Having to choose from a discography as rich as Van Halen have, it was indeed difficult to pick the appropriate album for that column. Ok, it was easy to bypass the first two and 1984, whose legend prevents them from being mentioned here. Same goes for E5150, the first with Hagar, while we will surely go for one of OU812 and F.U.C.K. in the future, maybe both. Diver Down was ‘neither heavy metal, nor like the Temptations, but something in between’ as Roth had stated in 1982, so I don’t have to care for it that much. Fair Warning, on the other hand, was dark and heavy and has a lot of musical similarities with Women And Children First and many an interesting stories (like how they ended up with such a weird cover), as entertaining as the songs themselves, which is of course the case with every Van Halen album. So, I just let the coin decide for me and after I flipped it, I ended up with Women And Children First, even though the tile was already unconsciously dictating it, answering to the question of which to chose: ‘Chose Women and Children first….’.
With a title that came as a surprise since the majority was expecting ‘III’ as a natural continuation of the artistically and commercially super successful studio records ‘I’ and ‘II’, Women And Children First was released on the 26t of March 1980 through Warner Bros Records. The strange title was David Lee Roth’s instant inspiration when after a crazy night with the band he woke up by screams saying ‘the ship is sinking’ in which he replied on spot ‘women and children first’ towards the direction of the frenzied voices. So they came up with the lyrics of ‘Could This Be Magic’, because they had to fit Dave’s line somewhere. Roth is one of those unique people, who whatever they say (or even the way they say it) becomes front page news and every one of his actions can be used against him in the court of law. This didn’t make him less of a competent singer or something less than one of the best performers in the world. And a sex symbol of course. Under the guidance of famous producer Ted Templeman, Van Halen went into the studio and in spite of the wild partying, the bohemian way of life of their singer, the tiresome tours in arenas throughout the US that took all their strength and the weight of millions of sales of their 2 previous efforts, they managed to record the music of the album in only 4 days. It took them 6 more for the vocals. In no time (about 2 weeks including the mixing and mastering) they created another bestselling album that took 2 months to reach 1 million sales and about 4,5 million in total after 35+ years.
In the first 1000 copies (as also in the remastered cd’s of the 2000 edition) there was a David Lee Roth poster. Helmut Newton himself took the picture and the blonde singer didn’t have to do much to persuade him doing it. No feeling of danger, luck, naivety, courage, balls (things that Roth has in abundance) and a phone call in the hotel in Beverly Hills where the famous photographer was staying was all it took. When Roth was in New York, he used to hang out in the legendary Studio 54 and had come across the photographer many times and was already fixated with the idea of him doing the photo shooting for their third album. The rest of the band didn’t even know his name of course and hearing that he gets paid 50,000 dollars for each session didn’t quite get excited, the financial department of Warner Music as well. Roth, steadfast as he was, called in one of the possible hotels that Newton might was staying when he heard he was in town. With the simplicity and the naivety that the attitude of ‘hey, I am playing in a rock band that for sure you don’t know, Van Halen, but we are quite hot at the moment, I think you need to take our pictures’ has and after he informed him that not only didn’t he speak first to his manager, but he doesn’t even know what a manager is, something that Newton appreciated, they agreed for Roth to pick up Newton and his wife from the hotel’s parking lot. He arrived in his brand-new Mercedes with a skull on it and they all went to his back yard where he has a dog asylum. This asylum with its fence made from barbed wire was the ideal environment for the photoshoot which gave as a result the famous picture of a half-naked and chained Roth wearing his leather pants with a lustful and grime look.
Musically, this album is along with 1981’s Fair Warning that followed it, the heaviest and closest to heavy metal music the quartet ever recorded. Its first side is stunning with three songs standing out for good. ‘And the Cradle Will Rock…’, ‘Everybody Wants Some!’ and ‘Romeo Delight’, with the chugging guitars of the last one opening the band’s shows from now on. This time there was no cover. The opening track, ‘And The Cradle Will Rock….’, which was the only single of the album as well, has Eddie’s distinct playing that inspired so many to use shredding, something we heard for the first time in ‘Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love’ and ‘Eruption’. So, the record kicks off with something that sounds like a guitar but it isn’t. In reality we listen to a phase shifter-effected Wurlitzer electric piano played through Van Halen’s 100-watt Marshall Plexi amplifier (model of 1960). In the record we come across many new elements in the sound of the band, that wasn’t afraid of using keyboards, overdubs, acoustic guitars, even female vocals for the first time (Nicolette Larson is doing backing vocals in the chorus of ‘Could This Be Magic?’, even though in general in that record backing vocals are somehow neglected) and they didn’t hesitate to play the blues in the almost 6-minute long, ‘Fools’. At the same time, we can discern a maturity that doesn’t compromise the entertainment of the listener. The foxy and full of jungle sounds ‘Everybody Wants Some!!’ became a slogan with its dirty line being an ode to horniness. The big advantage of Roth was that he was not playing a role, he wasn’t pretending, he was just himself. Also, the monologue that is found in the song is so enjoyable and made to be performed on stage.
When we are taking about Van Halen, we are mostly talking about guitars though. In this record Eddie’s idols (who, to say in passing, wasn’t as crazy or as much as a rock star as his then frontman, but when he grabbed his Ibanez he was turning into a wild animal), Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, gave their way to more funk, jazz and fusion influences. His performance in Women and Children First made David Frickle from Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau from the famous The Village Voice to compare him with Jimi Hendrix. The drums sound is totally natural and analogue, combined with the compact bass that thickens the overall sound, the rhythm section gives the necessary volume and consequently the space to Eddie’s guitar to unfold. The short instrumental ‘Tora! Tora!’ gives a sign of the darker approach that will follow in the next Fair Warning – while Eddie wanted to name it ‘Act Like It Hurts’ – and if you listen carefully, you can tell it gave birth to the riff in ‘House Of Pain’ from ‘1984’ and a part of it was used in ‘Get Up’ from E5150. At 4:19 ‘In a Simple Rhyme’ the hidden song ‘Growth’ starts, with which Eddie experimented a lot, with the idea the record to fade out like this and the next one to start with the same reused song. ‘Loss of Control’ gave a too much, but pleasant video clip with the band being dressed as surgeons or something of medical nature with gloves and uniforms.
An album great and important besides the musical aspect, let me remind you that it was released in an age without internet and social media, or even MTV and the photo in the cover was the first encounter the mass of Van Halen’s fans had with the emblematic Ibanez Destroyer with which the legendary band’s debut was recorded. This guitar was given to Eddie by Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P., who was also from Pasadena. Eddie changed the bridge (turnaround backwards) and all that intonation. The chords seemed to a mile away from the fretboard according to Holmes. So Eddie also removed the pick guard and heavily modified it with a Les Paul-style volume and tone regulator, had the middle knob filed-in-a hole, and the back side was cut with an axe from Eddie himself…
The album is no30 in Kerrang!’s list of the ‘100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time’ and justifiably so. And for those who will possibly whine for its small duration (around 33 minutes), check again the year of its release. Dave, who is known for his big mouth said that ‘Van Halen’s songs are small, not because I don’t have a lot to say, but because I get bored really easily, even for the things I have to talk about’ being not only to the point, but also unanswerable.