Tales From the Top: Van Halen’s ‘Van Halen’ (1978)

The air-brushed album cover looked silly, an over-the-top rendering of “You Really Got Me” disgusted many a Kinks fan - and yet on their massive-sounding Warner Brothers debut, Southern California’s Van Halen offered proof positive that this was no run-of-the-mill heavy rock band. “They cut 28 songs in about two hours,” recalls engineer Donn Landee. “That’s when we knew we had a band that could play.”

Posted in Songwriter 101 on September 5, 2008 by

In an era already overcrowded with knuckle-dragging metal bands, Van Halen was clearly different. Behind the macho swagger lay four supremely talented individuals who could play and write circles around the competition. As a rhythm section, bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen offered bottom to spare; frontman David Lee Roth was a vocal gymnast of the highest order.

But it quickly became obvious that the driving force behind VH was then 22-year-old guitarist Edward Van Halen. Today, fans can tell you exactly where they were the moment they first heard Edward’s album-opening “Eruption,” a spellbinding amalgam of hammer-ons, whammy-bar dives and scorching volume, performed from start to finish in a single take.

The road to VH-1 began in mid-1977, when producer Ted Templeman accepted an invitation to check out the band (whose Gene Simmons-financed demo had already been rejected by scores of major companies) at Starwood, the local venue where Van Halen had built their regional audience. A contract was offered and demo sessions arranged. “As it turns out, we didn’t need the extra studio time,” recalls Templeman’s longstanding engineer Donn Landee. “They cut 28 songs in about two hours. That’s when we knew we had a band that could play.”

On the first week of January 1978, Van Halen convened inside Sunset Sound’s Studio 1. In order to capture the raw energy of the group’s club work, Landee and Templeman decided on a no-overdubs approach.

“They’d barely had any studio experience,” remembers Landee. “It was obvious that in time they would become proficient at making records, but at that point, we really wanted to get them before they really knew what they were doing - just have them come in and play and then get them out. So we spent very little time in pre-production; in fact, we treated the entire first album almost like it was a demo. There are only a couple of spots where we added anything afterwards - on ‘Runnin’ with the Devil’ and ‘Jamie’s Cryin’ - and those were done in one take. And we didn’t use very many tracks at all. Alex’s drums were probably cut using only four mics total. Even when we moved over to Ed’s 5150 studio, we still did the entire band on 16-track and had room left over at the end. You just don’t need a lot of tracks to get a great sound.”

Despite the extraordinary results, Landee’s miking set-up was pretty much the same as he’d used on previous clients such as Captain Beefheart and the Doobie Brothers. “For instance, on Alex, it was U47 for the overhead, Sennheiser 421 on the toms, SM57 on the snare. Plus whatever treatment was added to the recordings afterwards. But they just had such a completely unique sound, a whole different style of playing. I tried to stay away from a formula with them, but after the success of that first album, it was kind of inevitable.”

To compensate for the band’s one-guitar approach, Landee placed Edward’s guitar track slightly off-center in the mix, with a splash of delayed echo from Sunset Sound’s extraordinary live chamber filling up the opposite channel. “It made sense, because we didn’t want to overdub guitars,” says Landee. “If you put the guitar right down the middle with everything else, you’d wind up with the whole band in mono! So it seemed like a reasonable idea.”

Until a month later, when Edward, vacationing in Italy, happened to get into a rental car that was short one channel. “At which point I got a panicked phone call from the other side of the world, wondering why he couldn’t hear his playing!”

Completed in less than three weeks, Van Halen (which settled at No. 19 on Billboard‘s albums chart) took just seven months to be certified platinum; all told, more than 10 million copies have been sold in the 30 years since its release. Van Halen would retain the services of Templeman and Landee for an additional 10 years - not that Landee was always satisfied with everything the band committed to tape.

“For instance, I didn’t like it when Alex began using electronic drums around the time of the 1984 album,” admits Landee. “He started with the kick, and later added the toms. And there was no talking him out of it. In fact one of the things I still don’t like about ‘Jump’ is the sound of the kick: It’s very intermittent, the threshold just wasn’t set right, it always bugged me. I just could never get used to that sound, ever. I have to hear acoustic drums - and nothing else!”

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