In rock’n’roll lore, it’s customary for a band to cherry-pick their best early songs for their debut album, and – if they’re lucky – they may have more stockpiled for a second. The general rule of thumb is that, with it comes to recording their third, they will struggle in the face of changing trends – what’s known as “difficult third album” syndrome. But there are always exceptions, and Van Halen’s third album, Women And Children First, is most certainly one of them.
It helped, of course, that the band had gotten off to such a flyer. Van Halen’s acclaimed self-titled debut album and its quick-fire follow-up, Van Halen II, reaped multi-platinum sales, yet – like classic early albums by the band’s heroes such as The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience – both records were done and dusted within days. Indeed, the Californian quartet saw no reason to meddle with their MO when it came to recording Women And Children First early in 1980.
The concept: “We’re trying to capture our youthful enthusiasm”
“We finished the music in six days, and the whole album [including mixing] took eight,” Eddie Van Halen told Guitar Player magazine. “I don’t understand how people can take any longer.”
“I don’t think we’ll ever be confused with Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan, who spend jillions of dollars and years in the studio just to make one record,” vocalist David Lee Roth added in an interview with Hit Parader. “How boring can you get, man? I like to think that all we’re really trying to do is capture some of our youthful enthusiasm.”
However, while Van Halen couldn’t be accused of over-thinking their music during their early days (“The best parts of our songs are made up on the spot,” Roth had told Rock Stars magazine), that doesn’t mean they were slapdash. As Eddie Van Halen told US rock writer Jas Obrecht, most of the Women And Children First songs were honed through live performance before the band entered the studio:
“With us, actually, there’s more mania and more feel and more excitement live, because that’s where it’s based,” he said. “That’s where it comes from. I mean, that’s bottom line. The only thing that sells us is the live show. It’s not hype.”
The recording: “Wow! What the hell is that?”
Women And Children First emerged from sessions with the band’s long-term studio team, producer Ted Templeman and engineer Donn Landee, at Sunset Sound Recorders, in Los Angeles. Though Van Halen were tight and well-rehearsed, the album arguably came out sounding heavier, dirtier and rawer than its two predecessors.
As the likes of Fools, Romeo Delight and the drum-heavy Everybody Wants Some!! made plain, the emphasis was still primarily placed on hard-riffing, fist-pumping anthems (preferably extolling the virtues of whiskey and women), but there were distinct signs of progression – not least on the opening song, And The Cradle Will Rock…, on which Eddie Van Halen pounded on a Wurlitzer electric piano that was fed through a Marshall amp and a flanger.
“That was the first time I played keyboards in the studio,” Eddie later revealed. “Ted said, ‘Wow! What the hell is that?’ ‘Oh, nothing, just me, screwing around.’ So we recorded it.”
Now regarded as one of the best Van Halen songs, And The Cradle Will Rock… initially sparked some contention among the group. “That was my first encounter with the band not wanting me to play keyboards,” the guitarist said ruefully. “When we did the song live, Mike [Anthony, bassist] played it. They didn’t want a guitar hero playing keyboards onstage.”
Elsewhere, the group willingly embraced experimentation on tracks as diverse as the brutal, hardcore-punk-tinged Loss Of Control and Take Your Whiskey Home, which thrillingly morphed from acoustic blues workout to floor-shaking Deep Purple-style rocker after the full band made a sudden and decisive entrance. Pleasingly, they even embraced some audio vérité on Could This Be Magic?: a down-home, Delta-style blues featuring a guest vocal turn from Neil Young collaborator Nicolette Larson, to which real-time ambience was added by rigging mics up to record the sound of rain outside the studio.
The release: “Works of high-volume art”
Released on 26 March 1980, Women And Children First’s success was further bolstered by a spate of positive reviews. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke declared the album’s best moments to be “works of high-volume art” while even The Village Voice’s notoriously hard-to-please critic Robert Christgau stated that Eddie Van Halen “earns the Hendrix comparisons, and he’s no clone – he’s faster, colder, more structural”.
As for the band’s core fans, they were delighted their heroes were generously dishing out more of their superior, hard’n’heavy fare. Van Halen’s loyal support ensured that Women And Children First picked up where Van Halen II left off – with a Billboard Top 10 peak and multi-platinum sales that secured its place among the best Van Halen albums. Despite the record’s title, it was abundantly clear the group wouldn’t be making for the lifeboats any time soon. In fact, their journey to the top was well underway.
“I just really go for feeling,” Eddie Van Halen told Jas Obrecht, reflecting on the band’s growing appeal at that point. “All our albums have mistakes. Big deal! We’re human. It reeks of feeling, and to me that’s what it’s all about… If something is too perfect, it won’t faze you. It goes in one ear and out the other… Our stuff, to me, keeps you on the edge of your seat. It builds tension. Whether you like it or not, it slaps you in the face.”
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