Lost Classics: Van Halen – Fair Warning

Van Halen - Fair WarningVan HalenFair Warning (Warner Bros)

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.

3 thoughts on “Lost Classics: Van Halen – Fair Warning”

  1. Thanks for that blast from the past, Todd. I had completely forgotten that album-mostly because VH sucked so bad for so many years afterwards.

    I remember when that came out and being really surprised by it’s tone, but at that point I was pretty much over AOR rock stuff and just beginning to become aware of bands like REM and The Minutemen. But I do remember liking ‘Fair Warning’.

    I’ll have to give it a spin again – old VH w/Diamond Dave is the only VH worth listening to, anyway.

  2. As a person who bought Fair Warning the day it came out, and played the L.P. many, many times in all sorts of, err, states, I might suggest that other bands also have produced somewhat darker sounding records, they usually have a marked difference in studio finish than other efforts, these albums are often cherished by the harder rocking fan base. These albums almost always don’t sell as many copies. The best word to describe them might be ‘raw’ or maybe ‘hard edged.’ AC/DC’s Flick of the Switch, Black Sabbath’s Technical Ecstasy, Judas Priest’s Killing Machine and even extending beyond hard rock to Bob Marley’s Survival and James Brown’s Payback.

    There are many more, almost every prolific band/artist has had one, and some bands like the Stones have had several, and for this listener they have always been the records I gravitate towards when I want to crank it and make my meek friends ears bleed.

  3. I’m really glad to see other people appreciate how dark and amazing the tone is on this album, I’ve been obsessed with this album for the past 5 months (especially playing it at full volume completely baked), and as much as it seems there is an overall theme to this album I alaways wished it was a sort of rock opera about some poor boy being brought down by his own sins…anyways all four member are genius on this album as well as Ted fuckin’ Templeman who captures these guys so perfectly

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