The Song Hall of Fame: 5150
If you come across a baby bird in the wilderness, it’s important that you don’t spend a lot of time handling, touching, snuggling, or nuzzling it. (Cooking it also has a detrimental effect.) The reason? That callow, naive little bird will bond with you; your big dopey human touch will imprint it to the point that it forgets it’s a bird and starts thinking it’s people.
Why do I lead with an ornithological tidbit when talking about a song by the world’s mightiest whomp-rock band, Van Halen? Simple. Because although I am a fan of the Killers, Arcade Fire, Ryan Adams, and two dozen other ultrahip bands you’ve never heard of, I was imprinted with arena-rock guitar-bass-and-drums at a young age by the Mighty Van Halen, and brother, you ain’t ever gonna peel that off my DNA.
So, to set the stage…in the mid-1980s, hair-metal bands ruled the parking lots of America’s high schools, and Van Halen stood astride all the Motley Crues, Twisted Sisters, Cinderellas (Cinderellae?), and all their ilk like a colossus. Social relevance in music was the province of skinny college bands, and the only time pop music had any kind of black influence was when the lights went out just before the concert began. Van Halen was all about the PARTY, brother, and if you didn’t rock hard to their tunes, well, you just needed another beer.
I can’t overestimate the seismic effect on the young male population when Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth split with the band. Brother, this was an EPIC schism. It’s twenty-plus years later, and you’ve STILL got guys arguing over whether Roth or his replacement, Sammy Hagar, was the better VH lead singer. A couple years back, I went to the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta where Roth was performing–wearing hairplugs and fronting what was, in effect, a Van Halen cover band. Nobody in that audience was younger than 30, 95 percent of it was male, and every single one of us stood there enraptured as our childhood hero ripped through “Panama,” “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” and all those other anthems of our high school days.
The Roth/VH split hit some dudes I knew harder than their own parents’ divorce. We pored over the articles in Rolling Stone and Kerrang! and Creem and all those other pre-Internet glossy fan mags, trying to glean some nugget of hope that the boys would kiss and make up. (Not literally, dude. That’d be gay and stuff.) But when Eddie Van Halen went out and hired rock yeller Sammy Hagar–he of “I Can’t Drive 55” fame–we all figured, whaddaya know–this might just work.
And it kinda did. Sammy brought a kind of California-trip-hippie vibe to Van Halen, mixing in a little weed and tequila with the existing Schlitz. Of course, the guy is a bit limited thematically–he uses the word “love” so many times in his songs it’s like he’s trying to win a bet. But he’s quintessential ’80s rock–and I say that without a trace of irony or criticism.
So Van Hagar released their first album, “5150,” and it was your basic smashing success–safe enough for the chicks, rife with enough sex and guitars for the guys. Plenty of soaring keyboards, yes, but plenty of stuttering-chainsaw guitar too.
A word on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing. I learned to play guitar in the ’80s, which was–hands down–the worst time since Elvis that a youngster could learn to work the six strings. See, in the ’80s, it was all about flashy technical achievement–spiraling off cascades of 64th-notes with zero regard for melody, harmony, or even common sense–in a way that was daunting to anybody who hadn’t spent years learning classical musical theory. Most of the guys who practiced this quicksilver guitar style are long gone–I think Yngwie Malmsteen was working the counter at the Krispy Kreme I hit this morning–but none of ’em could match up to Eddie. He was like the Michael Jordan of his time–run around him all you want, but when he picked up his red-and-black-striped guitar, he was gonna bury you.
See? I still talk about the guy like he’s a god–and for us, he was. The day I learned how to do that wee-wee-diddly-diddly thing he does on the fretboard of the guitar (example: 15 seconds into this clip of Eddie’s solo “Eruption”) was one of the happiest of my young life. (Yeah, I needed to get out more.) I still bust out that technique when I’m playing guitar for the kids–they love it, even though it sounds as dated as Donkey Kong now.
But that’s the point of these Hall of Fame songs. They capture an instant for me, and one of the best is the eponymous “5150.” It’s not Van Halen’s most famous song, but it just might be the best–all slippery double-tracked guitar and relentless stop-start rhythm. (Click here to check out a sound sample courtesy of our pals at Amazon.) Yeah, the electronic drum sounds like Alex Van Halen is banging on stretched Saran Wrap, and the lyrics are the usual bloodless ’80s near-cliches–“The love line is never straight and narrow”…”Take the highs with the blues”…”Always one more, you’re never satisfied”–but who the hell cares? This is flat-out dopey-fun music, talent cutting loose for the hell of it–like Dale Earnhardt Jr. using his driving skills to make a beer run. For what it is, it’s absolutely perfect.
And one of these days, the wee-wee-diddly-diddly’s gonna make a comeback. And when it does, you’re gonna wish you’d listened to more Van Halen.