Van Halen at a Crossroads and 1981’s Fair Warning

Van Halen on Selective Memory

In 1981, Van Halen Gave Us Fair Warning

It’s been touted as a fan favorite. It also has been considered an under-conceptualized album by critics and many in the hard rock populous. What is Van Halen’s Fair Warning to the Van Halen universe? Statistically, it is the only Van Halen album where no song hit the Billboard Hot 100. However, the album did make it to number five in the Billboard Top 200 and went double platinum. “Unchained” was the only song that survived to make it into any “Best Of” album. Beyond that, everything else is self-contained and sealed in time.

Fair Warning could be considered a transition album, but a transition to what? If you consider the introduction of synths, then this is a transition album that led us on a roadmap to 1984. Fair Warning is an anomaly. It was a departure from the wild party vibes that dominated Van Halen’s lifestyle. Eddie Van Halen was digging into darker territory and wanted a grittier presence. It was also a clash of egos. David Lee Roth wanted the treatment that Eddie was getting from the press. How much Eddie pushed back and wanted a more introverted lifestyle, the more pop culture forced him to the forefront.

Alex Van Halen noticed. “I watched while Eddie suffered relentlessly through making that album.”

Eddie’s recent marriage to TV star Valerie Bertinelli also caused tension between him and David which could have been a significant reason Eddie would sneak back into the studio late at night to re-record part of the album. It also could be that he was a perfectionist, and Fair Warning became the most Eddie Van Halen-dominated album until 1984 was released.

But instead of rehashing the party anthems and cool covers that dominated their past three releases, they looked to life on the dole to be the topical foundation of Fair Warning; a concept castrated by British punk rock in the late 1970s. Is the Scorsese-influenced “Mean Streets” convincing? Or, is the shadier side of the seedy urban environment with “A Sunday Afternoon in the Park” enough? Despite the legitimacy, the sentiment seems superficial compared to something like AC/DC’s High Voltage, a real rough and tumble album about tough times and rebellion. Not even Canadian artist William Kurelek’s detail from “The Maze” and a reflection of tortured youth helps solidify the amount of street cred that tries to make up Fair Warning.

Eddie Van Halen pulls some uncanny finger trickery on “Mean Streets,” This is where David Lee Roth jumps into the limelight like a bully ready for a brawl. He drives this song as if it were a smooth ride and the band shoved you in the back seat. It may not provoke you to party hard or ready for a good time, but somewhere in between lies Roth’s clever vocal declarations.

Closer to the Van Halen ethos is “Dirty Movies.” Not sure if it’s a warning against the morality of the porn industry or the abrasing of the sin. Maybe a little of both. Even the schlocky “Take it all off” cat calling plays into the mantra of slinky social promiscuity. To add fuel to the flame, “Sinner’s Swing” is a powerhouse of hard rock hedonism. One of the rare Van Halen songs to include the four-letter word. David Lee Roth spits it out like enunciation in poetry. The song envelopes the ethos of debauchery as if it was simply a means for physical release.

You cannot deny that “Unchained” deserves to be a standout single because it has all of the retention of one. A more philosophical relative to “Everybody Wants Some,” the song beckons the inner-workings of a hit from the unforgettable hooks to the memorable chorus. Between Michael Anthony semi truck bass licks and Alex Van Halen’s explosive depth charge drumming, the song is explosive. Add in Eddie’s unforgettable solo work and you have everything that makes Van Halen legendary.

There are moments within the album that stand out. Unlike previous releases that pushed forth revolutionary rock mastery, Fair Warning offers its charm and its contradiction. It tries too hard to be a complicated pseudo-concept album which should not be confused with the band also attempting to push their skill beyond vaudevillian tits-and-ass anthems. There lies the answer of the album’s importance because it simply made the band stronger songwriters and musicians. By the time they rejoined the party, they were smarter for it. Fair Warning is a change, which for its time is exactly what Van Halen needed and they “hit the ground running” with it.

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