Julian Cope’s Album of the Month

Van Halen - Atomic Punks

Van Halen
Atomic Punks

AOTM #39, August 2003ce
Released 1982 on Oscar Records
Side One
  1. On Fire
  2. Feel Your Love Tonight
  3. Runnin' With The Devil
  4. Atomic Punk
  5. Little Dreamer
Side Two
  1. Somebody Get Me A Doctor
  2. Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love
  3. Eruption
  4. DOA
  5. You Really Got Me

Note: Although it’s obvious that the optimum deal I coulda dealt ya woulda been a thorough and cohesive analysis of the first four Van Halen LPs, gotta say a number of things precluded my doing so. For a start, although WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST and FAIR WARNING are both virtually faultless records, it’s gotta be said that VAN HALEN II was a monumental fudge that took about eight months too long to record and (though it’s got some great songs) I just never listen to the thing. Secondly, magnificent as the first LP is, their simple act of re-sequencing it for the new Remastered series so that the three strongest tracks now open the record, is not only proof that Warners and Van Halen themselves got it wrong the first time, but hell, it almost makes the thing an entirely new record. While “Running With The Devil” is just about the greatest (and most bass heavyyy) career opener of the 1970s, if it’s taken the protagonists over 25 years to realise what every Van Halen head always intuitively knew when making C90 comps for mates, that is: you follow “Running With The Devil” with “Atomic Punk” and “On Fire”, then should they have bothered at this late stage? Personally, I think they should have said sod it and left well alone. I mean, however shrill and ridiculous the lead vocal is, would you – at this late stage - accept the metaphor of re-sequencing KICK OUT THE JAMS without “Rambling Rose” opening the LP.? I mean, isn’t re-sequencing a neurotic something that should be confined to the beginning of careers? The third and most obvious reason for not reviewing all four of the main sequence of LPs is the re-appearance of this old ATOMIC PUNKS vinyl bootleg in two other forms, first a coupla years ago as YOUNG & WILD then as PASADENA PARTYSLAMMERS on New Jersey’s highly prolific Seidr label. So why bother? Hell, you get great versions of songs from the first LP and they do justice to “Somebody Get Me A Doctor”! Awl-fucking-righty!!!


Humans are always at their best when they’re ascending towards something

The great thing about this ATOMIC PUNKS LP was always the way the rhythm guitar dropped out when the solos came in, leaving the mogadon bass of Michael Anthony as sole supporter of the song’s chord sequence, thereby rendering Edward Van Halen’s shards-of-shattering-Red Arrows-windscreen guitar aerobatics less Olympian and more Lokian. To be fair, much of the first studio LP did just this and gained hugely from the Cast Adrift element of chaos that it brung to the party. But as an antidote to the parts that got rhythm guitar support (and the second LP certainly fell a major victim), this ATOMIC PUNKS bootleg really reveals what a freeform racket they could brew up. Man, those amazingly confident harmony vocals sound even greater when you’ve lost all sense of their context. Tell you, this boot is the proof that if the Japanese free-rock brigade could only get together with a 21st century Mann/Weill or Chinnichap for a coupla days, we’d all be down on our padded & elasticated high-kicking hands’n’knees with gratitude – or my name ain’t Britney Houston. But afore we appraise ATOMIC PUNKS, a quick mench for just how we should approach it. Because this lot are a right mystery and (as many of you will NOT be down with Van Halen) I want y’all to be in on the collusion. So first I should clue ya to avoid collision.

By defining, then accepting your Metaphor, your restrictions will release you

Zep did it with “D’Yer Make ‘er?” The Stooges did it with “We Will Fall”. Kiss did it with “Beth”. And Van Halen did it with “Ice Cream Man”. That is, they stepped outside their own self-imposed boundaries and brutalised their own metaphor. Of course, Queen did it so often they transcended every genre and got what they deserved/demanded – played Sun City with Ben Elton. But the point here is that the success of the best Van Halen records is all alchemical, that is: they only failed when they stepped outside the metaphor. So long as the songs contained the pre-determined codes – off kilter riffs, unmelodic chromatic strato-guitar solo, showmanic look-at-me vocals, and faultline punishing ur-bass – Van Halen COULD NOT fail. If they had a problem at all, it was just that they had two Shamen in one group and both shamen were showmen. For, as K. Rasmussen long ago asserted in his 1932 book INTELLECTUAL CULTURE OF THE IGLUILIK ESKIMOS:
“Every great shaman must, when asked and when a number of people are present, exercise his art in miraculous fashion in order to astonish the people and convince them of the sacred and inexplicable powers of the shaman.”
I ask you if it’s just me, or was the brevity of the first four Van Halen LPs (about 16 minutes per side) for some deeper shamanic reason? Were they displays rather than entertainments, in the same manner that the Jesus & Mary Chain’s early ‘shows’ were really displays, thereby setting them beyond judgement by being only 15 minutes in length. Did [Warners in-house producer] Ted Templeman get to produce them because he was their Mr Bollocks, or was it because his name stated that he was a temple-man? I mean, this sucker weren’t no rawk guy, he’d even done Beefheart’s soul LP CLEAR SPOT. And did Ted get credited as ‘Tad’ Templeman on the label of FAIR WARNING because of some band in-joke that his production technique was (perhaps in some very ancient Keltic manner) turning him into the tad, or father, of the group?

Atomic Punks label

Typically, like the traditionalists they obviously were, the bootleggers spent all their money on a good-looking record label and left us with your typical Hallmark of Quality photo-copy outer sleeve

I ask these questions because reading David Lee Roth’s autobiography CRAZY FROM THE HEAT back in 1999CE surprised me at the sheer depth of mystical understanding that he had brought to a supposedly intuitive rock muse. He wrote about getting down on his hands and knees and scrubbing every arena stage before a show, just so he’d have a direct relationship with the wood on which he danced. Roth wrote about Alex and Edward Van Halen goofing on him and telling him there were people in the organisation to do that shit for him, but Roth still had to do it at every show. And yet here was a man who’d spent his whole career giving the impression to the public that to have been seen to have been emitting anything less than a truly transcendental shallowness at all times would have meant appearing before the Great Wazzir of the Things that Creep Guild and having his ‘License to Drywank’ revoked, a man whose determination to haze the line between womaniser and woman molester allowed almost no-one with their own IQ to even approach his band’s music without severe Inner Questioning; whose Bound & Chained Godself (photographed by Helmut Newton, no less – Ross Halfin who he!) appeared on a 3’ x 2’ poster in all copies of WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST, and whose slavish commitment to his whole deplorably self-serving Dave TV schtick got him ejected from the group he so obviously adored playing with.

Man, I love the guy for all of it. Like my old neighbour Pete Burns, who could argue with me for fully 45 minutes about how the Electras’ version of “Action Woman” kicked the Litter’s version into hyperspace, then pout with adolescent ennui and whine about his nail polish when Will Sargeant joined in the very same discussion, David Lee Roth is just one of those guys who not only always knew his place in the Cosmos, but – more to the point - also knew his PERCEIVED place in the Cosmos and weren’t gonna be shifted for no fucker.

In contrast, Edward Van Halen would just let his guitar speak on his behalf. Indeed, when he played lead on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, the first anyone in the band knew was when it was announced on the radio after first being aired. And when we speak of Edward’s singular guitar genius, we ain’t even talking beyond the fretboard itself. Hell, that geek’s daycare ideas for instant packing tape guitar decoration will run the bills up over close to a fiver if Van Halen ever get to album number 60.

But maybe, in spite of their differences, just perhaps David Lee Roth and Edward Van Halen were two Lokian faces of the same Fire God, with Edward playing the Logi for Marty McFly, when he needs to ‘persuade’ his teenage father in BACK TO THE FUTURE by utilising the entirely freeform “Eruption”. That’s why dear old Dave TV is crazy from the heat on the photo-copied cover of ATOMIC PUNKS - his buns are scorched from the burning Logi behind him.

Proglodytes of pre-ecstatic Euphoria

Young & Wild

This is a CD version of the ATOMIC PUNKS LP

This album, recorded at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, on December 29th 1977, opens superbly with simultaneous whoops from Roth, cheering audience, splatter-chatter drums, and harried MC (already ducking from the dive-bombing guitar and) declaring a state of rock’n’roll. “On Fire” cranks up its post-Sir Lord Baltimore riff-upon-riff-upon-further-riff castilated attack, the Garneresque ‘Figh-yar’ fire-fight operetta and hither’n’yon chaos riffola all immediately better than the fantastic album version (especially as the Attisian backing vocals of the hugely unsung Michael Anthony are note-for-eunuchised-note perfect). Indeed, without the ideal studio setting, Lord Edward’s harmonic inbetween riff is more Van Gottsching than expected, and all the better for it, dammit, especially as Roth is “hangin’ ten now baby, as I write your sonnet.” Okay so he could be singing “ride your sonic wave”, as some have claimed. But listen up, Shakespeare, ain’t it far more likely that Roth would be writing proto-wipe out poetry to his mystery muse?

“Feel Your Love Tonight”’s braying ass guitar riff is soon propelling us into equally cartoon post-coital nostrilled lead vocals, with backing vocals so wonderfully unbalanced and over-achieving that they rival Scott Thurston’s over-rehearsed and over-expectant vocal moves on METALLIC K.O. (who was drooling whom, there? I mean, expecting to harmonise vocally with Iggy in 1974? In those days, harmony to Iggy was not setting fire to the stage).

Next up, “Running from the Devil” is almost as hollering-from-the-deepest-fjord as the album version, but as its spirit in concert (so driven by the sheer abandon of Alex’s hi-hat assault) can’t hope to emulate the almost CLOSER atmosphere of the record, we gotta be satisfied with this merely terrific version. “Atomic Punk” is just magnificent despite the beginning being marred by Edward’s lead cutting out and the stutter riff uttering a stuttering too far. However, as the lead breaks throughout this song are just about the greatest union of melody, yawp and cosmic fitfullness he ever achieved, it’s righteous to hear that (even in the face of perfection) there remain within Edward several extra squalls of thang still to be fashioned upon to each riff. Then Alex knocks out a competent drum solo and they’re off into the last track on side one. It’s the strange upside down cabaret soul of “Little Dreamer”, which always seemed to me like Las Vegas Dread Zeppelin in Blackface. The backing vocals are just too too too to put a finger on, but you gotta question a metal band that can shooby-dooby as well as Van Halen. Especially as, in hindsight, it’s all too easy to blame Roth, but here at the close of side one, it ain’t him sumptuousizing in the background.

Pasadena Partyslammers

PASADENA PARTYSLAMMERS contains the same material as the other two, with a version of Ice Cream Man added

Side two opens by sucking us into the Sir Lord Baltimorean “Somebody Get Me A Doctor”. Freed from its album two bondage and fixed with a six-inch syringe full of the good John Garner Juice, what a heathen racket this be! I mean this song is just a festival of utter confusion – I wish I didn’t know it and I’m jealous of those who might be being introduced to this song for the first time via this particular version. “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love” is where the garage meets the heavy rock. The guitar solo is pure We the People and the riff is pure “Don’t Fear the Reaper” as played by Montrose. Again, the studio version had a strange otherworldy atmosphere that no concert could capture, but this is redressed by the sheerly polished sabrine finish of the metal exoskeleton they’ve fitted to this concert version. Meanwhile, “Eruption” is a thing of even greater concert beauty than on the record. And longer too – more braying and mule like, far less Frehleyan and far more Blackmorean than I’d previously supposed (though about 30 times faster when you actually do the sonic comparisons). And every fucking note is there, too… Edward Van Halen! Edward Van Halen!

“D.O.A.” incomings as raw as Nishinihon, or any of your favourites on BLEACH, or Baltimore’s “Pumped Up”, with scatter-shot guitar flying around the auditorium like there’s two guitars playing the riff. After all this reconciliation of the late 70s with the early 70s, it’s actually quite a weird scene to hear them encore with The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”. I was never a particularly big fan of their version on the first LP, purely because it seemed out of context – but here it fits in like UFO’s raw early take on Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love”. And so endeth the record, as per usual with Van Halen far too soon. But the phenomenon has been sighted if not closely inspected, and we at least have the luxury of spinning this sucker all over again from the start.

And Another Fucking Thing

Now what we need is a whole bunch of poorly recorded concerts from the WOMEN & CHILDREN FIRST and FAIR WARNING period, preferably with vocals way loud and guitar to the Moon. Dammit, we need a Rallizes Denudes-style 10CD box with 23 versions of “On Fire” and an Arc-ified multimelded 25-minute “Eruption”. After those first four LPs, Van Halen’s last two records with Roth fell so far outside their own metaphor that it was like they’d never ever had it writ in blood on the walls of their clubhouse. DIVER DOWN was bar band filler of the most abject variety (how can I live without more covers of “Pretty Woman”, “Dancing in the Street” and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”?), whilst the curious 1984 expected us to accept the wholsesale metaphor change from Guitar Eddie to Synth Eddie and suck on “Jump”’s Genesis-plays-the-Who-by-numbers. And though it was unfortunate (but not tragic) that Dave TV fell the wrong side of the Shaman/Showman line, there were at least plenny of similar cases down the rock’n’roll path to allow fans to prepare themselves for Roth’s erm … TV personality. Moreover, after the initial glitz blitz of incredible acrobatic stunts and wall hangings, it was pretty clear that Dave TV weren’t ever gonna be scraped off the side of Mt. Rushmore and brung down in a stars’n’stripes body bag. The guy was just too good at his schtick.

So engulf your ears at the spinning silvered doorway that was Van Halen until 1982, and grab any/all C90s of their early shows (preferably recorded with compressor mike, natch) to swim in the rich sonic imbalance that their Myth-straddling Muse provided. For, as Roth himself wrote in CRAZY FROM THE HEAT:

“We are always at our best when we’re ascending towards something.”

As a former turtle shell-wearing amphibian, I don’t entirely agree with that.
But I’m more than happy to accept the guy’s metaphor.

Essential Discography:

Van Halen (1977)
Van Halen II (1980)
Women & Children First (1980)
Fair Warning (1980)

1st LP-period bootlegs

Atomic Punks
Pasadena Partyslammers
Young & Wild