If asked to list the ultimate '80s albums -- those that I most closely associate with the decade (even if I didn't necessarily listen to all of them) -- 1984 would sit at the top of the list next to Thriller, She's So Unusual, Purple Rain, Born in the U.S.A., the Top Gun soundtrack, Like a Virgin and The Wrestling Album.
Yet I must confess: I wasn't a big fan.
I was nine in 1984; Van Halen were my older brother's band, and he absolutely loved them. In fact, he belonged to a circle of pals who bonded over their worship. Even back then, at that age, I knew V.H. fandom was intense and unique. I've since met many more longtime fans, and each and every one of them possesses a similar degree of obsession. Van Halen might not go down as rock 'n' roll's most famous band, but they are certainly one of its most loved.
I think a lot of this has to do with their singular mix of titanic swagger, down-to-earth dude stuff and sheer comical absurdity. They were crazy and larger than life for sure, but they also seemed like neighborhood clowns ready to hang whenever and wherever good times were to be had. The "Jump," "Hot for Teacher" and "Panama" videos, all of which absolutely dominated MTV in the year following the release of 1984, expertly broadcasted these qualities with an infectious charm. If you want a taste of the Van Halen persona in microcosm, check out the blow-dryer scene during the moody middle section of "Panama." Pure genius.
Another impression that hit me when I was young was that Diamond Dave, Eddie, Michael and Alex were different from the hair-metal bands slowly taking over MTV. I think this has been somewhat forgotten as the Myth of the '80s has evolved through the years. Van Halen released their debut in 1978; they belong to a lineage that is older and hairier. Montrose, Cactus, Black Oak Arkansas, Aerosmith, the Motor City Madman ... pure 1970s, in other words.
But even this doesn't fully explain 1984. It's far more than just bell-bottomed boogie metal. Recorded at Eddie's home studio, 5150, the record belongs in the same category as Queen's The Game, Rush's Signals, ZZ Top's Eliminator and Yes' 90125. Each of these albums is the product of an older rock titan successfully keeping apace with changing times. Rather than regurgitate the aging rock sounds of the previous decade, they embraced New Wave: glorious pop hooks, chilly synthesizers and all manner of arty licks. Granted, Van Halen's music always reflected a love of pop, but never to the extent that it does on 1984. The trivia factoid that Eddie played the solo on MJ's "Beat It" seems to be telling of the band's increased emphasis on pop, as does Daryl Hall's admission that the guitarist once told him that he lifted the classic "Jump" synth line from the thoroughly un-rocking "Kiss on My List."
I might not have been one of the converted back in the day. But now, whenever I hear 1984, I'm amazed at the fact that I know a record I never owned inside and out. This isn't just a testament to its omnipresence on the pop landscape in the mid-1980s, but to its stone-cold awesomeness. My brother was right: these guys rule.