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‘Van Halen II’: How Van Halen Created A Second Classic Chart-Busting Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘Van Halen II’: How Van Halen Created A Second Classic Chart-Busting Album

‘Van Halen II’ was recorded at lightning speed, yet Van Halen’s energised second album has endured, making its mark as a classic rock record.

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When a band scores a hit with their debut album, it’s reasonable to assume their record company might hope for a swift follow-up. However, when Van Halen sought to pursue the US Top 20 success of their landmark self-titled debut album with a follow-up, Van Halen II, it was the band, rather than their label, who applied the pressure.

Listen to ‘Van Halen II’ here.

The backstory: “Ted couldn’t believe how tight we were compared to the first record”

Following the February 1978 release of Van Halen, the Californian quartet spent the remainder of the year promoting the album. They spent months on the road, spreading the gospel with high-profile shows in support of acts such as Montrose, Journey and Black Sabbath, and only returned home early in December. Yet, barely a week later, the group reconvened in the studio and embarked on the sessions that would sire Van Halen II. It was an entirely deliberate move, too, for all concerned knew they’d honed the material to perfection – even if their drive and proficiency caught their production team on off guard.

Speaking to Record Review magazine in April 1979, just weeks after the release of Van Halen II, guitarist Eddie Van Halen recalled how surprised producer Ted Templeman had been by the group’s rapid evolution. “Ted… said when we were rehearsing, he couldn’t believe how tight we were compared to the first record.”

The recording: “The Doors and Frank Sinatra had recorded at Sunset Sound”

With hindsight, though, the circumstances surrounding the recording of Van Halen II differed considerably from those in which the group had created its predecessor. When they cut their debut album, Van Halen were a precociously gifted young band with little studio experience; yet when they returned for Van Halen II, they’d become hardened road dogs who knew their songs inside out – and they firmly believed a classic record was within their grasp.

All concerned, however, agreed that there was no need to fix what wasn’t broken when it came to recording Van Halen II. As before, the group tracked most of the album live in the studio with the same production team, and they returned to the same facilities, Los Angeles’ Sunset Sound Recorders, where artists such as The Doors and Frank Sinatra had cut many of their classic albums. Indeed, Eddie Van Halen liked Sunset Sound’s set-up so much that when he later kitted out his own 5150 Studio, he installed a desk similar to the vintage Putnam 610 console used on Van Halen II.

Van Halen were comfortable in Sunset Sound, but they were also confident they had an arsenal of great songs to choose from. Indeed, a couple of Van Halen II’s best cuts, such as Beautiful Girls (formerly known as Bring On The Girls) and the energetic, Judas Priest-esque Somebody Get Me A Doctor, had already been established as fan favourites.

“Somebody Get Me A Doctor was written around the same time as Runnin’ With The Devil,” Eddie Van Halen told Record Review. “It was an old favourite of ours and [of] people who used to follow us around before we ever had a record cut… Somebody in the band said why don’t we save that one for the next album.

The songs: “I can’t help it if I come up with a poppy-sounding riff”

With much of its tracklist also a showcase for hard-hitting, anthemic rockers such as Outta Love Again, Light Up The Sky, frontman Dave Lee Roth’s cheeky Bottoms Up! and a blistering cover of Dee Dee Warwick’s 1963 hit, You’re No Good, Van Halen II largely sounds like a logical successor to the band’s aggressive debut album.

Yet the band also relished the opportunity to go off-piste when the opportunity arose. The all-too-brief flamenco-style instrumental Spanish Fly offered Eddie Van Halen the opportunity to display his almost supernatural virtuosity, while Van Halen II’s purest pop song, Dance The Night Away, provided Van Halen with a vital mainstream breakthrough.

Released as the album’s lead single and climbing to No.15 on the Billboard Hot 100, the Latin-flavoured Dance The Night Away was reputedly inspired by the Fleetwood Mac classic Go Your Own Way. Certainly, it was radio-friendly and highly accessible in its own right, yet Eddie Van Halen was keen to stress that the song evolved without the band attempting to shape it for the charts.

“Dance The Night Away might seem like it’s just an AM [radio] offering, but it wasn’t planned that way,” the guitarist said in an interview with the website Van Halen News Desk.

“We didn’t think pop, we didn’t think AM song,” he continued. “It was just a riff that I had and we put it to use. And we just wrote it the way it sounded. I can’t help it if I come up with a poppy-sounding riff. We just do what we come up with, as opposed to forcing ourselves to write something commercial.

Revealing more about the inspiration behind the song’s soulful vocal melody in the same interview, Dave Lee Roth said, “People say, I love that scream you do, Dave – where’d you get it? Deep Purple? And I say no – The Ohio Players, baby.”

The release and legacy: “An ‘amazing 31-minute artifact’”

Recorded in a single week, Van Halen II was released on 23 March 1979 and, with the help of Dance The Night Away, it delivered on the promise of the band’s debut album.

Greeted by positive reviews such as Rolling Stone’s, which described the record as an “amazing 31-minute artifact”, Van Halen II quickly rose to its peak of No.6 on the Billboard 200 while also going Top 30 in the UK. It went gold within weeks, eventually going on to move almost six million copies in the US alone.

The legacy: “This album to me sounds much heavier than the first”

Confidently consolidating on the band’s first flush of success, Van Halen II is now rightly regarded as an important milestone in Van Halen’s journey to international superstardom – and its creators also felt it was a big step up from their debut, in terms of both sonics and songcraft.

“It sounded better this time than on the first album,” Edde Van Halen told Record Review of his guitar tone. “The majority of the album is played with everything just stacked up and blazing away. On the overdubs, I just used one cabinet as opposed to five or six.”

He added, “This album to me sounds much heavier than the first. The overall sound is so much fuller. I mean, songs may not be based on riffs as much as the first, but in my mind I still consider it harder but smoother, too. It’s not as rough. It’s got more tone and more confidence in the playing, and it just feels more sure.”

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