on September 26, 2007
DIVER DOWN is Van Halen's most artistically bankrupt album. Cited by both Van Halen brothers as their least favorite album, DIVER DOWN marks a vast departure from its predecessor, FAIR WARNING, returning the band to their party hearty image. Roth was behind the drastic changes behind the record. This album is not only Van Halen's weakest album, but overall one of the most puzzling records in all of rock. DIVER DOWN is very reactionary. The album points to Roth trying to reclaim the audience they lost with FAIR WARNING, as DIVER DOWN is the polar opposite of that album. Like all Roth Van Halen albums, the album is very brief, being only 31 minutes long, which has always irritated me.
The album sounds like it has a personality crisis. David wanted to do a covers record to move product, while Eddie wanted to maintain some shreds of artistic credibility, and the quality album is a causality of this tension between the two dominant personalities of the band. The sound and atmosphere is a total retreat from the darkness of FAIR WARNING, and the only reason for the retreat is Van Halen selling out. This selling out indicates lack of integrity and total artistic bankruptcy.
For fans of bands, I always recommend listening to the albums in chronological order. It gives a sense of history. When you get to DIVER DOWN, you realize that the band is simply running on empty, they're looking to reinvent themselves after the hideous darkness of FAIR WARNING, and they're simply running out of ideas.
Let's look at a little history. In 1982, when Van Halen released DIVER DOWN, they had just come off a major tour in support of FAIR WARNING. FAIR WARNING met with a rather chilly reception. That record was a very dark, mean spirited album, brimming with anger, immorality, and rough lifestyles. By the time FAIR WARNING had come out, the band was known for their party, over the top lifestyle, and Eddie's guitar heroics. While the guitar work certainly stayed amazing, FAIR WARNING simply did not sell well, and is still even to this day Van Halen's least commercially successful album due to its dark intensity.
When the time came to record FAIR WARNING's followup, Roth wanted to change directions. He and the record company began operating on the philosophy that if you start out with a hit song, you're half-way to a commercially successful recording. While the rest of the band disagreed with this ideology, they acquiesced to Roth.
Another issue contributing to DIVER DOWN's overall weakness is the band had been touring nonstop since 1977, and they were exhausted. The band were going on vacation, but recorded a single which went became successful enough that Warner Brothers wanted an album to go with the single.
Originally, the album's initial sessions began when the band tried recording their next single. They started out with Martha Reeves and The Vandellas hit song, "Dancing in the Streets." Eddie expressed difficulty recording the song, as he simply could not get a real handle. They then proceeded to record "Pretty Woman" at Eddie's suggestion. The intro, "Intruder", which Dave claims to have written, was composed specifically to take up time on the controversial video that MTV banned, as the song was about two minutes too short for the film they shot on the video. Rather than edit down the film further, they just wrote an extended intro.
Taking the hit song philosophy to its utmost, Van Halen recorded no less than five cover songs, almost half the album. Of these five songs, one is a Kinks song (the band was hoping to replicate the success of the "You Really Got Me" cover on their first album), the second is "Pretty Woman," the third is the totally incompatible "Dancing in the Streets", the absolutely bizaare "Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)", and the fifth is the joke recording "Happy Trails." While the Kinks cover doesn't sound that out of place on a Van Halen album, both "Pretty Woman" and "Dancing in the Street" are obviously signs of a band selling out and just looking for a hit. Eddie has cited the "Dancing" cover as the worst Van Halen commercial recording, and for good reason. It's a good song, but totally out of sync with Van Halen's overall image and sound. "Happy Trails" sounds little more than a drunken joke recorded to allievate otherwise boring and monotonous sessions. "Big Bad Bill" has a nice vaudeville feeling to it, but again, this is Van Halen. You don't listen to Van Halen for vaudeville, and is probably the most ridiculous thing they ever recorded. The song is notable for featuring Jan Van Halen (the brothers' father) playing clarinet.
With the five covers discussed, that leaves only seven original tracks. Three of those are short instrumental tracks. "Cathedral" is one of Eddie's most enthralling guitar instrumentals, primarily because when you listen to it you think it's an organ and you wonder how did he get that music on a guitar. "Intruder" is filler written because the video ran longer than the song, although by segue-waying right into "Pretty Woman" it does give "Pretty Woman" a rather ominous tone not present in the original song. "Little Guitar" is a totally unnecessary intro. If they wanted to make it include it as part of the main body of the "Little Guitar" song , there was no reason to make it a separate track.
With the covers and the instrumentals dispensed with, that leaves a paltry four major Van Halen originals. "Hang `Em High" is a decent enough track. "Secrets" never did anything for me. "Little Guitars" has a strange Mexican flavour too it, and while nothing particularly wrong with it, there's nothing real memorable about it either. The song was improvised and recorded live.
That leaves only one song left. "The Full Bug." This track has sizzling guitar work, great vocals, and just a fantastic song to rock out too. This is the only time on the entire album where the entire band just clicks. This is vintage Van Halen right here, and easily on level with anything on the first four albums and 1984. Unfortunately, one song cannot carry an album. (Take note, American Idol winners).
Eddie Van Halen despises this album. As Eddie says, he'd rather have a flop with his own songs (which he did flop, and flop hard, with VAN HALEN III) than have hits with other peoples' songs. And he's right.
DIVER DOWN has too much filler, has too many covers, doesn't have enough originals, and of the originals, only one really rises to former Van Halen standards. It has a very cold, calculating feel to it, like the record execs and the band were more interested in restoring the band to their commercial zenith and forget anything about making good music.
Overall, DIVER DOWN solidified Eddie's opposition to recording music solely to sell. After DIVER DOWN, Eddie formed his own studio where he would have complete artistic control over Van Halen's music. Likewise, Van Halen never recorded covers again (the sole exception being OU812's closing song "Apolitical Blues.")
Ultimately, DIVER DOWN is Van Halen's most dispensable album. While I've been pretty damning about the whole album, I will say it's a very, easy listen, and is very uncharactestic of the band. But while it's light and fun, it's also fluff. Nothing really to return to once the album finishes, and it's only a mere 31 minutes long. It's like cotton candy. No real substance.