Eddie Van Halen: 10 of his best songs

<span>Photograph: Paul Natkin/WireImage</span>
Photograph: Paul Natkin/WireImage

It’s difficult to overstate the musical impact of Eddie Van Halen, who died on Tuesday from throat cancer at the age of 65. The namesake and leader of Van Halen, the Dutch-born musician was one of the greatest guitarists of all time, a player who merged rigorous technique and free-flowing feel like few others.

The southern California quartet (whose most successful lineup comprised vocalist David Lee Roth, bassist Michael Anthony and Eddie’s brother Alex on drums) thrived on contradictions: Van Halen absorbed punk’s energy and DIY verve, but rejected the genre’s confrontational attitude, and never lost the crowd-pleasing vibe they developed in the 1970s during their cover-band days. Despite such onstage exuberance, the band never pandered to trends or watered-down their sound, and although their approach to hard rock sounded exciting and contemporary, the band’s music was informed by decades of musical history: British Invasion, heavy metal, psychedelic and blues rock, songwriter-driven pop, even classical.

Across 12 studio albums, Van Halen amassed a completely distinctive and enormously influential body of work – here are 10 of Eddie’s best.

And the Cradle Will Rock… (Women and Children First, 1980)

A high-five to teenage rebellion – and a repudiation of older generations who view youthful indiscretions with disdain – the laid-back boogie And the Cradle Will Rock … signalled that Van Halen was eager to embrace modernity. The song marked the first time Eddie Van Halen played keyboards on a track: he ran a Wurlitzer piano through an effects pedal and a Marshall amp to create an abrasive, scraping melodic oscillation that meshed well with Roth’s raspy delivery. The song is a seamless (if subtle) bridge between the brash 70s and the more polished 1980s.

Somebody Get Me a Doctor (Van Halen II, 1979)

Van Halen’s heavy metal roots aren’t necessarily apparent all the time. However, on the band’s second album, it’s impossible to ignore the Led Zeppelin-meets-AC/DC echoes cascading through Somebody Get Me a Doctor, what with Roth’s throat-shredding screams and Eddie’s no-frills riffing.

Get Up (5150, 1986)

After David Lee Roth and Van Halen parted ways in the mid-80s, the band replaced their larger-than-life frontman with an equally charismatic vocalist: established hard rock star Sammy Hagar, who was fresh off hits such as I Can’t Drive 55. Hagar wasn’t as freewheeling as Roth, but he possessed a similarly expansive vocal range, and added emotional depth that helped Van Halen thrive in the late-80s power ballad era. (See: the yearning single Dreams.) But 5150’s hidden gem is Get Up, a snarling, quicksilver metal track full of frayed guitar flourishes and headspinning riffage. If there was any question as to whether Van Halen could survive without Roth, this track put those doubts to rest.

Unchained (Fair Warning 1981)

The interplay between Van Halen and Roth created many highlights on early records. Unchained is one of their more entertaining interactions: peak Roth lounge-singer razzle-dazzle collides with Eddie’s spiralling riff cyclones, an evocative (if brief) needling solo and a chance for the guitarist to add atmospheric melodic layers as the vocalist goes off on a winking tangent.

Black and Blue (OU812, 1988)

On Hagar’s second album as Van Halen’s vocalist, the band became more comfortable with sonic vulnerability. That openness resulted in the twangy detour Finish What Ya Started, and the swampy Black and Blue, a fine example of sophisticated, bluesy hard rock.

Beat It (solo on Michael Jackson’s Thriller, 1982)

Stories abound about Eddie Van Halen cutting the solo for Michael Jackson’s blockbuster hit Beat It. (Among the best ones: recording engineer Bruce Sweden once told the BBC that the monitor speakers caught on fire as the guitarist was playing.) The guitarist’s solo indeed rises from the mix like a plume of smoke, although it’s anything but ephemeral – the bustling passage is in lockstep with the underlying groove, darting in between beats with confidence but reverence. Thanks in no small part to Van Halen’s presence, Beat It became Jackson’s first US rock radio hit – an impressive feat given how siloed genres were at that time on American airwaves – and he took home a Grammy for best male rock vocal performance.

You Really Got Me (Van Halen, 1978)

As others have observed, Van Halen had the uncanny ability to make cover songs sound like their own compositions. The band’s debut single, a loose-hipped take on the Kinks’ No 1 hit You Really Got Me, set the bar almost impossibly high. Eddie tosses off the song’s guitar licks like a poker dealer shuffling a deck of cards, which only bolsters the slinky edge of Roth’s winking leers.

Jump (1984, 1984)

Eddie Van Halen wasn’t content with just being an influential guitar player – he was also instrumental in bringing synthesisers to mainstream hard rock, as he composed the neon-hued keyboard parts driving the multiplatinum smash album 1984. While the LP has many highlights – the almost baroque touches on I’ll Wait are especially intriguing – it’s impossible to deny the optimism bubbling up around Jump. The pop-metal anthem’s rabble-rousing synths simmer and crackle with futurist excitement, a perfect antidote to hard rock stagnation.

Runnin’ With the Devil (Van Halen, 1978)

Van Halen’s debut album opens with a song that first sounds like a spaceship coming in to land, and evolves into a seductive hard rock cautionary tale. Roth’s shrieks and howls are a perfect counterpoint to the more polished, stacked backing harmonies and Eddie Van Halen’s restrained dynamics. The guitarist’s smouldering riffs dip in and out of the mix gracefully, surfacing at the right moments – including a brief, busy solo – to propel the song forward.

Eruption (Van Halen, 1978)

The studio version of Eruption isn’t even two minutes long, but the instrumental became Van Halen’s signature tune – a showcase for Eddie Van Halen’s nimble finger-tapping technique, dexterity and distortion-drenched tone. During Van Halen concerts, the song stretched out and became a marathon: a communal yet almost intimate interaction between Eddie and the audience, who’d hang on every note as the guitarist grinned and teased out mind-bending passages, knowing the audience was with him every step of the way.