Album of the Day — June 11
Van Halen — Women and Children First
Van Halen — Women and Children First
Women and Children First
By this third album, you were either on the Van Halen train or … it would be another four years before you hopped on board with 1984.
I was on board … and all in.
By 1980, the band had two wildly successful albums under their belts, Van Halen I and Van Halen II, and Eddie Van Halen had been anointed the new guitar god, joining the ranks of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, etc.
Guitar god status secured, the band still had to earn its wings. So when Van Halen — David Lee Roth (vocals), Eddie Van Halen (guitar), Michael Anthony (bass), and Alex Van Halen (drums) — re-convened with producer Ted Templeman and engineer Donn Landee at Sunset Sound in late 1979, they secured the perimeter and stepped up their game.
Three months later, in March of 1980, as the new decade crept in Van Halen dropped their third album, Women and Children First.
This album sounded different. Rather than ripping in and out of the studio (the previous album Van Halen II was recorded in six days), the band took the time to texture the songs using overdubs and exploring the studio more.
There’s also a white whale of sorts on “Could This Be Magic?” — it’s the only song to contain a female backing vocal — singer Nicholette Larson sings during some of the choruses.
Van Halen albums have always been heavy on guitar, with Templeman and Lanndee pushing Eddie’s work to the front of the mix. But on Women and Children First, they gave Michael Anthony’s bass more presence. This adds depth to the songs that serve the band, the album, and the songs well.
Much talk has been made about who “actually” played bass on many of these albums. Michael Anthony is listed, so until we know something beyond conjecture, presume it’s his work.
“HAVE YOU SEEN JUNIORS GRADES?”
Getting the business end out of the way first, Women and Children First opens with “And the Cradle Will Rock …” the bands first and only single from the album. It didn’t crack the Billboard Top 40 singles chart, peaking at #55 … but the album was a stone-cold smash, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart.
Truth be told, this is perhaps the weakest song on the album, so it’s best to get it out of the way first.
“LOOK, I’LL PAY YOU FOR IT, WHAT THE F…”
“Everybody Wants Some” opens with a drum rhythm from Alex and some battle cry/sex chortle from David Lee Roth; the band eases into this second song … until Dave screeches and gives the go-ahead to storm the fort.
Then Roth begins one of his spoken/singing senseless word jumbles as the band slogs its way into the chorus … everyone marching dutifully behind Alex’s rhythmic beats (they would perfect this by “Hot For Teacher” on 1984). This goofy sincerity, and truth, is what makes “Everybody Wants Some” one of the shining moments here … and a fan favorite.
Van Halen songs aren’t known for mining emotional depth in their lyrics, so this song is exactly what you think it’s about.
But it’s not the lyrics Van Halen fans loved; it was the whole package.
Sure, the words were fine, but in Van Halen, you had one of the best guitar players in rock history, full-stop. And you had one of the most dynamic lead singers in rock history, full-stop. And even on record, that interplay and energy are heard … you connect with it, or you don’t.
“Fools” reveals a much harder sounding Van Halen than people anticipated after the saccharine songs like “Dance the Night Away” and “Beautiful Girls” off Van Halen II.
Pulsing with bass and testosterone, “Fools” speaks to every recalcitrant teen … ever.
Shifting gears, the band then rips into “Romeo Delight,” which would be a show opener — and rightly so — on this tour. Its raw energy would remain a staple of Van Halen’s live shows until Roth’s departure in 1985.
“Romeo Delight” would resurface when they re-grouped with Roth in 2008.
For the most part, Punk had run its course by 1980, but not for Van Halen. “Loss of Control” is a Van Halen’d style of punk. It’s got the speed and energy … but far less gritty. Van Halen would dig deeper into their interpretation of punk in 1981’s Fair Warning.
This Roth era of Van Halen found the band putting their unique fingerprint on both genre and song — like “Loss of Control” here or The Kinks “You Really Got Me” from Van Halen I or “You’re No Good” from Van Halen II or “Big Bad Bill (is Sweet William Now)” from Diver Down.
It’s these last four songs:
“Loss of Control”
“Take Your Whiskey Home”
“Could This Be Magic?”
“In a Simple Rhyme”
that make Women and Children First one of the three oft-overlooked diamonds — Women and Children First, Fair Warning, and Diver Down.
The punk vibe of “Loss of Control” is immediately trampled underfoot by seemingly goofy/good-time “Take Your Whiskey Home,” which is just as much dithyramb as a balls-out rocker. It’s the kind of song that was tailor-made to be played — very loudly — out of a black vintage 1968 Camaro … or the muscle car of choice.
“Loss of Control” and “Take Your Whiskey Home” are the sonic one-two punch of what the David Lee Roth helmed Van Halen did best … the unexpected.
The acoustic “Could This Be Magic?” features Roth on guitar (not lead) and is the band’s first foray into full-length acoustic music. It’s a fun reprieve from the pulsing rock. The song is part jive, part country, part swing but all cheek.
“Could This Be Magic?” reinforces the fact that Van Halen was, first and foremost, a rock band … also that these guys were NOT singers … and the lead singer only barely.
It’s the capstone to Women and Children First, “In a Simple Rhyme,” that is, and remains, far and away one of the best songs the band ever recorded. Lyrically, it’s about as close to a love song as the band was likely to get during the Roth era:
And she made the mountains sing
Birds against an icy sky
And I heard bells ringing
I think I heard an Angel sigh
Of course, David Lee Roth IS David Lee Roth:
Well, ain’t life grand when ya finally hit it?
I’m always a sucker for a real good time
Woke up in life, found I almost missed it
Ain’t I glad that love is blind
The two instrumentals, “Tora! Tora!” and “Growth,” are fine.
On the album or cassette, “Tora! Tora!” kicks off side two and rolls seamlessly into “Loss of Control.”
“Growth” follows “In a Simple Rhyme” and closes out the album. It was allegedly conceived to be a connection device between this album and their follow-up Fair Warning but was abandoned (forgotten about?).
Critics have said the same thing throughout Van Halen’s career — Eddie they love, and well, that’s about it. Everyone else, including the lead singer, is window dressing … but when it works? It works … and it almost always worked:
David Fricke called “Romeo Delight,” “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Loss of Control,” “works of high-volume art,” in his Rolling Stone review from1980.
In a review from 2011 for AllMusic, Stephen Thomas Erlewine calls the album “mature or at least getting a little serious,” noting “there’s a bit of a dark heart beating on this record.”
Van Halen fans like to focus on Van Halen I and 1984 as the benchmark albums for this band's era. To some extent, they are … they’re certainly the bookend albums of not only the band’s entire career but also of the Roth led era — and most commercially successful, each selling over 10 million copies in the U.S.
However, mid-era Van Halen — Women and Children First, Fair Warning, and Diver Down — remains my favorite period. On these albums, the band’s chief creative force, Eddie, is playing around with sounds and instruments, exploring, and finding his voice.
By the time Sammy Hagar joined in 1986, Eddie had found and locked into his voice … but in 1980, he was still traversing the musical palette of his ability.
It’s here on Women and Children First where where that exploration begins in full force.