape.”

Van Halen songs have the emotional depth of a kiddie pool, and the nuances of a Larry the Cable Guy joke, so “Everybody Wants Some!!” is about exactly what you think it’s about.

I’ve never fully understood what Roth is doing vocally at the beginning of “Fools” but thankfully Eddie cuts him off at :40 by detonating a power chord announcing this wasn’t going to be like the saccharine songs “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls” off Van Halen II.

Not only does “Fools” pulse with bass and testosterone, speaking to every recalcitrant teen ever; but the song also has, as Terry Barr points out on his American Playlist #44, “harmonies …not something you immediately think of in hard rock outfits …”

Shifting gears, the band then rips into “Romeo Delight.” A song that single-handedly elevated air guitar playing to an art form. This song would be the show opener — and rightly so — on this tour. Its raw energy would remain a staple of Van Halen’s live shows until Roth’s departure in 1985.

Embracing what remained of punk, Van Halen took the genre on a walk down the Sunset Strip with “Loss of Control.” It’s got the speed and energy … but far less grit and anger than traditional punk. (Van Halen would dig deeper into their interpretation of punk in 1981’s Fair Warning.)

But it’s these last four songs:

  • “Loss of Control”
  • “Take Your Whiskey Home”
  • “Could This Be Magic?”
  • “In a Simple Rhyme”

that make Women and Children First one of the oft-overlooked diamonds in this David Lee Roth led Van Halen catalog.

The punk vibe of “Loss of Control” is immediately trampled underfoot by seemingly goofy/good-time “Take Your Whiskey Home,” which is just as much bluesy dithyramb as a balls-out rocker.

It’s the kind of song that was tailor-made to be played — very loudly — out of a vintage black 1968 Camaro … or the muscle car of choice.

“Loss of Control” and “Take Your Whiskey Home” are the sonic one-two punch of what the David Lee Roth helmed Van Halen did best … the unexpected.

The acoustic “Could This Be Magic?” features Roth on guitar (not lead) and is the band’s first foray into full-length acoustic music. The song is part jive, part country, part swing, and all cheek. It’s a fun reprieve from the pulsing rock.

“Could This Be Magic?” proves the band could do acoustic, but mostly reinforces the fact that Van Halen was, first and foremost, a rock band … and that Eddie, Alex and Mike were NOT singers … and Dave only barely.

It’s the capstone to Women and Children First, “In a Simple Rhyme,” that is, and remains, far and away one of the best songs the band ever recorded. Lyrically, it’s about as close to a love song as the band was likely to get during the Roth era:

And she made the mountains sing
Birds against an icy sky
And I heard bells ringing
I think I heard an Angel sigh

But this is a David Lee Roth lyric:

Well, ain’t life grand when ya finally hit it?
I’m always a sucker for a real good time
Woke up in life, found I almost missed it
Ain’t I glad that love is blind

The two instrumentals, “Tora! Tora!” and “Growth,” are fine.

On the album or cassette, “Tora! Tora!” kicks off side two and rolls seamlessly into “Loss of Control.”

“Growth” closes the album, following “In a Simple Rhyme.” It was allegedly conceived to be a connection device between this album and their follow-up Fair Warning but was abandoned (forgotten about?).

Critics have said the same thing throughout Van Halen’s career — Eddie they love, and well, that’s about it. Everyone else, including the lead singer, is window dressing … but when it works? It works … and it almost always worked:

  • David Fricke called “Romeo Delight,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Loss of Control,” “works of high-volume art,” in his Rolling Stone review from1980.
  • In a review from 2011 for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls the album “mature or at least getting a little serious,” noting “there’s a bit of a dark heart beating on this record.”
  • Robert Christgau gave Women and Children First one of the highest grades he ever allotted the band, a B (1984, got a B+) saying: “Without being pompous about it, which is a plus, these guys show as little feeling for their zonked, hopelessly adoring fans as Queen. They’re kings of the hill and we’re not.”

Van Halen fans like to focus on Van Halen I and 1984 as the benchmark albums for this Roth-led era. They’re certainly the bookend albums of not only the Roth-led era, but really the band’s entire career — and the most commercially successful, each selling over 10 million copies in the U.S.

However, mid-era Van Halen — Women and Children First, Fair Warning, and Diver Down — remains my favorite period. On these albums, the band’s chief creative force, Eddie, is playing around with sounds and instruments, exploring, and finding his voice.

By the time Sammy Hagar joined in 1986, Eddie had found and locked into his voice … but in 1980, he was still traversing the musical palette of his ability.

It’s here on Women and Children First where that exploration begins in full force.

Be sure to join us for the next Album of the Month Club on June 6 …stay tuned for details!

This poster was included in the 1980 vinyl pressing of Women and Children First — you’re welcome.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” from the classic Better Off Dead:

“Yeah, I know I ain’t nobody’s bargain — But, hell, a little touch-up and a little paint” — Bruce Springsteen

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