Over the years, Eddie Van Halen has called this conversation "my first major interview." It took place backstage at a Day on the Green concert at the Oakland Coliseum on July 23, 1978. Although AC/DC and Van Halen were opening for Pat Travers and Aerosmith, the Van Halen album was storming up the charts, and Eddie Van Halen was on the verge of becoming the most influential American guitarist since Jimi Hendrix. After finishing his set ? the band's first major appearance in Northern California ? Eddie and I shot a few hoops backstage and then sat down for this impromptu interview.
What was your first professional gig?
Eddie Van Halen: Well, what do you consider professional? Just making money or the first backyard parties? (Laughs). We played some outrageous parties. It used to just be me and [my brother] Alex [Van Halen] on drums and a different bass player. We used to be called Mammoth. I got tired of singing. I used to lead sing, you know, and I couldn't stand that crap! I'd rather just play. So [David Lee Roth] was in another local band, and we used to rent his P.A. We said, "F***! It's much cheaper if we just get him in the band!" So we got Dave in the band, and then we were playing this gig with [bassist] Michael Anthony?s band ? a group called Snake. They opened for us. We were all tripped out, because he was lead singing for his band and fronting his own band. Dave was fronting his own band. Then we all just kind of hooked together.
How did you get from there to playing coliseums in just four years?
Van Halen: Oh, playing everywhere and anywhere ? from backyard parties to places the size of your bathrooms to you name it. And we did it all without a manager, without an agent, without a record company. I guess the main thing that really got us going was the Pasadena Civic. We used to print up flyers, with some local people helping us. But it was basically our own thing. We'd print up flyers and stuff, like thousands of 'em in high school lockers. And the first time we played, I guess we drew maybe 900 people. The last time we did, which was almost a year ago, we drew 3,300 people at four or five bucks a head. And that was still without a record out or management or anything. It was about the only place where we could play our own music. We used to play Gazzari?s and everywhere else, where you got to do the Top-40 [cover song] grind, you know.
How did you get a record deal?
Van Halen: Ah, I was getting to that. We just kept playing, doing our Civic shows and clubs and stuff like that, and then we got into playing the Starwood and the Whiskey because Rodney Bingenheimer, who's a big wheel in the L.A. music scene, saw us. He said, "Sh*t, you guys are all right. Why don't you play at the Starwood?" So we played there for maybe four or five months, and one day Marshall Berle, who's now our manager, saw us. He's Milton Berle's nephew. He didn't tell us who was there. He just said, "Hey, there's some people out here to see you. Play good." At that time he really had nothing to do with us. He was just working his way into having something to do for us. It ends up that we played a good set in front of no people, an empty house at the Starwood on a rainy Monday night. We got done with the set, and we're all going, "Hey, it was a good set. All right, guys!" All of a sudden Marshall walks in with [producer] Ted Templeman and [Warner Bros. executive] Mo Austin. I mean, it was heavy. Because I remember talking to other bands, and they've always been trying to get Ted to produce their records, but he only works inside of Warner Brothers. He doesn't produce other acts. And there he was. He said, "Hey, it was great, man." And within a week we were signed. It was right out of the movies, man, because really? Well, we made a tape once with Gene Simmons from Kiss. We flew to New York with them, and nothing really ever came of it, because we didn't know where the hell to take our tape. So we had a bitchin' sounding tape -- the world's most expensive demo tape, which he paid for. We didn't know where to take it. We didn't start walking around knocking on people's doors, pushing ourselves on them, saying, "Hey, sign us, sign us!" We just kept playing everywhere, and eventually they came to us.
Did it take long to cut the album Van Halen?
Van Halen: Three weeks. The album is very live with no overdubs ? that's the magic of Ted Templeman. I'd say out of the 10 songs on the record, I overdubbed the solo in two or three songs. One of them's doubled in "Ice Cream Man" and "Jamie's Cryin'." All the rest are live! I used the same equipment I use live, the one guitar, soloed during the rhythm track, and Al just played one set of drums [laughs]. And Mike, you know. And Dave stood in the booth and sang a lot of lead vocals at the same time. The only thing we did overdub was the backing vocals, because you can't play in the same room and sing with the amps ? otherwise it will bleed on the mikes. The music, I'd say, took a week, including "Jamie's Cryin'," which we wrote in the studio ? I had the basic riffs to the song. And my guitar solo, "Eruption," wasn't really planned to be on the record. Me and Al were dickin' around rehearsing for a show we had to do at the Whiskey, so I was warming up, you know, practicing my solo, and Ted walks in. He goes, "Hey, what's that?" I go, "That's a little solo thing I do live." He goes, "Hey, it's great. Put it on the record." So the music took a week, the singing took about two.
What's the difference between your studio and live playing?
Van Halen: Well, between that record and the shows we're doing now, I'd say none (Laughs). We were jumping around and drinking a beer and getting crazy in the studio, too. There's a vibe on the record, I think, because a lot of bands, they keep hacking it out and doing so many overdubs and double-tracking and stuff like that, it doesn't sound real. And then a lot of bands can't pull it off live because they overdubbed so much stuff in the studio that it either doesn't sound the same, or they're standing there pushing buttons to get their tape machines working right or something. So we kept it real live, and the next record will be very much the same.
Have you already got plans for it?
Van Halen: Oh, for the first record we went into the studio one day with Ted, and we all just played live and laid down like 40 songs. And out of those 40 we picked nine and wrote one in the studio for the record. So we got plenty of songs. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna get together with Ted on Wednesday and figure out which songs off that tape that we're gonna do for the next one. But we've been writing, and we've got so many more songs since that tape, and we've got like 30 songs left just on that tape. I think we're gonna use just that tape for the next album, because Ted seems pretty sure that he's got some hit action or whatever just out of those songs. A little polish here and there, but the basic ideas are there.
What kind of practicing do you do?
Van Halen: I never really sit down and really practice, like set myself in a little room and go, "All right, I'm serious now." (Laughs). You know, I just sit around and whenever I get bored, I play my guitar.
Do you compose with the guitar?
Van Halen: Sure, sure. Sometimes I don't. Mainly I'm always thinking music. I'm always trying to think of riffs, using my head. Like sometimes people think I'm spacing off, but I'm not really. I'm thinking about music.
Can you remember it later?
Van Halen: Sometimes yeah and sometimes no. Most of the time I'm so high I forget them! (Laughs). By the time I get to a guitar, I forget, you know.
What's your strategy for playing guitar within the band?
Van Halen: I do whatever I want. I don't really think about it too much. I'd say that's the beauty of being in this band, that everyone pretty much does what
Do you leave yourself room for onstage experimentation?
Van Halen: Oh, yeah, definitely. Half the time I forget the solos I played on the record. Everything is pretty spontaneous, you know. It's not so set. We used to have a keyboard player, and I hated it, because you have to play everything exactly the same all the time with the guy. You couldn't noodle, like in between vocal lines, because he'd be doing something to fill it up. And I didn't dig it, because I played too much. Sometimes I guess too much. But I like to play my guitar. I don't want someone else filling where I want to fill it. I've always liked to play three-piece, because I just play too much, I guess.
What guitar players were you most influenced by?
Van Halen: That's a toughie, really. But I'd say the main one, believe it or not, was Eric Clapton. I mean, I know I don't sound like him?
You're more like Hendrix or Blackmore.
Van Halen: Yeah, I know. I don't know why, because Hendrix I like, but I was never into him like I was Clapton. And Clapton, man, I know every solo he ever played, note-for-note, still to this day.
You memorized them?
Van Halen: Oh, yeah! I used to sit down and learn that stuff note-for-note off the record. The live stuff, like "Spoonful," "I'm So Glad" live ? all that stuff. But Hendrix too. Just like the whole band ? none of us really have one main thing that we like. Like Dave our singer doesn't even own a stereo. He listens to the radio, which is a good variety. That's why we do have, like on the record, "Ice Cream Man," which is a change from the slam-bang loud stuff. You know, we're into melodies, melodic stuff. Most of our songs you can sing along with, even though it does have the peculiar guitar and end-of-the-world drums.
(footage of You Really Got Me from 1978)
\What advice would you give a young guitarist who wants to follow the route you've gone?
Van Halen: You just have to enjoy what you're doing. I mean, you can't pick up a guitar and say, "I want to be like him, I wanna be a rock star," just because you wanna be a rock star. You know? You have to enjoy playing guitar. If you don't enjoy playing guitar, then it's useless. I know a lot of people who really want to be famous or whatever, but they don't really practice guitar. They think all you do is grow your hair long and look freaky and jump around, and they neglect the actual musical end, which is tough. To learn music is like going to school to be a lawyer. But you have to enjoy it. If you don't enjoy it, it's a waste.