Album of the Day — October 8
Van Halen — Fair Warning
Van Halen — Fair Warning
Yes, I am taking the last two days this week to highlight two more Van Halen records.
I know what you’re asking yourself — “Will one of them be the Van Halen (v3.0) album with Gary Cherone?”
No, it will not. Like most Van Halen fans, we ignore that one.
If we weren’t in the middle of the world imploding, I suspect Eddie Van Halen’s death would be getting a little more press.
I may be biased, but the man changed rock and roll music as much as The Beatles. Frankly, I don’t think the loss of Eddie Van Halen can be under-reported.
ANYWAY, this fourth Van Halen album, Fair Warning, is often mistreated like the red-headed stepchild of the David Lee Roth era (v1.0).
Recorded in just a few weeks in March 1981, the album was, like the previous three albums, produced by Ted Templeman and engineered by Donn Landee. It landed in the laps of rabid Van Halen fans in April 1981, just over one year after Women and Children First.
Everything about the album was a bit unusual. The cover art by Canadian artist William Kurelek, which depicts his tortured youth, was considerably darker than the previous three album covers. The cover art is a harbinger for some of the music on the album for sure.
So Fair Warning was a bit head-scratching at first, it nonetheless satiated the fan base.
By this point, the release of Van Halen albums had developed a pattern — release them in the spring/early summer. This way, the albums could make their way into every Camaro and Chevy Nova from Trenton to Pasadena, becoming the soundtrack for every teenage boys summer.
The release dates also were timed to make sure there was a queue of Camaros and Chevy Nova’s in the parking lots of the arena’s that summer as the mighty Van Halen embarked on the inevitable Van Halen summer tour.
Van Halen — February 1978
Van Halen II— March 1979
Woman and Children First — March 1980
Fair Warning — April 1981
Diver Down — April 1982
1984 — January 1984 (OK, this one doesn’t work with my theory — ces’t la vie …BUT this album played WELL into the summer.)
5150 — March 1986
OU812 — May 1988
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge — June 1991
ANYWAY, little is know about the recording of Fair Warning because I think I’m in the minority in saying that this is one of the better Van Halen albums.
It’s no secret to anyone that David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen often butted heads. In a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast, Maron asked Roth when the fighting began. In typical David Lee Roth fashion, he chortled: “The first band rehearsal.”
After three albums, three world tours, with very little time in between, and presumably a fair amount of chemicals, it’s safe to say tensions were probably pretty high when they went into LA’s Sunset Sound in March of 1981.
Eddie may have heightened those tensions by making known his desire to create more serious and complex songs. Both Roth and producer Ted Templeman were not too keen on this but eventually gave in to Eddie.
Connecting the dots
And that’s what you begin hearing on Women and Children First — Eddie working out some of his creative kinks. The last song on Women and Children First is “In a Simple Rhyme,” and directly after that is an unlisted song called “Growth.”
That song was allegedly meant to be the connective thread between Women and Children First and Fair Warning. It was either abandoned or forgotten about.
Do Eddie’s forays into exercising his creative kinks always work? Well, kind of. Had the effort been followed through with “Growth” that could’ve been interesting, but it wasn’t.
And on Fair Warning, the last two songs, “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” and “One Foot Out the Door,” fit into the same sound as “Growth.” Sadly, these songs are too easily dismissed. The songs are interesting in their own way, “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” is a bit darker than the other songs on the album, and “One Foot Out the Door” almost seems to be dipping its toe into the speed metal genre. But they work in tandem and are a noticeable break from the Van Halen sound, but I’d guess almost everyone skips them.
Where Fair Warning shines is in its sequencing.
The record opens with “Mean Streets” and “Dirty Movies,” two hard and dark songs. But then those songs are followed by “Sinners Swing” and “Hear About it Later,” two much more “poppy” songs that lean into David Lee Roth and Ted Templeton’s “poppier” territory.
Side two is just as equitably sequenced — opening with “Unchained,” and then the bass-heavy and marginally creepy “Push Comes to Shove” and then UP again with “So This Is Love” before fading out with “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” and “One Foot Out the Door.”
Now if you’re of an age where Side One’s and Side Two’s mattered, you’ll understand how important this sequencing was.
Perhaps best of all, the album clocks in at barely over 30 minutes (31:11). “All killer and no filler” — depending on how you feel about Eddie’s dips into the more “serious and complex songs.”
The album did manage to squeeze out two singles, “So This Is Love” and “Unchained” — neither of which came close to cracking the Top 40. But that wasn’t the mighty Van Halen’s market — they had a lock on the Billboard album chart— where Fair Warning peaked at #5.
Robert Christgau gave the album a B- saying: “Pretty impressive show-off stuff — not just Eddie’s latest sound effects, but a few good jokes along with the mean ones and a rhythm section that can handle punk speed emotionally and technically. At times Eddie could even be said to play an expressive — lyrical? — role. Of course, what he’s expressing is hard to say. Technocracy putting a patina on cynicism, a critic might say.” [Of all the times I’ve quoted Christgau, it is not only the first time I agree with him but also the first time his review isn’t over-intellectualized gibberish.]
Stephen Thomas Erlewine at AllMusic wrote — “Either inspired or spurred on by the gloomy rock Eddie cranked out, David Lee Roth casts his net far wider than his usual litany of girls and good times. He spits and swears, swaggering without his usual joie de vivre, with even his sex songs feeling weary and nasty. Whatever spawned it, that nastiness is the defining characteristic of Fair Warning, which certainly doesn’t make it bunches of fun. Still, it showcases the coiled power of Van Halen better than any other album, which makes it worth visiting on occasion.”
Rolling Stone — “Fair Warning flops due to the poor material and, significantly, a fairly humorless approach overall. Eddie Van Halen shows off a few new guitar tricks, but the most significant musical development is the synthesizer introduced at the end of Fair Warning, which would be exploited to greater effect on later albums.”
Fair Warning made Esquire Magazines “75 Albums Every Man Should Own” — the only Van Halen album to make it. There were no repeat artists on the list …but it’s interesting that they chose Fair Warning and not 1984 or Van Halen I.
Having sold 2 million albums in the US, Fair Warning has sold the least of any record of the David Lee Roth AND Sammy Hagar era. But for many fans, this one remains a favorite.
Fair Warning is NOT the Van Halen of 1984 or anything akin to the Van Hagar era … you’s been warned.