After changing its name from Mammoth, Van Halen strutted a glam-punk attitude when it burst onto the national scene in 1978 with its self-titled debut album. Featuring the template-smashing talent of the whammy-bar-happy, two-hand-tapping guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his percussive-dynamo brother, Alex, Van Halen the band, to many, became the obvious successor to the hard-rock crown once worn by Led Zeppelin. This opinion was further solidified by the group’s occasional dalliances with acoustic blues and Americana. Van Halen’s flamboyant lead singer, David Lee Roth, and virtuoso guitarist, Eddie, fit the archetypal roles of the testifier/sex god and the shaman miracle worker, represented previously by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. It seemed logical, then, that Alex assumed the role of a John Bonham–like drummer for a new hyperdriven musical decade.
While Alex was influenced by the likes of Mitch Mitchell, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Bonham (he also holds a degree in scoring and arranging), his drumming had little to do with Motown and swing patterns. Simply put, Alex’s performances were both art and exorcism, and the drummer approached his kit playing as though he were “viciously attacking something,” as he once said. But power was only part of the program; quality sonics were equally important, leading Alex toward rich, instantly recognizable tones, regardless of his specific setup.
“Ever since I could remember,” Alex told Modern Drummer in his July 1993 cover story, “it wasn’t only somebody’s playing style that really impressed me, it was also their sound. Ginger Baker’s drums sounded like Ginger Baker’s drums. Bonham sounded like Bonham, even though there was a change from the third record to the fourth. Your instrument is like your second voice. It’s the way you communicate.”
Alex’s playing came out of the gate bucking with Van Halen’s impressive late-’70s releases. When Van Halen hit shelves in 1978, it took the rock world by storm, unleashing a new kind of guitar heroics and a fresh take on the over-the-top, chew-’em-up-and-spit-’em-out lead singer. By the third studio record, 1980’s Women and Children First, the group had seemingly grown in aggression and self-confidence and exhibited signs of becoming more original, just as Alex’s drumming grew in inventiveness and volume, as heard on “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “Fools,” “Take Your Whiskey Home,” and “Romeo Delight.”
Fair Warning, from 1981, underscored not only Van Halen’s musical dominance on the hard rock scene (and Eddie’s superior skills as a fretboard acrobat) but also Alex’s ability to complement his brother and the band at every turn, as on “Sinner’s Swing!,” “Mean Street,” “Dirty Movies,” “One Foot Out the Door,” “Hear About It Later,” and “Unchained.” Alex’s combination of crushing steady-handedness, incessant (and sometimes slightly swung) 16th-note beats on his hi-hat, blanketing crash-ride hiss, and throaty, conga-esque snare sounds helped to create one of the most penetrating and menacing recorded drumkits in rock. And his loud and lively feel made the music breathe.
“My brother and I began as a two-piece,” Alex said in his March 2008 MD cover story, “and the whole idea is that you want to groove together. When we were putting a song together, because we had a classical background, we knew that you use dynamics and rhythm changes to your advantage. The idea of trying to create strict metronomic time is nonsense.”
Though VH retreated to safer, well-explored cover tunes on 1982’s Diver Down, Alex still wielded large sticks and pummeled his kit. Check out the unmistakable pop of his snare and the characteristic cymbal hiss in songs like “Little Guitars” and “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” the latter originally recorded by Roy Orbison in 1964. Interestingly, Diver Down set the stage for Alex’s most original work to date—his performances on the band’s following studio album, 1984.
The hard-driving double bass shuffle from hell that opens “Hot for Teacher”—which kicked off the original LP’s side two with a holy racket that’s reminiscent of a drag car’s piston-poppin’, super-turbocharged engine—features multiple crash accents, double-stroke ride patterns, and pulverizing snare work to boot. It remains one of the most unforgettable monster drum centerpieces of mainstream hard-rock drumming in the mid-’80s. Indeed, you could hardly walk into a music store around that time without hearing a teenage drummer aping that layered, cataclysmic groove on a retailer’s demo kit. Other cuts, such as “Panama,” “I’ll Wait,” “Drop Dead Legs,” “Girl Gone Bad,” and the popular “Jump,” which caused a stir among fans because of Eddie’s blatant use of keyboards, reflect Alex’s patience as much as his raw power and channeled energies.
After Diamond Dave left the band to pursue a solo career, setting off a fierce debate that rages to this day as to whether Roth or former Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar, the group’s second lead singer, is the better VH frontman, the quartet became more polished and commercially viable, achieving its first number-one record in the U.S. with 1986’s 5150. Alex met this slicker approach by incorporating electronic drum pads into his ever-widening kit. Songs such as “Summer Nights,” “Get Up,” “Good Enough,” and “5150” proved the drummer hadn’t lost anything off his fastball, even amid relatively softer tunes like “Dreams,” “Love Walks In,” and “Best of Both Worlds.” Alex’s rhythmic flame would continue to burn through the end of the ’80s with 1988’s OU812—check out the power and presence of songs such as “Mine All Mine,” “When It’s Love,” and “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired).”
The ’80s would be a long, cold decade for all except the most resilient of the original classic-rock groups. Luckily, Van Halen retained a bit of its punkish beginnings—and cred—while claiming an ever-widening fan base in the years prior to the turn of the twenty-first century. Things remained rocky in the band, though. Sammy Hagar came and went, two new songs were issued with David Lee Roth on vocals (1996) before a reunion of the original lineup broke down, and the band issued a forgettable album, Van Halen III, with singer Gary Cherone—the final VH record to include Michael Anthony on bass.
Diamond Dave returned to the fold for a very successful 2007-8 tour, with Eddie’s then-teenage son, Wolfgang, playing bass and joining his dad on backup vocals. Fans were thrilled to see the Van Halen brothers back on stage together, creating that familiar push-and-pull effect that’s made only by real, live musicians sweating it out together in front of an audience. “If something needs a push, we push it,” Alex told MD in 2008. “I’m the first to admit that I push the beat. But we’re not there to re-create a song. We’re there to put you on fire.”
As Van Halen releases its first new album with Roth since the mid-’80s—2012’s A Different Kind of Truth—and embarks on another big trek through arenas around the country, the flames are being fanned yet again.