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‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’: How Van Halen’s Ninth Album Battled The Censors
Warner Music
In Depth

‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’: How Van Halen’s Ninth Album Battled The Censors

Van Halen were up against changing trends and government attacks, yet they prevailed with the ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ album.

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Initially released in the summer of 1991, Van Halen’s ninth album, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, shot straight to No.1 on the Billboard 200 and proved categorically that the virtuosic Californian rockers could survive the onslaught of grunge.

At the time of the album’s release, however, it wasn’t music’s rival movements that were getting Van Halen’s blood up, it was the industry itself – specifically its reactionary thinking in the late 80s and early 90s.

Listen to ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ here.

The backstory: “The US government were starting this big campaign against rock bands”

“That was the time when [Florida hip-hop group] 2 Live Crew was having all that trouble, and the US government – or at least the wives of some senators – were starting this big campaign against rock bands,” frontman Sammy Hagar recalled on the album’s 25th anniversary. “I’m thinking that was such a backward move.”

The campaign that attracted Van Halen’s own opposition was led by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore – the wife of then senator and future US Vice President Al Gore – after she’d heard her daughter listening to the song Darling Nikki, on Prince’s Purple Rain album, the group’s goal was to increase parental control over children’s access to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes. After taking their case to court, the group succeeded in forcing the industry to add “Parental Advisory” stickers to albums that met their criteria.

One of the records targeted by the PMRC was 2 Live Crew, whose 1989 album, As Nasty As They Wanna Be, was at the centre of obscenity-related legal wrangles in the early 90s. As far as Sammy Hagar was concerned, however, all censorship in modern music was wrong – a point the singer wanted to make with the title of his band’s ninth album.

The meaning behind the name ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’

“I was really angry about it and I wanted to call our album ‘Fuck’, as in ‘Fuck Censorship,’” Hagar said in 2016. “But, of course, nobody else was going for that, whether it was the record company, the management or our marketing team. They were all saying. ‘How are you going to get that into K-Mart?’”

In the end, the band agreed to a compromise. In a conversation with his friend and former WBA lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Hagar was informed – apocryphally – that the word “fuck” was an acronym for the phrase “for unlawful carnal knowledge”. When the singer suggested the latter as an album title, everyone agreed that it would fly.

The recoding: “It took a very long time to get it right”

Recording For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge brought a different set of difficulties, among them the band’s choice of studio. Starting with their multi-platinum sixth album, 1984, Van Halen had been tracking their records at Eddie Van Halen’s own studio, 5150 – named after Section 5150 of the California Welfare And Institutions Code, which allowed for people with mental-health disorders to be placed in custody in specific circumstances. The band were comfortable working at the facility, but they wanted an engineer who could obtain a cleaner yet more aggressive sound from its equipment.

To achieve this aim, Van Halen hired one of their heroes, veteran producer/engineer Andy Johns, whose credits included classic albums by Led Zeppelin, Free, The Rolling Stones and Television. Yet, while Johns did undoubtedly give For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge an additional layer of ferocity, completing the record took considerable time and effort.

“Alex [Van Halen, drummer] really wanted… to sound like [John Bonham],” Johns later told MelodicRock. “And I remember the first time I was there, he plays me this one fill out of Stairway To Heaven, he goes, ‘Make my snare sound like that.’ I said, ‘Well, you know, yeah right! Sure, no problem.’ So we went from there and it took a very long time to get it right.”

Johns wasn’t the only one having a rough ride. Despite his fury at the censorship issue, Sammy Hagar was contending with more personal difficulties that were demanding his attention.

“The recording was tough, it was a hard time for me,” he said in 2016. “My ex-wife was going through a nervous breakdown and I was having a lot of problems at home. I couldn’t just hole up in the studio indefinitely, like we’d done on the previous records. So the songwriting was drawn out. I would get behind with the lyrics because I didn’t have time to focus.”

The release: “That’s a dream come true, man”

Despite the hassles, Van Halen eventually emerged with a record of quality. Featuring several much-loved deep cuts courtesy of The Dream Is Over, the Jump-inspired Top Of The World and the instrumental 316 (named after 16 March, the birthday of Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang), in addition to a pair of the band’s most durable singles, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was released on 17 June 1991, and became another US chart-topper for the group, proving they could hold their own against the rising tide of grunge.

Of the album’s singles, the ferocious Poundcake opened the record, with Eddie famously doubling the intro and part of the song’s guitar solo with the sound of a Makita power drill. At the other end of the spectrum, the piano-led Right Now featured socio-political lyrics from Hagar, touching on everything from AIDS to the minimum wage. Although it was something of a departure for Van Halen, the song appealed to a broad audience and went to No.2 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. Its success was especially sweet for Hagar.

“I kept singing it every day to Eddie. It was my baby,” he recalled in an interview with The A.V Club. “And he goes, ‘Cool, cool.’ He never wrote music to my lyrics. He wasn’t ignoring me; he just didn’t have anything that he thought fit.”

After a while, however, a piano part that Hagar himself had struggled to match to the song’s lyrics ended up providing the breakthrough. “We were almost finished with the record, and I am playing pinball and he’s playing the piano, and all of a sudden I’m singing Right Now in my head, and it goes with the damn piano part,” Hagar revealed. “Those are the magical songwriting moments, when you have a partner that clicks like that. That’s a dream come true, man. It wasn’t even work!”

The legacy: “We really made a giant step with that record”

Despite everything that was thrown their way while they recorded it, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge ultimately came through for Van Halen. Not only did it top the Billboard charts for three consecutive weeks on release, it also went on to attain triple-platinum status in the US in the wake of winning Best Rock Album at the 1991 Billboard Music Awards. Indeed, the record’s success kept Van Halen at rock’s top table – a place they retained with their follow-up release, 1995’s Balance.

“There are a lot of what I call ‘goose bump’ moments on that record,” Hagar said in 2016. “F.U.C.K., I think, is a really deep Van Halen record. A nice departure from the non-stop party of the early years of Van Halen. I think we really made a giant step with that record. I’m very proud of it.”

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