The uneven alchemy of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With The Devil”
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Whoever said a chain is only as strong as its weakest link never listened to Van Halen. From a strictly technical standpoint, David Lee Roth is one of the shittiest singers to ever clutch a microphone: screeching, squawking, croaking, honking, and bordering on tone-deafness. Granted, rock doesn’t demand virtuosity. But Roth’s lack of chops is made even more glaring by a stark contrast: His crumpled saxophone of a voice is pitted against the sleek eloquence and elegance of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar. It shouldn’t have worked. It totally did. And that uneven alchemy was already established by the 1978 release of VH’s debut, Van Halen—as well as the album’s first original hit song, “Runnin’ With The Devil.”
VH’s opening shot in its bid for world domination was a cover song. A faithful rendition of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” came out as a single just prior to “Runnin’ With The Devil.” It was a smart move. Simple, sturdy, and universally familiar, the melody of “You Really Got Me” challenged neither Roth nor his potential audience. “Runnin’ With The Devil” is a different matter. If radio listeners were led to believe that all of Van Halen might be a cheery, cheeky ’60s throwback, their ears were soon disabused of that notion. And abused by Roth.
That’s not to say “Runnin’ With The Devil” is in any way abrasive. That said, it’s no “You Really Got Me.” Leering, menacing, and lasciviously playful, the throb of the opening bassline telegraphs hellish darkness to come. Instead, it’s Roth. As Van Halen’s sinuous riffage unfurls, his prancing, preening counterpart beings to wail. And whoop. And whine. And perhaps woof. Caught in mid-barf, Roth pushes his bestial bark to something unrecognizably tuneless.
The ultimate expression of Roth’s narcissistic caterwauling was put on display a few years ago, when a track of his vocals for “Runnin’ With The Devil”—sans Van Halen’s fluid, melodic guitar—was posted on the Internet. Such examples of disembodied vocals, particularly of well-known songs, can be jarring upon first listen. But there’s something spectacularly lousy about Roth’s unaccompanied vocals for “Runnin’.” Without the song’s title being chanted hypnotically in the background, there’s no harmonic tether, nothing to hold onto. Just Roth in all his naked glory. It’s like seeing Superman with his tights around his ankles, the emperor strutting around with no clothes. And a hard-on. Instead of coming across like the world-class singer of a world-class band, Roth is a drunken aerobics instructor who stumbles into a karaoke bar after a long night of moonlighting as a porn star.
Which, naturally, is why Roth is a genius. Without him, VH wouldn’t have that X-factor, that wild card, that musky bouquet of chaos. The bland, post-Roth incarnations of VH have proven this. Never in a million years would anyone expect Eddie Van Halen to fly off his fretboard and start foaming at the fingers. But Roth? That dude is batshit. There are lyrics to “Runnin’ With The Devil,” but to Roth, they’re about as necessary as a melody. The gist of his words are focused on four basic facts:
- He “live[s] his life like there’s no tomorrow.”
- His fledgling career as a touring musician has already taught him that “the simple life ain’t so simple.”
- He is now, in some undefined and perhaps indefinable way, “runnin’ with the devil.”
- He’s gonna tell ya all about it.
In other words, he’s pretty much an idiot. Or rather, he’s auditioning for the part of rock’s reigning idiot savant. Too impetuous to wait for a callback, he just went ahead and gave himself the role. You may genuflect now. But Roth is as much of a court jester as he is a benevolent tyrant, and therein lies the root of his chummy megalomania. Circa 1978, hard rock was still the province of demigods like Robert Plant. Punk was exploding—down the block in VH’s hometown of L.A., in fact—but it hadn’t touched the mainstream in any real way. That said, Roth cannily locked onto the idea that having some sort of everyman quality might lighten Van Halen’s rocket-science level of instrumental perfection.
In his book Rock And The Pop Narcotic, curmudgeonly critic Joe Carducci refers to Eddie Van Halen’s pathological expertise on the guitar as “technosis”—and the innovative tapping technique he helped popularize as “insensate fret math.” Roth and math, on the other hand, have never been mentioned in the same sentence. Split the difference, and there’s “Runnin’ With The Devil”—an anthem that appeals to music geeks, dumbfucks, and just about everyone who can appreciate the unintentional image of a spandex-wearing Roth jogging alongside Satan. While Van Halen applies thermodynamics to his rhythm playing and astrophysics to his leads, Roth is a god gone goofy, the anti-Plant, a deity fallen to Earth and probably onto your couch.
That egalitarianism didn’t fool everyone, especially not the nascent population of Metalhead, U.S.A. As Carducci goes on to state:
“Van Halen debunked the idea that all metal was heavy and therefore doomed to glower from the lower end of the charts… In doing so they unleashed an avalanche of show-metal bands that on average weigh in somewhere between The Turtles and The 1910 Fruitgum Company.”
Today, it’s commonly accepted that VH is more of a hard-rock party band than a metal titan. In 1978, though, those lines had yet to be clearly drawn. That lack of a clear distinction set a precedent, one that Carducci correctly calls the root of ’80s pop-metal, for better and worse. Before the release of Van Halen, American metal was an ominous and mostly underground phenomenon, the accumulated ill will of a generation of pimply, denim-clad miscreants; afterward, metal began to metastasize. Kiss had already begun that process, and it’s no coincidence that Gene Simmons produced VH’s first demo in 1976, a session that included a raw, streamlined, more urgent version of “Runnin’ With The Devil.” While not radically different, that version is enough to paint a picture of a parallel universe: one in which metal never crossed over, VH never became popular, and Roth never had the chance to let his cockiness outgrow his talent.
That parallel universe must be a boring one. For all the missteps VH later took—even during Roth’s tenure at the helm—the volatile formula of the original lineup remained. By Roth’s final album with the group, the omni-successful 1984, Van Halen veered toward synthesizers and symphonic pomp; meanwhile, Roth got frothier. And Rothier. That’s not the kind of chemistry that any sane group of people can sustain, which is partly why VH’s reunion album, 2012’s A Different Kind Of Truth, was doomed to mediocrity. But it doesn’t matter. As long as “Runnin’ With The Devil” remains, it’s easy to turn back the clock and imagine that the hard-partying, brightly burning, cruddy-voiced Roth truly had no tomorrow.