VAN HALEN – “Fair Warning” 1981 (Warner Bros., US) – I’m suspecting all the “underground only” types are circling the wagons upon reading the heading of this article. Cries of “Ray’s gone mainstream!” fill the air like a raucous din as an angry mob with pitchforks & torches marches upon the buttresses of the ‘REALM. Well, ok, maybe that’s a little extreme because any rawker, no matter how far their gnarled tendrils extend into the depths of “obscure” knows that the first VAN HALEN album kicks friggin’ ass. What some may not be aware of, though, is the molten monster that came some 3 albums later. See, “Fair Warning” was not so much of a warning at all, as by the time needle hit vinyl, the storm was already upon you, giving you six-string friction burns.
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s try and figure out why this damn thing is such a beast…what events conspired to make this, yes, my favourite VAN HALEN album. Let’s look closer at the band’s recorded history at that point. Not much needs to be said about their 1978 eponymous debut. Non-stop heavy metal party classic with one of the most brash, ass-busting lead guitar performances of all-time. Then came “Van Halen II” in ’79. It was…um…ok. Sort of like everything the first album was…and less. Funny, but you can go through the record & almost match the 2 records up, song-for-song, with each one on “II” being a lesser version of those on “One.” Sheezus, the opening cover of “She’s No Good” is a poorer man’s “Runnin’ With The Devil,” right down to the bass line. There were 3 roaring numbers that could hold their own with the debut’s fare, the scorching duo of “Somebody Get Me A Doctor” & “Light Up The Sky” and a piledriver called “D.O.A.” With 1980’s “Women and Children First,” VAN HALEN displayed an alarming creative dip as well as a serious nod at attracting an even more commercial audience. The opener “And The Cradle Will Rock” sounds tired and plodding. Things don’t improve a whole lot during the next 30 minutes. Tracks like “Everybody Wants Some!!” and “Fools” each drag through nearly 6-minute slogs of mid-paced boredom and the only real bright spot is the jaunty blues of “Take Your Whiskey Home.”
So, it’s clear at this point, that VAN HALEN were poised to either shit or get off the pot on the next album. Surely, there was something left of the band that created that brain-crunching debut? Another factor in what was to come next lay in that strange old bedfellow of oft-great recordings: internal strife. Apparently, those were the days that the sparks were really beginning to fly between David Lee Roth and his party-hardy outlook dueling with Eddie Van Halen’s interest in pursuing some heavier, more complex material. Those sparks would extend to the upcoming music. And, finally…remember the year that “Fair Warning” was released: 1981. Think about it! The absolute height of the NWOBHM. Maybe VH were big-time arena superstars by then, but I’m certain the rawer, more visceral sounds from across the pond in the form of Iron Maiden, Diamond Head & Angel Witch were not lost on these guys.
And so, we come to 1981’s VAN HALEN release, “Fair Warning.” Opening with a short, untitled guitar piece, the album proceeds to explode with my favourite VH song ever, the marauding “Mean Street.” Borne on a riff that can only be described as completely classic, Roth surprises the listener by eschewing his usual banter about beautiful girls in the California sun to speak of “stinking streets” & “the living dead.” Midway, Eddie unleashes a solo that, as so many of his old ones do, has the listener’s jaw on the floor but this one is different. It flaunts a lyrical, jazzy overtone that may well speak of his, at that time, growing interest in fusion players like Alan Holdsworth. “Dirty Movies,” while taking a somewhat lighter-handed approach than it’s monster predecessor is still plenty rocking and, once again, takes on a decidedly darker lyrical tenor than we’d come to expect from Diamond Dave. Without a warning (ouch!), then, VAN HALEN bursts into the 3-minute hailstorm of “Sinner’s Swing!” Here, Roth ups the ante by snarling “she looks so fucking good” (no attempt at a single there) and Eddie delivers another corking lead, one he himself described as sounding like “falling down the stairs.” It does! Side One comes to a convincing close with the catchy albeit kick ass “Heard About It Later” and with that, “Women & Children First” is nothing but a bad memory.
Leading the charge into the B-side of “Fair Warning” is another of my very favourite VH ditties, “Unchained.” This song is remarkable in that while featuring a particularly caustic distorted riff, it is catchy beyond all reason…pure genius and again, another sickly hot Eddie V solo. Actually, “Unchained” is the first of 3 consecutive cuts that should’ve been massive radio hits, the other 2 being “Push Comes To Shove” and “So This Is Love?,” again all works of rawkin’ art, pushing the boundaries of the place where butt-busting hard rock meets sterling hook craftsmanship. To be fair, “Unchained” has gotten the most radio play of any song on this record but it damn sure wasn’t enough. Then, as the album draws to a close, things really get weird. First, there’s one of the most left-field curve balls VH has ever thrown the listener, the deceptively titled “Sunday Afternoon In The Park.” While sounding for all the world like it would be a sequel to Roth’s teenage seduction dreams of “Beautiful Girls,” “Sunday…” is actually a creepy 2-minute keyboard instrumental that wouldn’t be out of place on an album by Italian doom master, Paul Chain! Finally, taking the whiskey home is “One Foot Out The Door,” another oddly-short cut this time, with somewhat strange vocals, guitar rhythms that seem synthesized and a burst of soloing from Eddie that takes my breath away every time.
Yes it’s true, if you run the words “VAN HALEN” by a lot of underground metal fans, you’re going to get your fair share of derisive laughs. …But that’s hardly fair, especially when you think about the Marshall-driven bottle rocket known as the first album and, even more so this somewhat hidden behemoth from 1981. Believe me, this sumbitch is no warning shot…it’s a direct hit. 10.0