Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, his brother Alex, and his parents left Amsterdam in Holland in 1962. Unbeknown to a world that was still largely pre-Beatles, it was a journey that would shake the world of Rock music to the core. The Flying Dutchman was on his way.
Sixty years later, I am going to take a look at the very best Van Halen songs. Songs from the group he and his brother had formed. His was an interesting story from the very beginning.
From Prejudice To Segregation
His father was a Dutch jazz musician, playing saxophone, piano, and clarinet. His mother came from Java in the Dutch East Indies. They lived in Nijmegen near the German border.
Eddie was born in 1956 at a time when mixed-race marriages were uncommon and certainly frowned upon in a rather puritanical Holland. Father Jan decided to make the move to America to escape what was only very low-key racist behavior.
Out Of The Frying Pan Into The Fire
He didn’t realize what he would be heading into across the Atlantic. They were put in a ‘segregated‘ school in Pasadena, California. It seemed that the authorities or the kids in California didn’t take too kindly to mixed-race marriages either.
Bad treatment and bullying were commonplace. It didn’t help that they didn’t speak the language either, which isn’t America’s fault, of course.
A Classical Edge
The parents wanted both brothers to become classical pianists. Eddie had already won prizes for his piano work despite not being able to read a note.
But, they were moving toward Rock n Roll, and Eddie cited his biggest influences as two British bands, The Beatles and The Dave Clark Five. He mentioned “Twist And Shout” and “Glad All Over” as influential pieces in his young development.
Later on, his idol became a young Jimmy Page. He liked the way he seemed to have the freedom to play his way on Zeppelin tracks like “Heartbreaker” from Led Zeppelin II.
Alex started to learn the guitar and Eddie the drums. But, after hearing the Surfaris track “Wipe Out” and hearing Alex play along on drums, it all changed. Eddie started to get to grips with the guitar and left the drumming to his far more gifted percussionist brother.
Their first band, Mammoth, was formed in 1972, and two years later, David Lee Roth joined. They changed their name to Van Halen, and the rest is history. So, let’s start looking at some of the best Van Halen songs they recorded.
Top 50 Best Van Halen Songs
Runnin’ with the Devil
Let’s go back to the beginning and their impressive first album released in 1978. It was simply called Van Halen.
A taste of what was to come with its prominent guitar and harmony vocals. It wasn’t a great success chart-wise, but that was to be expected. It reached #52 in the UK and #84 in America.
Some commentators labeled it as having a ‘satanic’ song lyric. I doubt that was the case; some people seem to go out of their way to create those ideas. The band never explained what the words meant, which didn’t help.
The idea of the lyrics came from a track by The Ohio Players released in 1974 called “Running From The Devil.” The first album was impressive as an opener. And this was one of Van Halen’s early stand-out songs.
This was a 1981 release from the album Fair Warning. This song boosted the sales of MXR Flanger pedals beyond belief.
This pedal was used extensively in this song and was later used in live concerts and studio recordings as part of Eddie’s sound. He used the M-117 version and always placed it at the front of his signal chain.
The song doesn’t have much to offer musically…
I have included it here as a typical example of some of the stuff they created. Staccato guitar with heavy overdrive. Alex’s bass drum is high in the mix; it is all there as we expect it to be.
It is raw and almost untamed. As well as unchained. If you’ve never heard Van Halen before, listen to this song. It gives you a pretty clear picture of what they were about for a while.
Were Van Halen a Pop band? I can hear the shudder at the very thought from some quarters. But, if this isn’t a Pop song, I don’t know what is. Nothing wrong with that if they wanted to do it.
It did give them their own only American #1 single. Released in 1983, it reached #7 in the UK. It was an interesting song for several reasons. The most important being that it was a keyboard rather than a guitar-driven track.
It was taken from their excellent album, 1984. The keyboard part Eddie had come up with was composed in 1981, but other band members rejected it.
I was never very sure what David Lee Roth was trying to do in the music video for this song. He looked like he was trying to be Freddie Mercury with his body posture, but without the voice. There is a bit of Gary Glitter with his actions and the look of a shaggy dog who was in love with himself.
None of that was needed; of course, the song stands up on its own. It got plenty of airtime and became a popular song in live performances. Glam-Rock, Pop, whatever it was, it was a good track and one that many people remember.
Let’s go back to that first album in 1978, Van Halen. After listening through the first ten tracks of this first album, you got the idea of what they were going to be all about. If you did happen to have any doubts, then track 11, “On Fire,” cleared them away.
This track told us that a new type of Rock music was arriving, and it was coming in loud, very loud, and clear. But, just as importantly, it announced Eddie’s arrival as a guitarist. Or, perhaps more accurately, as a sound.
Musically, it is another song that doesn’t have much to offer. Guitar, of course, leading the way, drums high in the mix, and the bass working overtime. Lee Roth trying to sound like a cross between Ozzy Osbourne and Ian Gillan, doing what he does.
Some good high-harmony vocals would challenge Randy Meisner. But, as with nearly all great Van Halen songs, it is the guitar we are listening out for.
Plenty of staccato riffs and harmonics, of course. A taste of what was to come. Another outstanding Hard Rock performance.
You Really Got Me
This is the first of the ‘covers,’ and I have to admit, a very good attempt. Musically that is. It does seem that every arrangement they come up with is designed to showcase the guitar. And why not? At the time, we hadn’t heard anything like it.
When the original by the British band, The Kinks, came out in 1964, it was a similar situation. But without the effects pedals. We hadn’t heard anything like that either at the time with its heavy riff.
Musically, Van Halen take the song and put their sound to it. It is played the same way with two extra additions. Firstly, enough effects pedals to sink the Titanic create the sound. Secondly, Eddie’s flamboyant playing of the distinctive riff is very good and adds plenty to what was already a great rock song.
Missing The Point
As was very common with Lee Roth, he completely misses the point and sings it to highlight himself. He doesn’t seem to realize what the song is about and what the singer is saying, and, importantly, how he is saying it. Ray Davies, who wrote it, got his sultry double-entendre performance right.
I know the David Lee Roth fans, and there are many, are now all complaining. But, for me, he goes a long way to making you want to turn it off, which is a shame. The backing vocals are quite good, though, from Eddie and Michael Anthony. Listening to it was great, but looking at the video was not so good.
Best Of Both Worlds
There will always be an ongoing argument over who was the better singer, Lee Roth or Hagar. On this track, my vote would go to the latter. A powerful performance and controlled delivery of a good Pop hook.
It was taken from the 5150 album. It had a limited release as a single and failed to get on the main American chart. But, it made #12 on the Mainstream Rock subsidiary chart. It featured Alex playing electronic drums.
Plenty of good guitar, but in what some might call a low-key style for him. We were treated to his “out of control horse whinnying’’ sound a couple of times. This is a track where they have turned their backs on the Glam image and returned to what they did best. Being a rock band.
This track starts with an extended keyboard intro, just as with “Jump,” until Alex brings in the drums. It is a song that allows us to hear what Alex is doing “underneath,” and it is quite impressive if simple. This track was released as a single from the album 1984.
Alex is one of those drummers that seems to understand it is more important to play “for the band” than “for himself.” Something that a lot of drummers and singers should think about.
He is solid and lays down a good rhythm that forms the base for Eddie to do his thing when he needs to. It wasn’t Van Halen’s most successful song reaching only #85 in the UK, but doing better in America, where it got to #13.
The Doobie Influence
David Lee Roth was supposed to come up with the lyrics and the basic melody but was struggling with them. The band brought in Michael McDonald from the Doobies to help.
A simple enough song, but one which does give us a chance to listen to what is going on underneath, holding it all together.
Let’s return our attention now to the album 5150, released in 1986, from where this track was taken. This was the second single released from that album. Once again, not a great commercial success as it only reached #62 in the UK and #22 in America. This song featured a new vocalist, Sammy Hagar.
Again, a keyboard-based song with the odd guitar flourish, with Alex’s familiar drum sound prominent.
Just like a fine wine, Van Halen were maturing at this stage. It is a well-constructed song with good lyrics and melody. It still features some crazy guitar playing, so representative of what they were.
5150 was an album where you could hear they were getting better as performers and songwriters. This song was one of the highlights. Perhaps they were beginning to see their real strengths as a band.
For me, the first album, Van Halen, was very good, and 1984 was also very good. But 5150 was excellent and took on a slightly different style. “Dreams” was representative of that new style in some ways. It still had the trademark Van Halen sound, but it was just a better song than most.
Why Can’t This Be Love
Let’s stay with 5150 for one more. Another very good song and, again, an influential keyboard part from Eddie. Having Sammy Hagar on guitar helped a bit and gave them extra options. It is clear now that the Glam-Rock-Esque era had gone.
Some nice riffs and breaks give the song something extra. It shows that someone is at least thinking about the construction of the song instead of just the sound.
This was the lead single from 5150 and the first to feature Sammy Hagar on vocals. It was also a commercial success reaching #8 in the UK and #3 in America. It also helped to propel the album to #1 in America.
It took some criticism from some music “journalists” who said it was their worst ever record. They preferred the screaming histrionics of a now-departed singer. However, it does have one lyrical amusement.
It carries the line, “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.” UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, picked up on this amusing example of tautology and, as such, called it the 8th worst set of lyrics written. A bit harsh, I think.
Criticisms and observations aside, it was worthy of its place as the lead single from a better quality Van Halen project for quite a while.
Let’s go back to 1978 and that first album to finish this look at the best Van Halen songs. If there was one song that gave the music world fair warning of what was coming to assault their ears, then this is probably it.
It was a bit like the invention of the wheel. It inspired a generation of young people eager to copy him. He gave us an introduction to “flutter-picking” and “two-handed tapping.” He showed us the options for taking the whammy bar to places it had never been before.
Although, one could say so did Richie Blackmore of Deep Purple and Jimi Hendrix a few years before. Eddie went a stage further, though.
It Was All Here
We had high-speed harmonics in solos and breaks and, of course, the use of plenty of effects pedals. The sounds were all here, and in the beginning, it was just too much for most mere mortals to take in. A great track and one of the best instrumentals ever released.
Dance The Night Away
And The Cradle Will Rock…
Hot For Teacher
Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love
Top Of The World
Everybody Wants Some!!
Ice Cream Man
Love Walks In
Somebody Get Me A Doctor
Drop Dead Legs
House Of Pain
Feel Your Love Tonight
Girl Gone Bad
Could This Be Magic?
Push Comes To Shove
Where Have All The Good Times Gone!
Hang ‘Em High
Finish What Ya Started
Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)
Sunday Afternoon In The Park
In A Simple Rhyme
Take Your Whiskey Home
Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)
The Dream Is Over
One Foot Out The Door
Girl Gone Bad (Early Version)
The Full Bug
Light Up The Sky
The band wasn’t unique, but Eddie Van Halen was. I am going to upset a few people now by saying this, but it is just how I feel about them.
One thing I never understood about them or their management was why they did so many well-known covers. Other than “You Really Got Me,” it did little to enhance their reputation by recording them. There were just too many steps out of their genre to make it seem serious.
That may have been down to the producer at the time, Ted Templeman. He seemed to want them to do covers of other people’s material. Eddie wanted to do his own.
What Were They?
Speaking of genre, what exactly were they? Eddie defined them as a great Rock band. But were they a Rock band? They produced Pop songs, as well.
And, they had a singer for a while who seemed to try and make them a Glam-Rock band. They were better than that. Perhaps it was the influence of Gene Simmons early on that contributed to some of the antics. Some of which were out of place in many ways.
There were ego clashes, of course. Singers often like to see themselves as the focal point, which in some ways, and in most bands, they are. But, in Van Halen’s case, they weren’t.
The singers, therefore, did too much at times to draw the limelight away from the real star of the show. Some songs were a step in the right direction, but a direction that didn’t have much in the way of longevity and ended acrimoniously.
Some of the classic Van Halen songs were often very good live. But, in my view, they always lacked the right singer. The Lee Roth and Hagar fans are now all putting forward their opinions.
Both of them had decent voices…
But, one had visions of the rock star personality and just overdid it. The other was good enough but living in the shadow, in some people’s eyes, of what had gone before. If I had to choose between them, it would be Hagar for me.
They Didn’t Need a “Showman”
Van Halen didn’t need “frontman stars” to cover up the inadequacies behind them as some bands do. One band does come to mind, but we won’t go there because he is still propping them up. Van Halen had Eddie.
That was all you needed. He was the “star of the show,” if you want to describe it that way. He was the one that created the sound. But, the two aforementioned seemed to think that they were the stars. They weren’t.
You could have put Donald Duck or Miss Piggy at the front, and it would still have been great. Maybe that was why there wasn’t great vocal personnel longevity with Van Halen. Too many egos, too many changes, often at critical times.
There are many great and memorable Van Halen songs, some of which I have listed here. And they changed the course and direction of Rock music forever. Or should I say, Eddie did? From the 70s to the 90s, Van Halen was one of the bands you just had to see.
Take Eddie out of the band, and it is just another decent Rock band. There are hundreds of them. Take the rest out and leave Eddie, and “that” sound is still there.
Looking for More Great Rock Songs?
Well, then take a look at our detailed articles on the Best Ted Nugent Songs of All Time, the Best Michael McDonald Songs Of All Time, the Best Cheap Trick Songs of All Time, the Best Fleetwood Mac Songs, and the Best 70s Rock Songs for more great music selections.
Of course, you need to hear them. S0, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Headphones For Rock & Metal Music, the Best Headphones for Music, the Most Comfortable Headphones, the Best Sound Quality Earbuds, and the Best True Wireless Earbuds you can buy in 2023.
Best Van Halen Songs – Final Thoughts
If we are going to discuss the greatest Rock bands, Van Halen would certainly earn their place. But, there is one band that stands above the rest in that genre. Let’s hear what their guitarist thinks of a new breed of ‘Dutch Master.’
“He was the real deal and pioneered a dazzling technique on guitar with panache and taste that I felt always placed him above his imitators.”
We can take it that Jimmy Page was impressed. The Flying Dutchman had landed, and he gave us all something very, very special. We are going to miss him.
Until next time, happy listening.