Review: Fair Warning by Van Halen

In the 80s, acts from Def Leppard to Prince were trying to find the best formula for mixing hard rock and pop. But American Chrissie Hynde and her British band the Pretenders created the perfect alloy by the simple expedient of treating the two genres as a single raw, hooky juggernaut.

The first track on their first self-titled album, “Precious,” roars out of the starting gate with the feral hybrid fully formed. Hynde shouts “Let’s get started!” somewhere in the background and then guitarist James Honeyman-Scott and drummer Martin Chambers lock into the New Wave leather-and-grease hook like Buddy Holly on a cocktail of amphetamines borrowed from Hynde friend-and-idol Lemmy.

Honeyman-Scott makes guitar jangle that sounds like the rawest noise rock, while Hynde turns singer-songwriter vulnerability into hard-polished swagger—”a strafing stream of syllables that’s a weird mix of speed-rap, jive-talk and baby-babble” as critic Simon Reynolds put it. A line like “It’s a pity that I bruised my hip ’cause I’m precious” treats delicacy as tough boast, and both as sex.

The rest of the album is a tour through all the plausible ins and outs of Britpop filed so it gleams like a cleaver. The radio ready hit “Brass in Pocket” is pure melodic rush, with the band’s heavier impulses relegated to a few guitar squalls from Honeyman-Scott. The Kinks cover, “Stop Your Sobbing,” is all vocal harmonies and chiming guitars recorded loud enough to almost be distorted, the song’s pleas for emotional restraint echoed in a production that teeters on the verge of blowing out the speakers.

On “The Wait,” Honeyman-Scott’s guitar emits a raw scraping while Hynde does a heavy-breathing hiccupping Elvis impersonation (“Said the wait child magic child work it on out now work it’) and bassist Pete Farndon tries to set a land speed record.

“Up the Neck” is a kind of pop rock tribute to cock rock, with jangly hooks framing lyrics in which sex is a metaphor for moving up the guitar. When Hynde says “I said “baby, oh sweetheart,” with sweet multiracked harmonies behind it, she’s half making fun of sugary pop romance and half asserting those songs were about animalistic fucking the whole time.

“Tattooed Love Boys” vibrates the pop rock so fast it turns into a bludgeon, shaking loose shocking filth (“I shot my mouth off/and you showed me what that hole was for”) and a guitar solo from Honeyman-Scott in which the twisted abbreviated lines and feedback crunch sound like a surf guitar caught in a wind tunnel.

The album closer, “Mystery Achievement,” is a barnburner, with Hynde’s inhale starting the track before Chambers set up a relentless beat fierce enough to blow up an oncoming freight train. Farndon’s bass has been listening to disco double time, and Hynde multi-tracks her vocals so that she seems to be singing “on my mind achievement/on my mind” back and forth to herself without taking a breath. Honeyman-Scott’s guitar is all over the place, chopping out the sides of the song like Duane Eddy with a bazooka.

The whole thing feels about to blow up before the rhythm section pulls itself back together like Voltron assembling for a final exquisite hurtle towards the finish. It’s as hooky as Metallica and as fierce as the Bangles. Honeyman-Scott and Farndon were dead of drug overdoses less than a year later, but for one immaculate moment that band’s mystery achievement was creating impossibly brutal music that makes you want to sing along with the chorus.

The Pretenders’ version of hard rock and pop is a sublime fusion; even the places where you can see the seams contribute to the whole. Van Halen’s Fair Warning, in contrast, is a lumbering, drunk, glorious atrocity of an album.

On it’s first three records the band had perfected an upbeat mix of guitar pyrotechnics and radio ready hooks which chewed up the pop charts. By Fair Warning, though, the group was experiencing major creative differences. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen wanted to experiment with synths and overdubs; vocalist David Lee Roth wanted to keep in place the formula that had made them all rich. Eddie ended up sneaking into the studio at night with a sympathetic engineer and reworking the tracks after the other band members had left the studio to achieve his vision.

That vision, is, like the cover art by William Kurelek, brutal and bloated, and frequently a mess. The famous opening track, “Mean Street,” starts with a signature Van Halen solo, with stinging hammer ons and pull off. The crunchy guitar hook plows into your backbrain, and David Lee Roth does his by now familiar version of Robert Plant mugged by Neil Diamond on Broadway.

But the song’s millenarian message of urban paranoia is hardly the stuff of the band’s earlier hits, and the music keeps wandering down blind, clotted alleys. The guitar blasts strike like bolts from an angry Zeus as Roth delivers his end times message from a stage at Vegas with his bandmates whispering bizarrely in the background.

See, a gun is real easy

(This is Mean Street) in this desperate part of town

(This is home) Turns you from hunted into hunter (Yeah)

(This is Mean Street) You go an’ hunt somebody down

Wait a minute, ah (This is home) Somebody said “Fair warning,” Lord

(This is Mean Street) Lord, strike that poor boy down!

The rest of the album is situated in that same desperate locale. The opening of “Dirty Movies” has one of Eddie’s weirdest guitar solos, if it can even be called a solo, with the notes skittery and flattened, slinking and crawling around Alex Van Halen’s crisply recorded drums.

The chorus, “pictures on the silver screen,” is minor key and sounds slowed down and distorted; Roth’s enthusiastic shouts of “take it off! Take it all off!” bob about in an undertow of sleaze and despair. “Sinner’s Swing” has a more straightforward propulsive energy, but again it’s tripped up by Eddie’s (overdubbed?) dark guitar statement after each chorus of “Get-get-get-out and push!,” which seems designed to trap the vehicle in the mud again as Roth howls about “Badness bringing up the rear.”

“Hear About It Later” features bassist Michael Anthony scraping and pulsing way down below Eddie’s guitar, pulling the track sideways through the gutter. The album’s one sort-of-hit “Unchained” puts the guitar fire and the hooky chorus almost together, but where earlier hits like “Runnin’ With the Devil” lock into a groove and never stop, the rhythm here keeps slowing down and doubling back, most notably on a stop time section where Roth smirks, “you’ll get some leg tonight!” and then responds to the producer asking him to give him a break by chortling, “one break coming up!” Rock and pop, equally derailed by dad humor.

The weirdest track on the album is probably the synth driven “Sunday Afternoon in the Park.” The Pretenders incorporated electronic noises seamlessly into tracks like “The Phone Call” and “Space Invaders,” turning video games into their own tender-tough aesthetic.

But when Eddie sat down at the keyboard, the result is two minutes of bleak, burping gargle, which has nothing to do with the band’s signature sound. The Pretenders on that first album could take whatever they picked up and make it a part of a gleaming, chrome rush. Van Halen on their fourth couldn’t get anything to fit. In their different ways, they’re both precious.

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