Although they were the kings of the 1980s, Van Halen was formulated in the hard rock era of the ’70s, grabbing gigs at rock clubs in small town California as they developed their unique sound and stage theatrics.
Formed in 1974, Van Halen was born out of the ashes of Monmoth, a band formed by Eddie and his brother Alex Van Halen. They let David Lee Roth join them as lead vocalist even though he had unsuccessfully auditioned, after they rented sound equipment from him.
Getting on the local circuit in Pasadena, California, the boys soon learned another band was using the name Monmoth and switched to Van Halen. Gaining popularity and confidence, the band got a gig at Gazzari’s on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and became a fixture at other clubs, like Whisky a Go Go. Paul Stanley from KISS saw the boys perform and then had Gene Simmons come to see them play.
Simmons flew Van Halen to NYC and brought them into the studio to create their first demo, which included ‘Running with the Devil’ and ‘House of Pain’. Eddie Van Halen disliked the experience, since he wasn’t using his own guitars, and Simmons decreed they needed to change their name to Daddy Long Legs. The band opted out of the arrangement and headed back to Los Angeles.
In 1977, two record execs from Warner Bros. saw Van Halen performing in a small club and signed them to a deal, leading to the production of their first album, the self-titled Van Halen in 1978. Successful sales, hitting the Billboard charts at the peak at #19 and going on tour with Black Sabbath solidified their path into the big leagues of rock. With Roth’s vocals and Eddie Van Halen’s notable guitar technique, their fan base was spreading across the continent.
In 1979 the band released Van Halen II with its first hit single ‘Dance the Night Away’. I remember being with my friend Michelle and hearing her older sister play the song endlessly in her bedroom where we weren’t allowed. We were curious but had to wait until she went out to meet her friends. We went into her bedroom, to sneak a peak at the album and listen to the song, unmuffled from a bedroom door and the amazing amounts of clothes hanging in her room. I remember seeing a small poster of the band above her record player, and wondering why she had placed it in such a prominent spot. Little did I know at that time of the power of musician’s vocals to inspire devotion from female fans and for guitar licks to influence a generation of male fans to pick up a guitar.
Van Halen headed into the 1980s on a high note that kept going and with sales of 200 million albums worldwide. Although many focus on the on-stage antics of Roth and the guitar hero status of Eddie Van Halen, the band made one indelible impression on the business – the creation of the contract rider, stipulating specifics for each performance. Although ridiculed now as an excessive posturing gesture, the rider was born out of road crew member suffering serious injury during concert set-up. Wanting to insure safety for everyone, the band put in the M&M’s clause (which requested a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed to be in the dressing room for each show), to insure their contract was actually read for its safety requirements.
The continued rivalry of David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen, which has seen Roth leave and return to the band, has allowed this band born out of the bars of smalltown 70s California, to still be the talk of the industry and played regularly on radio.