I love Van Halen. I’m shuffling a six-album-spanning Van Halen playlist as I write. David Lee Roth and the boys just launched into “Unchained” as I started this sentence.
As a longtime Van Halen fan, I think I’m supposed to be upset that teenage pop star Billie Eilish told Jimmy Kimmel she didn’t know who Van Halen is. But I reject that premise. I think it’s cool as hell she doesn’t know who Van Halen is. She’s better off for her ignorance. Van Halen’s better off too and so are Van Halen fans.
I like Billie Eilish, too. I don’t know her well but her single, “Bad Guy,” is a banger. Great bass line. The melody’s almost pure whispers and vocal fry, which is genius. The lyrics “might seduce your dad guy” is funny, unhinged and unsavory. She says “duh” with perfect unforced snottiness. Interesting keyboard sound. Catchy but vaguely spooky. It swirls around your ears after the song’s over like wind in a cave.
The last time Van Halen made music of any real merit was 1984. That’s 35 years ago, about twice as long as Eilish has been alive. It’s reasonable and fine she wouldn’t know who they are. It would be like expecting a teenager in 1984 to know the chart topping hits of 1949. Imagine unearthing a newspaper headline about an ignorant upstart Billy Idol who’s never heard of Evelyn Knight and The Stardusters. It’s ridiculous.
Van Halen needs time to rest and be ignored for a proper cultural reappraisal. They put their legacy through a woodchipper with their Sammy Hagar years and it’ll take decades for the band to move past that. Today, everyone agrees Van Hagar was the nadir of guitar rock. But they had hits for years. Their unctuous middle management rock dominated radio and MTV. Like the squid in Watchmen, Van Hagar was a global scale tragedy that created psychic reverberations that are difficult to put into words.
And while David Lee Roth era Van Halen is unquestionably superior, it’s not exactly bulletproof.Van Halen has three killer albums: Van Halen, Fair Warning and 1984. Three others, Van Halen II, Women and Children First and Diver Down, are spotty at best and only slightly better than Van Hagar at worst.
I’m not sure why anyone would want Eilish to know Van Halen. Imagine what a try-hard teacher’s pet a 17-year-old pop star would seem like if they knew Van Halen. It’d be lame. And anyway, Van Halen isn’t homework. It’s not on a syllabus or part of a curriculum. It’s music that sounds great when you’re drunk and on just a smidge of coke. Why institutionalize that?
When Van Halen has influenced music, it’s been bad. Eddie Van Halen is one of the greatest guitar players of all-time and changed the way the instrument is played. He rules. He’s world heavy-weight champion of electric guitars for life. But when guitar players he influenced use his tricks, technique and technical proficiency without his deranged musical personality, it makes music deeply boring. Throughout the ‘80s, guitar solos were like Taekwondo demonstrations with 180 beat-per-minute finger tapping instead of breaking wooden boards. In his autobiography, Slash said he made a point of not learning Eddie Van Halen’s signature techniques. The melodic blues leads he played on Appetite For Destruction sounded like a revelation as a result.
As an aside: Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine’s guitar work has a strong EVH influence but avoids sucking by not playing too fast and using the sounds to make musical statements and not just show off.
When classic rock dudes insist on the superiority of their ancient music it only makes that music less appealing. Honestly, I hope Billie Eilish never finds out who Van Halen is. ZZ Top, however. That’s a band she should check out for sure.