Forty Years Ago, An Eruption Out Of Pasadena: Van Halen Releases Its Debut LP

Published : Friday, February 9, 2018 | 7:29 PM

In the late ’70s, the writing seemed to be on the wall for hard rock. Punk had just exploded in the U.K., disco and soft rock reigned in the U.S. charts, and stadium bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith were being torn apart by tragedy and excess.

In 1977, Van Halen had already been together for some time. They were hometown boys who gigged at backyard parties and high school dances in the City of Roses before making their way to the Sunset Strip. They stuck out from the rest of the LA bands making the rounds at that time, but despite their obvious talents and demo with KISS frontman Gene Simmons, they had been unable to score a record deal.

Producer Ted Templeman happened upon the band on a rainy Monday night in West Hollywood’s Starwood Club and was floored enough to make a return appearance the next night with Warner Bros. president Mo Ostin in tow. The duo pretty much offered the band a contract on the spot. Templeman helmed their debut, and with just three weeks of studio time at Sunset Sound and an unheard-of-for-the-70s reasonable budget of a little less than $50,000, they cooked up a legendary opening salvo on par with that of the Doors, Led Zeppelin, and the Stooges before them.

Van Halen harkened back to days of rock bombast, but with an eye clearly looking toward the future. The album included “Jamie’s Cryin,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and their cover of the Kinks’ tune “You Really Got Me” which were all instant radio classics. The songs were hard rocking, yet accessible, and teens bought the record in droves — 17 million copies were moved, and Van Halen is still the best selling album of the band’s catalog.

Sure, many bands have legendary debuts, but how many save a genre in just one minute and forty-two seconds? The album’s first track, “Eruption,” revolutionized guitar playing, much in the way Hendrix’ set did at Woodstock almost a decade earlier. “Eruption” showcased Eddie Van Halen’s groundbreaking two-handed, finger-tapping technique that would challenge players around the globe, who have studied and mimicked it ever since with varying degrees of success. Surprisingly, however, it was not intended to be on the album. The song, which leads into “You Really Got Me,” was used as a warm-up exercise before the band hit the stage and even today, Eddie Van Halen—ever the perfectionist— still hears a flub.

“I showed up at the studio early one day and started to warm up because I had a gig on the weekend and I wanted to practice my solo-guitar spot,” he said. “Our producer, Ted Templeman, happened to walk by and he asked, ‘What’s that? Let’s put it on tape! I didn’t even play it right—there’s a mistake at the top end of it. Whenever I hear it, I always think, ‘Man, I could’ve played it better.’”

When it was released, Van Halen was slow to crawl up the charts, but its impact is still being felt forty years hence. Most every guitar-based band that came after has cited it as an influence. It’s not only a great debut, but it’s also a landmark record, and Pasadena’s priceless gift to rock n’ roll.