Van Halen’s 1984 Is Better (And Worse) Than You Remember

While the record's highs go higher than you might recall, its lows seem lower now, too

Van Halen - 1984

If you want a succinct look at the power of Van Halen in 1984, you could do worse than the commercial for the band’s Lost Weekend promotion with MTV. Over the course of 90 seconds, the ad paints an alluring picture: here’s David Lee Roth, flanked by women and presiding over a table strewn with whisky bottles and beer cans, promising fans an endurance-testing two-day blackout (potentially, if the ad’s B-movie visuals are to be believed, including ritual animal sacrifice, boxes of uranium, and a guest appearance by the actual Igor) that sounds less like a concert experience and more like a lightly supervised kidnapping.

“Destination unknown!” he says. “You’ll have no idea where you are, you’ll have no idea where you’re going, and probably no memory of it after you go!”

The reality was more mundane, but no less wanton. As they recounted to Van Halen fan magazine The Inside in 1995, winner Kurt Jefferis and his friend Tom Winnick spent two days in April living what the magazine called “the American boyhood dream, 1984-style” — specifically, binge drinking bottomless beers and whiskeys, trashing Cobo Hall’s green room with a band-led food fight, and mingling with “dozens of dolled-up groupies [prancing] around [and] looking for action.”

In the recollections of that wild weekend, one quote from Winnick stands out. “Eddie’s like a little kid,” Winnick said, “hugging everybody. He came up and gave me a kiss!”

That sense of guileless teenage id had served the band well throughout their careers to that point, infusing party-rock classics from “Runnin’ with the Devil” to “Everybody Wants Some!!” with their irresistible, uninhibited energy. However, it finally spilled fully, fatefully into the mainstream on the band’s sixth record.

Made by four bona fide Lost Boys, 1984 has a bit of Peter Pan in it; it’s an album that never grows up, even as it turns 35 this year. As a musical artifact, the album’s significance (for both Van Halen as a band and for American popular music in general) is unquestionable; as our own Greg Prato recounted in his recent retrospective, the record almost single-handedly brought synthesizers across the bridge from new wave into hard rock and remains the zenith of the band’s commercial viability (though the band’s subsequent “Van Hagar” records all charted higher, none sold as many copies or birthed as many hits).

That power rests within one of the strongest sequencing combos in all of ’80s rock, one that sounds even better with age; taken together, the horizon-spanning synths of “Jump” and the shout-along stomp of “Panama” move the band forward into uncharted territory while quickly reassuring fans that the driving rock wizardry is still along for the ride. The same can be said of the guitar work of Eddie Van Halen, who Rolling Stone’s J.D. Considine praised in his review for “[managing] to expand his repertoire of hot licks, growls, screams, and seemingly impossible runs to wilder frontiers than you could have imagined.”

While the record’s highs go higher than you might remember, its lows seem lower now, too. Much of that has to do with our own current moment. As a cultural artifact, the back half of the record (and the lost weekend-filled tour that accompanied it) also embodies and emboldens the kind of consequence-free debauchery and ambient, unavoidable sexism that we’ve spent the last two years giving its long-overdue reckoning. It’s not just “Hot for Teacher” (though, at the risk of sounding like Tipper Gore, the accompanying video aged very poorly); “Drop Dead Legs” is a literal list of women’s body parts, “I’ll Wait” finds David Lee Roth ogling and obsessing over a pretty lady in a magazine, and “Girl Gone Bad” helped inspire this summation from Chuck Klosterman: “Do not discount Van Halen as a band who could only write about women who became porn stars; as evidenced here, they were equally proficient at writing about women who became prostitutes.”

This certainly isn’t a new observation (Robert Christgau rightly identified the Side B’s formula as “consolation for their loyal fans — a little sexism, a lot of pyrotechnics, and a standard HM bass attack” in his Consumer Guide review), but it’s one that colors the record (and ones by Van Halen’s hard rock and metal brethren) more on this milestone than on the previous. Heard with fresh ears, the rock is still untouchable (“Hot for Teacher” in particular would sound as good if not better as an instrumental), but the lyrics don’t hold up quite as easily.

Is it possible to hold space in your heart for a record like 1984’s stunning singles while simultaneously raising a critical eyebrow at its steak-headed sexuality? In some cases, probably not. In others, if you ask critic Fiona Sturges, the answer is unreservedly yes. In her essay from the 2017 collection Under My Thumb: Songs That Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, Sturges wrestles with the dissonance between her own feminism and the casual misogyny of her own favorite band, the like-minded AC/DC. Faced with a burgeoning Bon Scott fan of a daughter, Sturges reveals her philosophy for mitigating the conflict between personal beliefs and popular entertainment:

“I’ve made a point of offering my child an alternative narrative — one in which women can be proud of their bodies, exist apart from the male gaze and not just reject but hoot with laughter at the moronic archetypes presented in advertising, the media, film, TV and music. It’s worth noting that none of this — at least so far — has come at the expense of her enjoyment. She will roll her eyes at the teeny-weeny waists and bulging eyes of Disney heroines, but will still happily watch the movies.”

Like any good 35th birthday, 1984’s latest anniversary arrived with a healthy amount of ambivalence. For the band, the record was as much of an end as it was a beginning. Van Halen’s original and best iteration would last just 14 more months; in the years since, those Lost Boys either grew up (Alex Van Halen, who went sober in 1987) or leaned even harder into their own extended adolescence (David Lee Roth, last seen hawking a skincare product to keep tattoos from fading). In their wake, they left six records made at the zenith of rock and roll hedonism, music designed for uncomplicated good times that, inevitably, became complicated itself.

Lost weekends end. The American boyhood dream changes. Someone has to clean up all those food fights. We’ll always have the music to remember them by, the way things were then. What we do with it now? That’s your call.

Buy: You can pick up copies of 1984 along with Van Halen’s other releases at Reverb LP. Click here for more.


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