Eddie Van Halen Looks Back on Van Halen's Landmark '1984' Album and the Creation of 5150 Studios
Eddie Van Halen looks back on Van Halen's '1984' album and the creation of 5150 Studios.
And then you recorded “Jump,” which became the band’s biggest single ever—even bigger than any of the cover songs Van Halen ever recorded.
“Jump” was the only Number One single we ever had. Outside of “Jump,” most of the other material was already written when we started to record the album.
For the first six records and tours, we all traveled together on the same bus, which Dave called the disco sub. All I did was write. You can hear the bus generator on all of the demo tapes I recorded.
I wrote “Jump” on a Sequential Circuits Prophet-10 in my bedroom while the studio was being built. Everytime I got the sound that I wanted on the right-hand split section of the keyboard, it would start smoking and pop a fuse. I got another one and the same thing happened. A guy I knew said I should try an Oberheim OB-Xa, so I bought one of those and got the sound I wanted.
I always carried a microcassette recorder with me. I recorded my idea for “Girl Gone Bad” by humming and whistling into it in the closet of a hotel room while Valerie was sleeping. I pretty much wrote the entire song in that state, and then when I got home I put it all together.
When the guys once asked me to write something with an AC/DC beat, that ended up being “Panama.” It really doesn’t sound that much like AC/DC, but that was my interpretation of it.
For “Top Jimmy” I had a melody in my head and I tuned the guitar to that melody. Steve Ripley had sent me one of his stereo guitars that had 90 million knobs and switches on it. That was too much for me to comprehend, so I asked him for a simpler version. He sent me one with a humbucker in the bridge and two single-coils at the middle and neck positions. It was just a prototype.
For some strange reason I picked up that guitar, tuned it to “Top Jimmy,” and that’s what I ended up using, because it sounded interesting. That rhythm lick I play after the harmonics sounds cool ping-ponging back and forth. You can’t really hear it unless you’re wearing headphones. It just fit the track.
“Drop Dead Legs” is one of the most unique songs on the album.
That was inspired by AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” I was grooving on that beat, although I think that “Drop Dead Legs” is slower. Whatever I listen to somehow is filtered through me and comes out differently. “Drop Dead Legs” is almost a jazz version of “Back in Black.” The descending progression is similar, but I put a lot more notes in there.
The solos almost always go into a different place than the rest of the song. Sometimes you even change keys, like on “Jump,” “Top Jimmy” and “Panama.”
I view solos as a song within a song. From day one that is just the way that I write things. I always start with some intro or theme and establish a riff, then after the solo there’s some kind of breakdown section. That’s there in almost every song, or else it returns to the intro.
What inspired you to record actual engine growls from your Lamborghini on “Panama”?
Having the studio here gave Donn and I the luxury and freedom to do all kinds of things. They thought we were nuts to pull up my Lamborghini to the studio and mic it. We drove it around the city, and I revved the engine up to 80,000 rpm just to get the right sound.
We’ve done all kinds of silly things up here. One time a septic tank needed to be removed. Donn lowered a mic into it, and we threw an Electrolux vacuum in there. We called it “Stereo Septic.” I have a tape of it around here somewhere, although I’ve never used it on anything. It’s fucking hilarious.
I basically lived in the studio back then. If Valerie ever needed to find me, she just had to look in the studio, because I was always there. Even when we weren’t recording music for the band, Donn and I would be in there every day, putzing around, making noise, coming up with riffs, playing piano, or doing whatever.
It was a bummer when we stopped working together. Donn just totally left the music business. I went to his house once and asked him to reconsider. He said, “Nah. I probably wouldn’t even remember how to do it.” I said, “That’s bullshit. Everything we did we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing anyway!” We were just experimenting and having fun all the time.
It sounds like everyone was having fun on “Hot for Teacher.”
I’m a shuffle guy. I love fast shuffles. I think that stems from my dad’s big-band days. Every Van Halen record has a song like that—“I’m the One,” “Sinner’s Swing.” It was an extension of that—more of me! I distinctly remember sitting in front of Al on a wooden stool and playing that part during my solo where it climbs. Well, I can’t count, so Al needs to follow me. I’d sit right in front of him, and then he’d look at me like, “Now!”
Al’s drums on the intro sound like a dragster warming up before a race.
When he started putzing around with that, we were going, “Holy shit!” It really does sound like a hot rod or dragster. You can only pull that off with Simmons drums because they sound so unique. Regular drums don’t sound the same.
There’s something to be said about the years that we used Simmons. The only bad part was how those drums affected Al’s wrists. When you hit those things there’s no bounce or give. It’s like pounding concrete, and thanks to the amounts of Schlitz malt liquor we drank, we hit everything twice as hard. Al would hit them with sticks that were like baseball bats.
That first drum fill on “I’ll Wait” right before the vocals was an accident. It’s one of my favorite parts of the song. Al hit the hi-hat instead of the cymbal. The only way we could record in that room was to have Al play just the drums and then later overdub the cymbals. He just forgot to hit the cymbal. It reminds me of Ginger Baker on “White Room” where Ginger does a similar thing on the first verse.
You've said that “I’ll Wait” got the most resistance from others.
Ted hated that song. When I played it for him, he kept humming “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent just to piss me off. It doesn’t sound anything like that.
“House of Pain” originally dates back to the demos you recorded with Gene Simmons and the Warner Bros. demos, but the version on 1984 is different. How did it finally make the cut six albums later?
The only thing that’s the same is the main riff. The intro and verses are different, I guess because nobody really liked it the way that it originally was.
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