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‘1984’: A Track-By-Track Guide To Van Halen’s Classic Album
Blueee / Alamy Stock Photo
List & Guides

‘1984’: A Track-By-Track Guide To Van Halen’s Classic Album

As shown by this track-by-track guide to every song on ‘1984’, Van Halen delivered one of the 80s’ definitive rock albums.

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Issued in its namesake year, Van Halen’s sixth album, 1984, may have lacked the portentous overtones of the George Orwell novel it took its name from, but – with some justification – it’s since been bestowed with an equally iconic status. A highly consistent rock record further enhanced by guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s embrace of synthesisers, 1984 was first released on 9 January of that year and, boasting a controversial artwork that ranks among the best Van Halen album covers, it took the music world by storm. Peaking at No.2 on the Billboard 200 (behind Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which featured a guest appearance from Eddie Van Halen, on the hit single Beat It), it yielded three major hits – including the chart-topping Jump – on the way to selling ten million copies in the US, where it received a coveted diamond certification.

1984 also proved to be the swan-song release by Van Halen’s classic initial line-up of Eddie and brother Alex Van Halen (drums), plus bassist Michael Anthony and flamboyant vocalist David Lee Roth. Yet while Van Halen enjoyed further big-selling albums with Sammy Hagar as their frontman role, 1984 remains unequivocally one of the best Van Halen albums of all time.

Listen to ‘1984’ here.

‘1984’ Track-By-Track: A Guide To Every Song On The Album

1984

Though still very much a hard-rock album at heart, 1984 is notable for its pronounced use of Eddie Van Halen’s recently acquired Oberheim synthesisers, with the album’s title track effectively amounting to 67 seconds’ worth of keyboard warm-ups captured on the sly by recording engineer Don Landee. However, even if Eddie had been merely playing around with ideas, the instrumental’s all-too-brief Jean-Michel Jarre-esque soundscape works beautifully as a mood-enhancing introduction to the album, and it segues seamlessly into 1984’s seminal second track, Jump.

Jump

It’s been widely-documented that the rest of Van Halen were less than stoked about their resident guitar hero playing the prominent keyboard parts on Jump. However, if Eddie hadn’t stuck to his guns, his band’s signature song may never have leapt to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 – knocking Culture Club’s seemingly ubiquitous Karma Chameleon off the top spot in February 1984 and remaining there for five weeks afterwards.

Now the dust has long since settled, it’s easy to hear why Jump had (and still has) such a universal appeal. It’s long on energy, boasts an irresistible chorus and a defiant lyric (“You got to roll with the punches to get to what’s real”) that anyone struggling with life’s vicissitudes can instantly relate to. Indeed, as Aztec Camera’s stripped-down cover later proved, Jump is simply a fantastic pop song in any guise.

Also, it can’t be denied that the song’s inimitable promo clip has assisted its longevity. Something of a lo-fi triumph, Jump’s simple yet energetic performance video was shot on hand-held 16mm cameras by director Pete Angelus at a small theatre called The Complex, on Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard. Though no-frills in design, and reputedly costing less than $5,000 to make, it still proved ideal fare for the MTV market. Only Prince’s all-conquering signature song, Purple Rain, beat Jump to the punch for Best Rock Performance at the 1985 Grammy Awards.

“We didn’t want any of that stuff, like standing on the edge of a cliff with a picture in the background or fireballs thrown at you,” drummer Alex Van Halen told Rolling Stone at the time, explaining why the Jump clip stood out among the best 80s music videos. “We just wanted personality.”

Panama

Long-term Van Halen fans who worried that their heroes had succumbed to the lure of the on-trend synthesiser had their fears assuaged by 1984’s third track, Panama. Hewn from the hard-rock template that had made for many of the best Van Halen songs to date, with a driving rhythm section egged on by Eddie’s dirty, shape-throwing riffs, this track is as anthemic as they come, and it pretty much chose itself as 1984’s third single, cruising to an impressive No.13 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Panama’s classic rock’n’roll “cars and girls” theme was further accentuated by a cameo from Eddie’s own ride – a 1972 Lamborghini Miura S – which he brought to the studio in order to record the rumble of its engine for the song’s breakdown. The track also afforded frontman and primary wordsmith David Lee Roth the opportunity to pen a lyric full of mischievous double entendres, helping Panama speed into place as one of 1984’s stand-out cuts.

Top Jimmy

A David Lee Roth-penned portrait of a legendary Los Angeles scenester, Top Jimmy paid tribute to one James Koneck – the guy responsible for the Top Taco stand outside Hollywood’s A&M Records by day, but by night the charismatic frontman of local R&B-influenced rock outfit Top Jimmy And The Rhythm Pigs. Much loved by most of LA’s underground cognoscenti, The Rhythm Pigs’ floating membership also sometimes featured future Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin, and, during the early 80s, they had a lengthy residency at Hollywood’s Cathay De Grande nightclub which famously attracted guest stars as disparate as Tom Waits and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

During this same period, the Kentucky-born Koneck befriended Roth, leading to the Van Halen frontman penning Top Jimmy in honour of the singular figure referred to in the song as “the baddest cat alive, driving all the women crazy – all they want is Jimmy, baby”. Eddie fitted Roth’s lyric to an instrumental piece he had prepared, originally called Ripley (in tribute to guitarist Steve Ripley, who had built a unique stereo guitar for Eddie), but which he later repurposed and fleshed out into a rip-roaring rocker to underpin Top Jimmy.

Drop Dead Legs

Eddie Van Halen freely admitted that Drop Dead Legs owed a debt of gratitude to AC/DC’s mega-selling Back In Black, and it certainly rides upon an edgy, razor-sharp riff redolent of Malcolm Young at his very best. When allied with Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony’s slow-fever rhythm track it sets up the ideal grinding groove for Roth to relate his lascivious tribute to a woman with “drop-dead legs, pretty smile” who “hurts my head, drives me wild”.

Featuring Eddie’s bluesy solo during its end coda, Drop Dead Legs had all the hallmarks of a future live favourite, yet Van Halen’s classic line-up never performed it onstage until their final tour, in 2015, when the song belatedly became a staple of their setlist.

Hot For Teacher

Set up by Alex Van Halen’s Motörhead-esque multiple bass-drum attack, Hot For Teacher features a powerhouse performance from the whole band. Eddie’s dextrous rhythm and lead guitar interplay urges on the relentless rhythm section, while Roth supplies another nudge-nudge wink-wink lyric, this time about the joys of teenage crushes and imagined trysts between high-school boys and their female teachers. Subtlety ain’t its strong suit (don’t expect references to Nabokov, as in The Police’s similarly-themed Don’t Stand So Close To Me), but the song itself is nonetheless thrillingly executed, and its risqué video – which drew criticism even back then – became another round-the-clock feature on MTV.

I’ll Wait

Davd Lee Roth may have relished writing lyrics for the likes of Hot For Teacher and Top Jimmy, but he struggled to pen anything suitable for the excellent I’ll Wait. Eventually, producer Ted Templeman drafted in former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, then enjoying a successful solo run, to help complete the song by fleshing out Roth’s initial lyric and working with the band on the melody.

It all worked out well in the end, for the classy I’ll Wait shows off a whole different side of Van Halen. Opening with atmospheric layers of synth from Eddie, the song then slips into a more typical VH groove, with Roth supplying one of his most plaintive (and highly effective) vocals and Eddie delivering a guitar solo which is a study in virtuosity, but also absolutely bang on in this particular setting. You’d hardly call it a ballad, but I’ll Wait is certainly one of Van Halen’s more considered songs, and it rewarded the group with another Top 20 US hit, peaking at No.13 when chosen as the follow-up to the seemingly omnipresent Jump.

Girl Gone Bad

Proving that inspiration can strike when least expected, Eddie Van Halen ended up gently humming and whistling the melody line for what became Girl Gone Bad into a micro-cassette recorder in a hotel room closet, so as not to disturb his then wife, Valerie Bertinelli, who was asleep in their room at the time.

Having safely captured the basics, Eddie and the team then pieced together this full-blooded rocker in the studio. Something of a tour de force, the song inspired some searing fretwork (and a truly gravity-defying solo) from Eddie, revealing just why he ranks among the best guitarists in rock history, and it also offered Alex Van Halen plenty of opportunities to let loose around the kit. Add in a tale of ill fortunes delivered by a throaty and emotional David Lee Roth, and you’re left with one of 1984’s best, if least celebrated, songs.

House Of Pain

1984’s closing track, House Of Pain, took a convoluted route to completion. Traceable back to 1975 in its initial form, the song was first cut during a 1976 demo session helmed by KISS’ Gene Simmons which also included an early version of Simmons’ band’s Christine Sixteen, performed by the KISS frontman with Eddie and Alex Van Halen.

The lengthy end section of that original demo was later appropriated to open Van Halen’s self-titled 1978 debut album, with the band later using some of the remainder of the recording as the bedrock for House Of Pain. “The only thing that’s the same is the main riff,” Eddie told Guitar World, comparing the 1976 demo with its 1984 re-recording. “The intro and verses are different, I guess because nobody really liked it the way that it originally was.”

More in keeping with the rougher edge of Van Halen’s Women And Children First album, House Of Pain was by some way the rawest-sounding track on 1984, but its new lyrics celebrated the shadowy world of BDSM, so it was perhaps in keeping with David Lee Roth’s no-holds-barred denouement to a record that today stands as one of the best 80s albums.

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