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‘1984’: Revisiting Van Halen’s Prophetic Sixth Album
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In Depth

‘1984’: Revisiting Van Halen’s Prophetic Sixth Album

Recorded in a self-built studio and throwing keyboards in the mix, Van Halen’s ‘1984’ album took a bold leap and earned a handsome reward.

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Era-defining albums receiving diamond certifications (for sales of ten million copies) are pretty rare, but records made in home studios which achieve this level of success are even harder to come by. Other relatively intimate recordings, such as Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska or Bob Dylan and The Band’s near-mythical The Basement Tapes, are critically revered, but when it comes to home-recorded hard-rock blockbusters, Van Halen’s sixth album, 1984, is still in a class of its own.

Listen to ‘1984’ here.

“I wanted more control”

Eddie Van Halen’s 5150 complex, installed in the guitarist’s home, in Studio City, Los Angeles, was hardly an ordinary home-studio set up. With help from the band’s longtime engineer, Donn Landee, it was put together as the group started working on 1984, and it began life as a 16-track facility kitted out with vintage gear. Named after a California law code that gives police officers the authority to detain anyone who “as a result of a mental health disorder” are deemed to be “a danger to others, or to himself or herself”, 5150 may not have been state-of-the art at its inception, but it was good enough to capture the band’s new songs and make them sound polished enough for release.

“The bottom line was that I wanted more control,” Eddie Van Halen told Guitar World in 2014. “I was always butting heads with [producer] Ted Templeman about what makes a good record. When we started work on 1984, I wanted to show Ted that we could make a great record without any cover tunes and do it our way. Donn and I proceeded to figure out how to build a recording studio. I did not initially set out to build a full-blown studio. I just wanted a better place to put my music together so I could show it to the guys. I never imagined that it would turn into what it did until we started building it.”

During the 80s, California’s planning laws forbade homeowners to build recording studios on their property, but the band got around that by submitting development plans for a racquetball court. The subterfuge worked and, thanks to Landee’s technical nous – and his ability to source a perfect Universal Audio recording console – 5150 got up and running in time for the 1984 sessions. However, Van Halen still had to acclimatise to recording in the studio’s cramped conditions.

“If I want to play a tuba or a Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it”

“There was only one room at 5150 at the beginning, so we were very restricted,” Eddie recalled. “Recording drums there was a challenge. The place really was a racquetball court, where one third of the space was the control room and the rest was the main room.” Drummer Alex Van Halen, Eddie’s brother, squeezed his kit into one corner of the room while Eddie set his amp up – facing away – in the other.

With the band recording in unfamiliar surroundings, the 1984 album sessions also added a new instrument to their arsenal, with keyboards playing a more prominent role than before. Eddie’s recently acquired Oberheim synthesisers anchored the album’s two biggest hits, Jump and I’ll Wait, but their introduction into Van Halen’s guitar-based hard-rock sound wasn’t immediately embraced by his bandmates.

“When I first played Jump to the band, nobody wanted to have anything to do with it,” Van Halen told Guitar World. “Dave [Lee Roth, singer] said that I was a guitar hero, and I shouldn’t be playing keyboards. My response was that if I wanted to play a tuba or a Bavarian cheese whistle, I will do it.” When Ted Templeman voiced his support for the song, telling the group he heard a hit, “everyone started to like it more”, the guitarist recalled.

“I view guitar solos as a song within a song”

Eddie was right to stand his ground. Released on 21 December 1983, Jump immediately established itself as one of the best Van Halen songs, scoring the group a US No.1 and paving the way for its successor, I’ll Wait, to cruise into the Top 20. However, while keyboards added a new dimension to Van Halen’s sound, Eddie’s guitar still dominated proceedings, not least on the album’s pumping third single, Panama, and the crunching House Of Pain. Elsewhere, Hot For Teacher was a saucy, ZZ Top-esque workout and the strutting Drop Dead Legs rode a truly irresistible groove.

“It was inspired by AC/DC’s Back In Black,” Eddie told Guitar World of the latter song. “I was grooving on that beat, although I think Drop Dead Legs is slower. Whatever I listen to is somehow filtered through me and comes out differently. Drop Dead Legs is almost a jazz version of Back In Black. The descending progression is similar, but I put a lot more notes in there.

“I view [guitar] solos as a song within a song,” he added. “I always start with some intro or theme and establish a riff, then after the solo there’s some kind of breakdown section. That’s there in almost every song – or else it returns to the intro.”

“It was a very special time in my life – and that shows”

Van Halen tapped into the zeitgeist with 1984. Prior to its release, on 9 January 1984, their previous album, Diver Down, was already going multi-platinum, and, thanks to his appearance on Michael Jackson’s Beat It, everyone knew who Eddie Van Halen was. Yet it was 1984’s radio-ready sheen and MTV-friendly promo videos that took his band to a whole new level. While they toured the album, heading out on a mammoth nine-month trek that lasted until September that year, Van Halen were arguably the biggest rock band in the US.

“I’ve never been in touch what is going on in the world because I rarely listen to anything else,” Eddie admitted in 2014. “I think that the record did well because it was ahead of its time, and it was simply different. It was even different for Van Halen… Having built 5150, it was a very special time in my life, and that shows in the music.”

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