Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Runnin’ with the Devil: Van Halen’s Debauched Debut Turns 40

on February 10, 2018, 3:48pm

In a curious way, glam metal can be traced back to a difference in laws between the City of Los Angeles and LA County. During Prohibition, it was legal to gamble in greater LA County but illegal to gamble within the city limits. That wouldn’t have mattered much, except that Hollywood became ground zero for the exploding new movie industry. Boatloads of cash were dumped on Los Angeles so fast that there was nothing to spend it on.

Almost overnight, a service industry sprang up in the unincorporated town of Sherwin just to the west of Hollywood: Nightclubs, fine dining, and — since Sherwin wasn’t part of the city — gambling. It was entertainment for rich entertainers. The name of the road from Los Angeles to unincorporated Sherwin was Sunset Boulevard, and that little stretch of land just outside the city limits came to be called the Sunset Strip.

In the 1950s, when legal oversight improved in LA County, Hollywood elites began to favor Las Vegas. But the nightclubs and restaurants were still in operation, scaled back for middle-class tourists. In the 1960s, Sherwin, now calling itself West Hollywood, became a counterculture hub for beatniks and hippies. The Doors played nightly at Gazzarri’s while Led Zeppelin and The Byrds strutted the stages at the Roxy and Whiskey a Go Go. The Sunset Strip was as vibrant as it had ever been.

And so we come to the 1970s, one of those rare moments when a new kind of music is deeply rooted in a certain city, a particular neighborhood, or even a couple of bars. Seattle had grunge. Detroit had soul. The East Coast and West Coast had hip-hop. Musicians and fans come together, and that energy — that local feeling — is broadcast to the rest of the country.

In 1978, the album Van Halen sounded just like the Sunset Strip: like vibrant billboards, flashing neon lights, bougie boutiques, hip nightclubs, drugs, prostitutes, and rock and roll. Rolling Stone called them, “The ultimate California party band.” Their music wasn’t heavy metal; it was pop metal, well polished, and ready for middle-class tourists and audiences nationwide. Like the Sunset Strip, Van Halen is almost a contradiction, with one foot in the counterculture and one foot in Hollywood.

Eddie Van Halen is the heart of that album, now celebrating its 40th anniversary. His guitar is a chatty guitar, audible in almost every single second of every single song. David Lee Roth’s vocals are manic fun, but we know he’s replaceable, because Eddie Van Halen would later have him replaced. No offense to drummer Alex Van Halen, but brother Eddie is the reason we know the Van Halen name. Eddie is an all-time great, one of the last of the guitar gods.

But even so, the music has almost been eclipsed by legends of Van Halen’s backstage antics and behind-the-scenes debauchery. That offstage behavior embodies the ’70s Sunset Strip just as much as the music does. And while the music feels timeless, the public displays come across as historical relics. Some of their public behavior is hard to imagine today, not because it’s too shocking or outrageous, but because social customs have changed.

In many ways, the public has become more tolerant than it was in the 1970s, especially in regards to marginalized groups. But it’s interesting to note the ways in which the public has become less tolerant, too. Some of Van Halen’s outlandish behavior would never be tolerated today.

In Madison, Wisconsin, in 1978, Van Halen trashed the 7th floor of a Sheraton hotel. They glued doors shut, smashed lamps with hammers, and threw appliances out of windows. What could be more rock and roll, right? Except that kind of behavior was only typical for a few short years. These days, nobody trashes hotel rooms any more. Says one industry professional, “Managers, lawyers, accountants, and other advisers seem to be more involved in the business these days, making artists think twice about the consequences of such behavior.”

Destructive behavior is less welcome by the audience. When Josh Homme kicked a photographer at a concert in 2017, the public grumbled so loudly that he quickly issued an apology. When that didn’t quiet the outcry, he issued a second, even lengthier apology. He was afraid the negative publicity would hurt his career. Van Halen’s behavior wouldn’t be lauded today.

Public perceptions about drug use have altered, too. Way back in 1966, The Beatles gave recreational drug use “a certain celebrity appeal” with cryptic messages about LSD. In the late ’70s, when Van Halen was messing around with cocaine and heroin, drugs still had a vestige of counterculture charm. But the experimentation of the ’60s and ’70s gave way to the habitual abuse of the ’80s, celebrity overdoses (John Belushi, Bon Scott), and the crack epidemic. By the ’90s, Kurt Cobain’s struggles with heroin were treated as romantic tragedy. Nowadays, some media outlets go so far as to take a gleeful tone with addiction, as when the Daily Mail breathlessly covered the deterioration of Amy Winehouse with stories of a life lived in “shambolic squalor.” If a multi-platinum superstar partied today as publicly as Van Halen did then, they’d likely be dragged across the front page of tabloids while facing calls to stop touring and seek professional help. Drugs have become less mysterious, and addiction more stigmatized.

Today’s audiences also wouldn’t be so forgiving of Van Halen’s sense of its own importance. The band’s famously fussy tour rider demanded a bowl of M&M’s with all the brown ones removed. David Lee Roth later claimed it was a way to make sure the venue read the fine print so that they could feel confident the special effects would work. Even if you accept the logic — that picking out M&M’s is proof someone can correctly operate pyrotechnics — you’ve got to admit there are less condescending ways to find out. 

In 2012, DJ Steve Aoki wasn’t nearly as famous as Van Halen, but his tour rider was leaked and he became the bad kind of internet famous. His demands for “Two medium-sized cakes reading ‘DIM MAK,’” six black v-necks, six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, and an “inflatable boat or dingie” earned him widespread scorn. The same internet that mocked Aoki would have a long laugh at those missing brown M&M’s.

In many ways, the public has become more tolerant than it was in the 1970s, especially in regards to marginalized groups. But it’s interesting to note the ways in which audiences have become less tolerant, too. The rock and roll lifestyle, with its grams and groupies and all its messy grandeur, is no longer quite socially acceptable. Wanton destructiveness is no longer cool; the health and lifestyle choices of the rich and famous are fair game for criticism; and diva demands get you ripped apart on Twitter. All of this goes to show why superstars are more risk-averse today than they were in the ’70s and ’80s: They have to be. In the internet age, mockery is the national pastime and mistakes linger forever.