After three albums, similarly themed on the glories of women, partying, and the joys of being dudes in a rock band, the underbelly of Van Halen’s debauchery began to show itself on their fourth, the impeccable and often overlooked Fair Warning.
There were signs of trouble on the third, Women & Children First, but they were hidden in teenage character studies (“Have you seen junior’s grades?”) and in the women they had no trouble bedding (“Yeah, that’s it. A little more to the right.”). But after enjoying the fruits of their labors, Van Halen suddenly began to notice that when you’re provided with the keys to the kingdom, you also get a better understanding of why the doors were locked in the first place.
Diamond Dave, as foxy as he thought of himself, could still relate to the teenage boys through songs that reflected the ups and downs (pun intended) of the pursuit of women. By Fair Warning, Dave is tired of the chase (“Now we’re wastin’ time / Same old pick-up line”) and just wants to get down to fucking (“Come back to your senses, baby / We can come to terms / I can almost t-t-taste it / It burns…” – “Sinners Swing!”). It’s easy for him now, because the broads he’s banging are porno stars (“Do you remember when that girl was prom queen?” – “Dirty Movies”) and gold diggers (“But you never missed me until I got a fat-city address” – “Unchained”).
The decadence and ease of addiction wasn’t, apparently, restricted to the frontman, either. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen does the impossible and turns up his infamous “brown sound” up a notch on both rhythm parts and solo’s alike. There were rumors that his alcohol intake was fairly rampant during this time and living on the road with David Lee Roth had created some tensions between the two creative forces. Rather than let the discontent spill over into the creative process, Eddie takes his issues out on the guitar and delivers the most gritty guitar tones ever produced in the V.H. catalog.
It’s apparent from the get-go, the opener “Mean Streets,” that the tone of Fair Warning will be darker and more foreboding than what fans were accustomed to in the past. Eddie delivers a chaotic bit of rambling shredding before unleashing the memorable power chords to that song about a half-a-minute into it. Roth observes a world of mob rules and, knowing it or not, foreshadows a nation where the gulf between the haves and have-nots growing increasingly wider. “The poor folks play for keeps down here,” he exalts, before empathizing with the ways in which they address their plight. With the simple acquisition of a gun, the downtrodden are turned from “hunted into hunter” and anyone who questions the reaction to their suppression are encouraged to succumb to a swift and simple execution (“Lord strike that poor boy down!”). Eddie gives that last statement with his own exclamation point, perhaps the most perfect bullet-from-a-gun guitar sound since Hendrix’s rapid-fire trajectory on “Machine Gun.”
There are no celebratory anthems here, there are no good time moments or reaches towards commercial acceptance. Is it of any surprise that Fair Warning did not turn out to be the success that Van Halen was used to and, ironically, rebelling against? They followed it with the more commercial Diver Down and then with the even more commercial 1984, the album that would place them as superstars and, ironically, become the original line-up’s undoing. Success, it seems, fits better in moderation with Van Halen. But on one occasion, the spoils of success provided V.H. with a creative spark that remains both unheralded and unmatched.