Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Might as Well Jump Back to 1984

Another rock classic reaches the 30 year milestone.  Part of me smiles that people still care, yet the rest of me shivers.  I remember the year Van Halen struck gold with their monster 1984 album vividly.  In that respect, nostalgia rules and I must remind myself I'm a parent to a child more than half the age I was when this album ruled America.

1984.  You'd have to have been there, but it was hell of a year.  I was only 14 so I had a different vantage than others, but it was at the height of tensions of the ongoing Cold War where the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation between two great superpowers hung over our heads on a daily basis.   It was also filled with a silly Orwellian paranoia that seems absurd to reflect upon now.  Was George a prophet?  Was there a Big Brother watching us?  For younger generations, obviously Big Brother today holds an entirely different meaning, but the debate over whether the government was infiltrating our privacy and silently manipulating our everyday lives was an underlying theme of our times.  How did we react to it?  David Lee Roth told us we might as well jump, so jumped we did, right into sheer apathy of the whole thing.

Outside of a slew of anti-commie action films (the original Red Dawn, for instance) and a lingering, McCarthy-instilled hatred of the former Soviet bloc, you wouldn't be able to tell by American pop culture people were affected all that much by the red alert status of our times.  Reaganomics told us to spend money and boost the economy, which had rebounded nicely at this point following the financial stagnancy of the late seventies.  People were more worried about calling Ghostbusters, getting Footloose and bathing in the Purple Rain.  We spent our fast times in the malls, pumping quarters into arcade machines, downing greasy pizza, flipping off security and hoping to score, which happened less than more. 

So long as our asses looked fine in Jordache and Sasson designer jeans, so long as the Aqua Net held the big hairstyles of The Big 80s, so long as you could breakdance without breaking bones, so long as the nerds had their day and so long as you observed the crucial rule of never feeding your mogwai after midnight, who cared about the bomb?  We had The Terminator, Indiana Jones, Axel Foley, The Karate Kid and Freddy Kruger amidst our borders in 1984, so you best not come fuckin' with the good ol' USA.  Just ask Ivan Drago, who ate some red, white and blue crow, served up by Rocky Balboa the following year.

Yeah, they made a film adaptation of Orwell's dystopian masterpiece 1984 that only the critics saw, but if anyone was worried about invasion of privacy or thought control, they weren't listening to Van Halen's 1984 album.  The government's cameras may or may not have been on us at-large that year, but all that supposition did was hype up Eddie and Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony, once considered four of the most dangerous rock 'n roll hellions in history, to become the year's biggest party hosts. 

In the neighborhood of my youth, I had a buddy, Shawn, whose family (at the time) was one step ahead of the rest of us.  They were the first with cable t.v., the first to own a Commodore 64 (considered the original home PC) and the first to own a VCR.  Thus Shawn's house ended up becoming Teen Central for a while.  We rented a gazillion movies (most of them horror) and at his house, we listened to the hard rock and heavy metal giants of the eighties coming up i.e. Motley Crue, Ratt, Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot and of course, Van Halen, who were already considered titans of American hard rock.  We also loved our British pals Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and Def Leppard, the latter still being constituted as hard before they jilted us with their AOR-kissed Hysteria.  It helped our young lion male cause that Shawn was taping Friday Night Videos and MTV, so we were able to check out the videos by these bands over and over again in full admiration and oozing envy.  MTV was ours, all music, all the time, not this teen angst pseudo drama bullshit it is today.  To each generation their own, but we still want our MTV, the way it was.  Van Halen cemented their legacy as immortals on MTV, after all, with the videos for "Jump," "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher."

The first Van Halen album, Fair Warning and Women and Children First all exhibited a certain toughness to the band that made all of us young dudes pump iron and break each others' bones in epic sandlot football and bedroom wrestling clashes.  It may sound silly, but those albums were empowering to us guys.  Diver Down is that anomaly Van Halen record that makes you squeamish upon sight, at least until you get it on and wince through the cover tunes except for their mondo boss hike of "Pretty Woman" that's given fuel by the bitchin' lead-in instrumental, "Intruder."  Where Van Halen was going to go after that relative fiasco album, nobody knew, but I can tell you most diehards were frightened at first to hear the synth saturation of 1984's signature jam, "Jump."

Today, most heavy music fans have learned to overlook keyboards and even appreciate them.  It worked for Rainbow, Yes, Deep Purple and Emerson, Lake and Palmer before the eighties, so what's the big deal, you might ask?  However, there was a stigma about keys in eighties rock (metal, especially) that had many fans crying foul that "Jump" was so drenched in synths and full of pop kicks.  Never mind Eddie Van Halen was already tinkering with synths on the awesome drag of "Sunday Afternoon in the Park" on Fair Warning, which nobody will argue is a hell of a cool set-up for the thuggish stomp of "One Foot Out the Door."

Thankfully, time has been kind to "Jump" and to Eddie Van Halen's decision to float a lot more keys into 1984.  The title track instrumental is nothing but ethereal keyboards and it's a serious mood setter.  Even the dickswinging pump of "I'll Wait" is driven heavily on a whumping key line that all but hides Michael Anthony's rhythmic bass strut and that song is a killer. 

"Hot for Teacher," I mean, wow.  To this day, I have yet to hear a better drum intro to song outside of Krupa, Blakey or Rich, and Alex Van Halen hilariously pops into a thrusting masturbatory groove that never lets up through this sleazy song.  If there's such a thing as a masterpiece of sleaze, "Hot for Teacher" is it.  I never had any crushes on any instructor of mine until college, but still, every adolescent male of Generation X could identify with the ultra-horniness of that song and it just so happens it kicks so much ass anyone with a rocker's heart can get on it.

I think Alex Van Halen's thumping beat line coming out of the second verse of "Panama" into the next chorus was full empathy on his part, not only for his band, but his audience at-large, no matter what country they were in.  That pulverizing stamp sequence was the summation of what many of us were feeling at the time in our efforts to blind ourselves to the political fireworks around us.  It sounds pissed off and man, was that the kind of juice we craved.  After all, every teenager that's set foot in the face of music is in search of something that identifies and nurtures their broiling angst.  Rock 'n roll was born in the fifties accordingly.

David Lee Roth has never been what I consider a world class vocalist.  Frankly, he's over-the-top and historically pushes his sexed-up wails to every extreme he's not really singing half the time.  He comes off (or simply comes, if you will) like he's shooting a load in his pants while abusing his sound engineers.  Now, this is not intended to disrespect the guy.  I love Roth and his songs, both in Van Halen and in a solo capacity, are a part of my DNA.  His voice in its prime is how you create excitement in a rock forum.  He is the big shoo, as Ed Sullivan would've said.  The changeover to Sammy Hagar may have temporarily gained Van Halen a pure singer, but David Lee Roth's charisma, acrobatics and headstrong bravado helped sell the band beyond the band's otherwordly talents.

For me, 1984 is one of those prime examples like Supertramp's Breakfast in America, INXS' Kick, Iron Maiden's Number of the Beast or even Tears for Fears' Songs from the Big Chair, albums best known for their generous amount of hits, but they are also loaded with outstanding material in-between.  All of the non-hit songs on 1984 are big-time numbers, like the speedy shuffle of "Top Jimmy," the hump-along drive of "Drop Dead Legs" or the rough 'n tumble closer, "House of Pain," one of my all-time favorite Van Halen cuts.  Even "Girl Gone Bad" is pushed to the edge and is decidedly Alex's show with tons of rolls, crashes and rides it feels as sweaty as its subject matter.

I think what the weirdest thing for me with 1984 was my mother taking an interest in it after I bought a vinyl copy with my allowance.  I'd made a point of hiding my music from my folks as most teens do, whether or not the music is parent-friendly or not.  In their goofy way, teenagers are protective of their elements (music, especially) that it seems, well, Orwellian, if their parents are nosing into their business.  My mom insisted we listen to 1984 since she said she'd heard "Jump" on the radio and really liked it.  We did our chores in the house with that album on the family stereo, cranked up, no less, and I didn't show it then, but I'd found a new appreciation for my mother.  I still felt leery having "Hot for Teacher," "I'll Wait," "Drop Dead Legs" and "Girl Gone Bad" swinging along with her in the same room, but she said nothing at all; she just grooved to it with me.  Years later, I discovered a copy of 1984 on cassette in her carry case back when cars came with tape decks.  We joke about it today.

Thus it's evident why Van Halen ruled the year they named their sixth studio album after.  1984 was an event year that found us kids cheering David Lee Roth's purported rebellion against the police as he's getting busted in the "Panama" video.  We roared ourselves silly over "Waldo" in the "Hot for Teacher" video and at least for many of us guys, we tried to keep our peckers down as the strippers played the figurative muse of the song.  We loved Michael Anthony's Jack Daniels bass and marveled over Eddie Van Halen's fret tapestries.  What's impressive is that he chose an abbreviated guitar solo for "Jump," then went around thirty seconds with a keyboard solo that still sounds like audile nectar thirty years later.  Alex Van Halen would win one of many Best Drummer awards and we found no fault with it.  Next to Dave Lombardo and the late Eric Carr, Alex and Tommy Lee were kings of the skins in our time.

With teenagers cowardly blowing each other and their communities to bits these days, it's evident they lack a proper release in their frustrated lives on top of proper guidance.  1984 was one of many mind-blowing things my generation had in our time to help us get rid of the natural inclination to go bonkers and I'm grateful to Van Halen for being there for us.

Yep, Top Jimmy still cooks.

                       Listenin' to:  Van Halen - Fair Warning

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