Recording of March 2024: Van Halen

Van Halen: Van Halen
Warner Bros./Mobile Fidelity UD1S 2-032 (2 45rpm LPs). 1978/2023. Ted Templeton, prod.; Donn Landee, Krieg Wunderlich, engs.
Performance ****½
Sonics ****½

Never Mind the Bollocks was out, on a major label. A few months before, the Ramones had released their third album, Rocket to Russia. Elvis Costello's My Aim Is True had been out for a while, but it was still a game changer. Soon, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Some Girls would all be vying for attention. That was college radio circa 1978. And amongst all this progressive talent was even a flash of hope for mainstream metal bands.

I remember the day I walked into radio station WTGP, "The Great 88," at Thiel College and saw the Van Halen jacket for the first time. Drummer Alex Van Halen was a stereotypical blur. Bassist Michael Anthony acted the part of the metal bro. But that guitarist holding a ramshackle Stratocaster crisscrossed with electrical tape? On the back cover was a hairy-chested dude in profile, athletic tape on his knuckles, bent over backward in high-heeled boots.

Intrigued, I cued up the first track. Out came that descending car horn blare and the ominous opening pulse of "Runnin' with the Devil." Eddie Van Halen's phat, overdriven guitar tone, which defines the entire record, followed.

Cut in only two weeks by a rowdy bar band from Pasadena, which didn't have a lot of material, so they recorded their live setlist, Van Halen sold a million copies the first year and quickly became an early metal classic. It would stand forever as the band's finest recording. Other than four tracks with guitar overdubs and another, "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," with electric sitar added, the album was tracked live in the studio. The result was a sonic immediacy the band's later, more processed records lack.

The album also has two musical quirks that work in its favor. First is the inspired choice of cover tunes. The beefed-up crunch of Eddie's guitar and the manic energy of David Lee Roth's vocals remake Ray Davies's "You Really Got Me," the album's first single, heftier and more anthemic than the Kinks original. Some fans took the inclusion of "Ice Cream Man" as a sign that the band respected the blues, but to me, the band's soft-loud, acoustic-electric cover of bluesman John Brim's lascivious tune sounds more like an opportunistic romp.

The other bizarre, memorable musical twist captured on Van Halen is the album's second track, "Eruption," an explosive, purely instrumental guitar solo. Eddie's tapping technique, his mastery of feedback, of holding and smearing chords, and his relentless, serrated attacks make this perhaps the only guitar solo to ever be played as often as an album's pop singles. Those three singles—"Runnin' With the Devil," "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," and "Jamie's Cryin'"—all with songwriting credited to the entire band—were wisely sequenced near the beginning. All three are solid, hooky, midtempo hard-rock tunes that allow both the band's heavyweights, singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, plenty of room to stretch out. Much to the band's credit, the album contains no long power ballads, the usual, boring refuge of hard rockers running short on material (taken to extremes by many yet-to-come hair bands).

Van Halen went on to sell more than 10 million copies in the US alone, yet it never got higher than #19 on Billboard's Top Albums chart. It has reappeared occasionally on Billboard album charts since, most recently in 2020. Alas, my original LP copy, with the Warner Bros. palm-tree labels, is now an over-loved veteran of too many altered states, misjudged needle drops, and unbalanced, groove-grinder phono cartridges.

Happily, the original album has had three essential vinyl reissues since 1978 at 33 1/3. In 1998, Steve Hoffman remastered the album from the two-track master mixes for the DCC label. The results are available on gold CD and 180gm LP, with vinyl pressed at RTI. In 2009, Hoffman and Kevin Gray teamed up for another remaster, this time at Acoustech, which was then pressed on 180gm vinyl, also at RTI. In 2015, it was remastered again by Chris Bellman, who also cut the lacquer, at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Los Angeles. That version was pressed at Record Industry in the Netherlands.

This new Mobile Fidelity two-LP, 45rpm Ultradisc One-Step reissue, mastered by Krieg Wunderlich, is beautifully packaged in the One-Step series' new, slimmer slip-box packaging. The mastering chain is prominently displayed on each LP jacket: "¼" / 30ips analog master—DSD 256—analog console—lathe."

The stereo image and the level of detail are extremely good, but neither is radically better than what's heard on the earlier Hoffman reissues. On the other hand, the Mobile Fidelity release's faster running speed pushes more air into the soundstage, adding space to the already expansive mix. The pressing is stable and quiet.

The quest to improve the classics never rests.—Robert Baird

JohnnyThunder2.0's picture

it would tell more about the sound of their components than by playing anything by Diana Krall or the soundtrack to Casino Royale.

jcoat007's picture

Is it worth $125?

Strat's picture

Van Halen never was metal no matter the line-up. They were hard rock and sometimes not even that. Like JC007, is it worth $125? It would have to be one miracle on vinyl. It may sound different (but not better) like a lot of these reissues. A reseller's collectible maybe? I just ordered the MOFI SACD of this album, maybe it will save me $95.

Severius's picture

"... many altered states, misjudged needle drops, and unbalanced, groove-grinder..."

So, grandpa Robert - what do you accomplish with your life? Did you contribute to a cure for cancer?


Did you enlarge human experience with an important work of fiction or non-fiction?

Did you at least devote your energy and effort toward helping the poor or less fortunate, such as serving in the Peace Corps, or Habitat For Humanity, or anything such as that?


Jeez, grandpa. So, what did you do with your life when you were blessed with youth, and strength, and energy?

Many altered states, misjudged needle drops, and unbalanced, groove-grinder...

Rock on.

ChrisS's picture

...and much appreciated.

You, Severius...?

What are you doing here? one cares.

So, bugger off.