“So This is Love?” one of rock group Van Halen’s singles released in the summer of 1981, is perhaps the perfect single for the season. The song’s effective dynamic shifts created a fitting backdrop for a season that includes both adventure and a sense of introspection.
Singer David Lee Roth, known at this point by his fanbase as Diamond Dave, certainly demonstrates both the charm and swagger for which he was known on the track. Equally composed and improvised, the sound of the track includes some clean “claw” guitar picking in the verses by guitar virtuoso Edward Van Halen, underscored by brother Alex Van Halen’s smooth groove which turns into a hard rocker with his larger-than-life snare wind-ups. Bassist Michael Anthony, singing the backing vocals on all the band’s records, thumps out a bouncing, bottom-end boogie that makes heads bop.
Two months after the release of fourth album “Fair Warning,” Van Halen, Pasadena, California’s, most innovative hard-rock band, released “So This Is Love?” in June as the introductory summer single.
“ ‘So This Is Love?’ is one of the happiest Van Halen songs there is,” said my friend, motivational speaker and professional strongman, Iron Tamer™ Dave Whitley. “Listen to the guitar solo and (you will) understand why Eddie is always smiling,” Whitley told me.
Whitley has been a student of Van Halen’s guitar and compositional techniques over the past four decades, having discovered Van Halen’s music as a youth when he first began playing guitar himself.
The video for the song, with the band lip-syncing beneath an amusement park statue of a brontosaurus, adds to the juxtaposed thematic elements of the band’s members. Roth, ever the showman, is vying for the attention of every camera, while the Van Halen brothers and Anthony mime their collective sonic talents for the viewer. It is equal amounts campy levity and panache. The nonchalant demeanor of the video would later be revisited in the 1984 video for “Jump,” yielding equal conviviality.
“Unchained” was the follow-up single release that July. A raucous anthem that has become a fan favorite due to its chugging riff and exciting arrangement choices. I first heard the song while watching the live performance video on cable television sometime in my sophomore year of high school. The video, recorded on June 12, 1981, at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, can now be seen on YouTube.com. It begins with Edward’s guitar riff, followed by a drum buildup from Alex, and then Roth leaping from the drum riser, performing a Russian toe-touch in mid-air before landing and dancing, fist-pumping, to the lip of the stage.
Of the guitar solos that Edward Van Halen composed for the album, he said the one in “Unchained” is among his best work.
“I love that song. It’s rare that I can listen back to my own playing and get goose bumps, but that’s one of them,” Van Halen told musician Billy Corgan in a 1996 Guitar World interview.
Though these are the most accessible songs on “Fair Warning,” they are also the most like what the band had produced up until that point. The album has some darkly abrasive musical approaches that demonstrate the more adventurous compositional side of the band.
Album opener, “Mean Street,” is an extension of a theme initiated on “And the Cradle Will Rock…” from their previous album, 1980’s “Women and Children First.” The youthful margin walker from that earlier track is now on his own, living in his chosen “desperate part of town.” The lyrical darkness is underscored by the innovative, percussive tapping Van Halen uses in the song’s eventually screaming-from-feedback introduction. Once the actual riff of the song is cranked out on guitar, the drums and bass in tight syncopation propel it forward in a hard, funky, urban beat. It is one of the band’s most impressive performances, demonstrating the band members’ ability to wrangle any groove and make it submit to their will.
“And we don’t worry ‘bout tomorrow ‘cause we’re sick of these four walls/Now what you think is nothing might be something after all,” Roth bellows across the second verse.
No better couplet could have been written in honor of the band’s approach, or as an anthem of the age.
Alex McGill is an educator and musician living in Haralson County.