Written by: Michael Sandler
Everyone knows a Van Halen song.
Eddie Van Halen, the band’s guitarist and namesake, is one of the most celebrated musicians of the past half-century or so. From the innovative shred-fest “Eruption,” to synthesizer-heavy “Jump,” to the sing-along, classic rock of “Right Now,” Van Halen is the man behind some of the best moments in radio rock. Well, he and singers David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, whichever guy he wasn’t feuding with at the time.
But there are other, lesser-known great moments in the Van Halen catalog that deserve attention. The band’s history is chalk-full of deep cuts. My only criteria for this was that the song not be a top-seller, and contain something that made me say, “cool!” (Note: I tried to include something from the mostly-forgettable, Gary Cherone-fronted Van Halen III. Nothing stands out; sorry, Gary).
You might not be familiar with these tunes, but you should be.
1. “Little Dreamer” from Van Halen, 1978.
The band’s seminal debut album contains lots of pyrotechnics, but this slow-jam shines. Eddie plays a soulful, smooth riff, and an understated (for him) solo. But Roth and bassist/background vocalist Michael Anthony deserve credit, too. Roth downright croons in this song, and Anthony’s harmonies rival Motown. Most Van Halen songs end in a frightening fury of activity, but not “Little Dreamer.” It’s relaxed and a little sad.
2. “D.O.A.” from Van Halen II, 1979.
Prototypical Van Halen. A chug-along riff, start-stop drumming during the verses from Alex Van Halen, and a wailing guitar solo complete with dive bombs. There’s also this great little run of indescribable notes right before the last verse kicks in. Roth shines with some of his best lyrics, too. “Here we was, sittin’ ducks for the po-lice man. They found a dirty-faced kid in a garbage can.” Classic. Roth also declares himself as being “a spark on the horizon,” and sounds like he yells “Abbey Road!” at one point (he probably isn’t saying that, but I prefer to think he is.) The furious ending seems to be a nod to punk rock, but with Roth’s Tarzan-like screams.
3. “Could This Be Magic?” from Women and Children First, 1980.
Van Halen goes acoustic, with outstanding results. You can hear what sounds like rain in the background (but this could easily be someone pissing; who knows with those guys?), which adds to the intimate feel. There are no drums, Eddie plays slide, and it sounds like everyone in the band is singing back-up. Roth appears to be laughing throughout, and actually introduces Eddie’s guitar solo (“Edward, thank you.”) He also throws in the line, “what you need is on the menu and you get it tonight. Buddy, you got womens on your mind.” That’s right, “womens,” as in plural. God bless that man.
4. “Push Come to Shove,” from Fair Warning, 1981.
The band’s meanest, darkest and best album. “Push” is reggae, VH-style. Legend has it, Roth actually told Eddie to write a reggae song. That’s what came out. Slippery, layered guitars, and a funky bass line from Michael Anthony. The solo is cool, but what’s even cooler is the guitar behind the solo. Eddie plays a great rhythm part with all sorts of muted notes.
5. “I’ll Wait,” from 1984.
A synthesizer-dominated song supposedly co-written with Michael McDonald. Very pop, and very 1980s, but this song includes some of Alex’s best drum work. He drives the song, and plays some cool tom-tom fills when the music stops before the verses. “I’ll Wait” would’ve been cheesier, but Roth’s spooky, stalker lyrics—supposedly about Brooke Shields—darken the mood. This tune also features my favorite Eddie solo of all time; slow, bluesy, and thematic. The closest he comes to sounding like his idol, Eric Clapton.