Tag Archives: Eddie Van Halen

Rocks In The Attic #824: George Harrison – ‘Somewhere In England’ (1981)

RITA#824What happens when George Harrison walks on stage, and the band breaks into the wrong version of With A Little Help From My Friends?

I recently read a beautiful story about George Harrison in Steve Lukather’s autobiography. Following the untimely death of Toto drummer Jeff Porcaro in 1992 –  the man who popularised the headband a long time before Mark Knopfler – his former band members organised a tribute concert.

Unfortunately, Porcaro’s death is the closest that real life has ever come to the Spinal Tap drummer who died in a ‘bizarre gardening accident.’ He was spraying pesticides in his garden, without wearing a mask. Somehow the pesticide got into his system, and he was supposedly dead before he hit the floor. Terrible.

The benefit concert sounds like one of the best shows ever. Toto hosted all of their musician friends and colleagues – a long list, considering their session-band credentials (they comprised most of the session band on Michael Jackson’s Thriller among many, many other hits). Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald, Don Henley, David Crosby, the film composer James Newton Howard, Eddie Van Halen and Donald Fagen all took part.

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The cover of the 2004 reissue, originally rejected by Warner Bros. in 1980.

Around this time, Lukather also met one of his earliest musical heroes, George Harrison. He spotted him at a club in a private area and begged a bouncer to be allowed to speak to him. ‘George’s guitar is the reason I breathe and I wanted to thank him for inspiring me to play,’ he writes.

George sent word to let him through. ‘He stood and shook my hand, and was so gracious and welcoming. I told him that he was the reason that I played music, but also that my band had recently suffered a tremendous loss and that I understood that he of all people would know what that felt like.’

After getting on well due to their mutual connections, Lukather mentioned the upcoming benefit concert for Porcaro, and that the last song of the night was going to be With A Little Help From My Friends. ‘“I know this is a long shot and no pressure,” I told him, “but I’ll have a couple of tickets left for you at the back door.’”

Midway through the show, one of the crew guys tapped Lukather on the shoulder and said ‘Someone from Liverpool is here to see you.’ After a brief catch-up (‘You didn’t think I was going to turn up, did you?’), George agreed to sit in on the night’s closer, playing Lukather’s ’59 Les Paul.

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Eddie Van Halen onstage with George Harrison at the Jeff Porcaro tribute

‘I had asked George to wait in the wings so I could bring him on in my own words. “As if this wasn’t the most amazing night ever, we have one last surprise for you. This guy doesn’t need an introduction, but, ladies and gentlemen…George Harrison”!’

They played the rocked-up Joe Cocker version of the song, because that was the version that Porcaro used to play in his high-school band. When they kicked it off – a far different arrangement of the song to the Beatles’ original – George shouted over to Lukather ‘Well, me and the lads didn’t do it like this!’

Lukather ended up becoming friends with Harrison. The next time he saw him, George invited him for dinner in Los Angeles. Lukather turned up, and Bob Dylan was also sat at the table. ‘I’m now sat between George and Bob, but I don’t know what the fuck to say to Bob Dylan.’ Racking his brains, he struck up a conversation about Sammy Davis Jr. and Harrison leaned over and reassured Lukather. ‘He looks at me, smiles and says “I haven’t seen him this animated in years.”’

The With A Little Help From My Friends story seems to illustrate a theory I’ve always had about the occasional gaps in the musical knowledge of all four Beatles. In their own bubble, they didn’t have to learn the craft after the fact like a lot of other professional musicians. They were superb songwriters, arrangers and performers, but I wonder how they would have fared in, say, the early ‘70s, performing covers of contemporary artists.

Of course, they were an expert covers band – starting off covering ‘50s rock and roll – but it seems that the music that they influenced was always of a different level. Not better, or worse, just different. Even McCartney – arguably the most prolific of the four – can be seen making the odd error of judgement. In the documentary of the 9/11 tribute concert, he can be seen explaining to Eric Clapton which scales he could solo with on a song in the key of G (G Major or E Minor, if you’re playing along at home). Clapton looks back, with a poker face suppressing a massive internal eye-roll.

Lukather points to another example of this in his book, when he was invited to a jam with Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Kim Keltner. ‘I start playing George’s song I Want To Tell You off Revolver. I’m playing the piano part of the B section – a flat-9 – on the guitar while holding the low E open. George says “Stop. How are you doing that?”
“It’s a flat-9,” I say.
“I didn’t know you could that on the guitar as it’s the piano on the record.”’

RITA#824cSomewhere In England is George’s ninth studio album, release in 1981 on his own Dark Horse records label. Co-produced with ace studio-percussionist Ray Cooper, it was recorded in his home-studio FPSHOT (Friar Park Studio, Henley-On-Thames) and features a host of contributors including Keltner, Ringo Starr, Herbie Flowers, and Al Kooper.

The album starts off with the Dylan-tinged Blood From A Clone, but it is the fourth song on side A that stands out from the rest. All Those Years Ago, a song originally written for Ringo’s Stop And Smell The Roses album, was rewritten in light of John Lennon’s assassination and features Starr’s drums alongside backing vocals by Paul McCartney, Linda McCartney and their Wings bandmate Denny Laine.

Clearly affected by Lennon’s death – they parted on bad terms, with Lennon disappointed about his lack of mention in Harrison’s I Me Mine autobiography – Harrison offers a quote on the liner notes in tribute to his former bandmate:

Sri Krishna says in Bhagavadgita:
“There was never a time when I did not exist, nor you. Nor will there be any future when we cease to be.”

J.O.L. 1940-1980

Hit: All Those Years Ago

Hidden Gem: Blood From A Clone

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Rocks In The Attic #636: Michael Jackson – ‘Thriller’ (1982)

RITA#636Happy Halloween!

A couple of weeks ago, I spotted local Kiwi soap actor turned Hollywood bit-player Karl Urban in an Auckland shopping mall. After taking a surreptitious photo of him on my phone to send to my jealous wife (a big fan), I retreated with my kids up the escalators to the next level. Halfway up, I turned around to look back, and Urban was following us, a half dozen steps behind. We locked eyes, and I immediately saw the look of dread (dredd?) in his eyes. ‘Oh no…’ I imagined him thinking, ‘…another middle-aged Star Trek fan to make my life a misery. I just wanted to buy some underpants.’

I left him to his shopping (although I believe he was actually going to the cinema, probably the new Queen Latifah film† ), and went off with the kids. If I was any more of a fan, I might have approached him for a selfie, but I’d met him before – my friend asked for his autograph at the same event where I met Quentin Tarantino – and I didn’t get a good vide from him then.

A few minutes later, still buoyed from seeing a Hollywood actor in such a normal place, we stepped inside a shop. Michael Jackson’s Thriller started playing on the shop’s music system just as we walked in. It was the first time in a long time I had heard the song, and definitely the first time in a very long time I had heard it played at a decent volume. Man, what a song. I stayed in there for six minutes, holding my crotch with one hand, the back of my head with the other, and bending my knee in time to the beat, just so I could hear the end of the song. Unfortunately, I’m now banned from all branches of Bendon lingerie.

Often labelled as the best-selling album of all time – and rightly so, despite some strange reporting of sales numbers ranging between 66 million to 120 million – Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a beast of a record. His sixth solo studio record, it is the second album released on the Epic label following 1979’s Off The Wall, traditionally seen as the true starting point of his adult career.

Like Off The Wall, it is produced by Quincy Jones and where the earlier album was a marked departure from Jackson’s recording history with Motown, Thriller went a thousand steps further and turned him into a pop music phenomenon.

Prior to MTV landing in the UK – and light years before such things were readily available on the internet – my Dad would always try and seek out John Landis’ longform music video to Thriller, wherever he could. Every year, there was an American TV show, counting down the top 100 music videos, presented by Casey Kasem, and broadcast in the middle of the night on ITV. I recall my Dad waking me up in the middle of the night on more than one occasion just so we could go and watch the Thriller video in all its gory glory.

That 13-minute video is probably the reason I turned into such a big horror fan in my early teens, and is why I now spend so much time and effort on the internet pre-ordering horror soundtracks from Waxwork Records.

Thriller, the song, is worth the price of admission alone. But it isn’t even the biggest, most enduring hit on there. In fact, it was way down the list, the seventh and final single to be taken from the record.

Side two, song two, kicks off with perhaps one of the greatest locked–in grooves throughout all of pop, soul or funk. It’s such a groove, almost mathematical in its execution, that you can actually see it visually on the surface of the record, almost like a spiral that repeats on every rotation. The song, Billie Jean, is timeless, despite a music video that is – in contrast to the one for Thriller – heavily dated, with graphics and editing techniques showing the early days of MTV on its pastel-pink shirt sleeve.

Beat It, the other US#1 on the record (alongside Billie Jean), is another great song. Proving that Jackson can do hard rock just as well as he can do pop, the song’s centrepiece is a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen – the hottest guitar player at the time. Upon hearing of Jackson’s request to appear on the song, Van Halen initially thought he was being pranked – especially when Jackson phoned and told him, in his high-pitched voice, that “I really like that high, fast stuff you do.” He later recorded his solo in a separate studio to a tape of the backing track, for no charge.

Beat It is clearly the heaviest song on the record, forewarned by a series of ominous synthesiser gongs on the intro (lifted note for note from a demo recording of the Synclavier II synthesiser). The lyrics re-imagine Jackson as a street punk – an idea he would revisit on the title track of his next album, Bad. However, where Beat It genuinely sounds tough, Bad sounds like a pastiche of street violence – with the opening lyric “Your butt is mine” showing how far out of touch Jackson had become since 1987.

The other singles on ThrillerThe Girl Is Mine, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, Human Nature and P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing) – are all very strong and individually could be the centrepiece of a lesser album. Personally I could do without the opening single, The Girl Is Mine, a duet with Paul McCartney. It isn’t a terrible song, but it’s easily the weakest of the seven singles, and pales in comparison to their other duet, Say Say Say, from McCartney’s Pipes Of Peace album. Released as a single during Jackson’s two-year promotion of the Thriller album, Say Say Say hit US#1; The Girl Is Mine had stalled at US#2.

I have such happy memories of the Thriller record. In terms of albums, I’d definitely choose it as one of my desert island discs. It has everything – songwriting, production and performance; a truly magical record.

Hit: Billie Jean

Hidden Gem: Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

†  Queen Latifah gag, copyright Seema Lal 2017

Rocks In The Attic #275: Van Halen – ‘5150’ (1986)

RITA#275Van Hagar’s first album is a ripper. I have a soft spot for it because my first guitar amp was a Peavey EVH 5150 model, and that beast got me through a lot of gigs; but I actually prefer this album to 1984 – usually seen as the peak of the band’s involvement with David Lee Roth. In fact, Diamond Dave’s solo album Eat ‘Em And Smile, released the same year as 5150 and with Steve Vai on guitar, is an overlooked classic – and those three albums together are a great trifecta of mid-‘80s rock.

Unfortunately – whether it be Sammy Hagar’s influence or not – this is also where Van Halen start to drift into the middle of the road (it’s probably also the influence of Foreigner’s Mick Jones in the co-producer’ seat). Until this point, I’d say they were probably one of the most cutting-edge bands of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. Now, with soppy ballads like Dreams and Love Walks In, they showed that they were making records for middle-aged people, not teens at keg parties.

I used to play this record over and over when I was at University, and this was probably the time I was most in awe of Eddie’s guitar playing. The guitar intro to Summer Nights is one of my favourite Van Halen moments – a wonderful showcase of his warped ability. Listening now, I can’t quite handle some of the most dated aspects of the album, like the God-awful synth on Dreams and Love Walks In. Eddie used synths masterly on 1984’s Jump, but here he uses them to soundtrack how they might be played in the kind of heaven where Kenny G plays God.

Thankfully there’s only one song on the album – opener Good Enough – where Hagar seems to be doing his best David Lee Roth impression. He wails over the rest of the album more in his own style, which I like much more than the whelps and screams of his predecessor.

My least favourite part of the album is the closing song Inside. This dirge-like song really leaves a sour taste in the mouth after such a sunny and upbeat album.

Hit: Why Can’t This Be Love

Hidden Gem: Summer Nights

Rocks In The Attic #240: Van Halen – ‘Van Halen II’ (1979)

RITA#240Given the energy that peppers the band’s debut album, it almost feels wrong when you put this record on, and you’re faced with the laid-back cover of You’re No Good as the opening track. It’s so laid-back it almost sounds like you’ve put a 45RPM record on a lower speed. The band eventually gets going, and you realise that yes, this is indeed a Van Halen record.

Big single Dance The Night Away serves as proof that the band can write decent pop songs, and the running time on the album – a very brief 32 minutes – is a welcome hit-and-run in the days before Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth started taking themselves too seriously.

Guitar-wise, to match Eruption from the first album, Eddie gives us a similar showcase in the shape of Spanish Fly – a virtuoso harmonics and tapping performance, but on an acoustic guitar. The whole of the album seems to be a departure from the previous album, in fact. Whereas that album seemed to be very two-dimensional in its guitar tone (a lot of it sounds as though it was recorded without Eddie changing any settings), this sophomore effort finds Eddie starting to experiment with guitar sounds – especially clean tones, such as the introduction to Women In Love…, which sounds very anachronistic for a late ‘70s rock record, and much more in line with their mid-‘80s creative peak.

The back and yellow guitar that Eddie’s is shown playing on the back cover of the album, is now buried with Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell, who was shot and killed on stage in 2004.

Hit: Dance The Night Away

Hidden Gem: Spanish Fly

Rocks In The Attic #218: Ozzy Osbourne – ‘Blizzard Of Ozz’ (1980)

RITA#218Aside from a woeful album title – which is only really beaten in sheer awfulness by the likes of REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish – this album is fantastic. It also happens to be a master-class in the guitar.

A lot has been said of Randy Rhoads and Eddie Van Halen. Who was first? Van Halen. Who was better? Rhoads. But at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter, they’re both very different. Randy Rhoads has one foot firmly placed in classical guitar, and for me that’s what makes him more interesting to listen to that the very soul-less Eddie Van Halen.

The loss of Randy Rhoads was just a crucial loss to the guitar, and to the music world in general, as was the similar departure of Stevie Ray Vaughan. My guitar teacher introduced me to this album – Randy Rhoads’ masterpiece – and taught me most of the riffs and licks from it. It suffers from a slightly top-heavy overdriven guitar sound, and if it had been recorded just a few years earlier it might have avoided that and sounded that little bit more timeless.

I’m not that familiar with the later Sabbath albums from Ozzy’s tenure, but this album has so much energy it sounds like a debut album. Breakaway solo albums seldom sound like that – they usually sound like a natural progression from the singer’s last album with their respective band, but here Ozzy, buoyed by the youth of his protégé, records a classic of its genre.

In terms of riffs, this album has them all. Rhoads is a progressive guitar player – just the sheer amount of licks that pepper a song like Crazy Train is testament to that; but quieter moments like Dee and monsters like I Don’t Know and Steal Away (The Night) show his incredible diversity – all with that pulsating, frenetic rhythm that is his trademark.

Hit: Crazy Train

Hidden Gem: Dee

Rocks In The Attic #68: Van Halen – ‘Van Halen’ (1978)

Rocks In The Attic #68: Van Halen - ‘Van Halen’ (1978)Aside from a slightly misplaced running order (I so would have opened this album with Eruption – something they would do in retrospect on their Best Of Volume 1 package), this is a killer rock album.

History – and Ozzy Osbourne – would try and have us believe that Randy Rhoads was the hottest new guitarist on the block at the time, but this debut by Van Halen came out a full two and a half years before Blizzard Of Ozz, and Eddie is on fire here. People say there’s no soul in the way that these guitarists play, but like any virtuoso, soul and feel will always take a backseat to speed and technique.

This album is also very California – although a lot of the music is in minor keys, it feels sunny and happy all the way through, with even some Beach Boys-esque harmonies employed on Feel Your Love Tonight.

When it comes to David Lee Roth versus Sammy Hagar on vocals, obviously the original frontman is the purist’s choice, but those crazy yelps and creams that Lee Roth peppers all over this album is a little off-putting. So the choice comes down to that, or the middle-of-the-road soulful vocals of Hagar. At the end of the day, I’m only listening to Eddie anyway.

Hit: Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love

Hidden Gem: Eruption