When Van Halen released their debut in 1978, the incredible guitar work of Eddie Van Halen and the gonzo genius of David Lee Roth's larger than life persona of ultimate rock frontman, they helped guide rock away from the mediocrity (Village People, Bee Gees) and horrendus disco back to a much harder sound. While punk got its start in around the same time, it was more underground and much more politically charged than Van Halen's scene. Van Halen was concerned with partying, not criticising existing political structures or lambasting what punk considered dinosaurs from a bygone era (read Led Zeppelin and The Who).
While punk proved influential, Van Halen laid the groundwork for much of the 1980s music scene, with big hair, monster riffs, and the dime-a-dozen, but mandatory for every hair metal record, power ballads. While the power ballads were mostly from the Sammy era, their 1978 debut pretty much rewrote the rule book, and established hard rock as a viable, commercially successful prospect in the late 1970s and early 1980s, paving the way for quite a few other bands of the same generation.
As I've said before, much of this success is owed entirely to their debut. VAN HALEN turned the clocks back the late 1950s and early 1960s, where rock was dangerous (although by today's standards rather tame). They abandoned all the pretensions of progressive rock (read Yes, ELO), rock operas (The Who), punk (The Sex Pistols), and went back to a time when the music was about a few simple things - sex, partying, and then more sex. On top of that, they wrote phenomenal, catchy music, had a hell of a guitar player and an over the top madman of a singer, making their debut one of the biggest selling records ever.
So how do you follow an album as influential as VAN HALEN, a record that basically put rock back on the cultural map in the wasteland of disco?
Well, listening to this VAN HALEN II, it's rather clear that Van Halen simply didn't have the answer to that often impossible question. VAN HALEN II, in all terms and conditions, simply follow the debut's sound and template pretty much to a T, only with less artistic success. You have the guitar solo ("Spanish Fly"). You have the cover song ("You're No Good", made famous by Linda Rondstadt of all people, didn't know the band listened to her). You have the potential single that did become a hit ("Dance the Night Away"). You have high octane, turbo charged rock that will appeal to anyone who likes the first record (the remaining seven songs on the album). Ultimately though, it's just not as good the second time around.
For one, the songs simply aren't as good as on the debut. Don't get me wrong, there's some great songs on VAN HALEN II, but compared the debut the material doesn't hold up as well, though still manages to jam and communicate the party vibe pretty damned well. But the record holds up quite well on its own. Just coming off the high of the first one, II plays out exactly what it is: more of the same, with only a little hint of expanding the sound of the band.
Any of the songs, with the exception of two, sounds like they're cut of the same cloth as the debut, but were left off that because the strongest material had already been chosen. To Van Halen's credit, however, II remains a very strong album in its own right, and only pales because of record before it. "Beautiful Girls" remains a staple of their catalogue (and party lifestyle). There are two songs that sound like Van Halen is intent on opening up their sound. The first song is Van Halen's first top ten hit, "Dance the Night Away". This song is distinct enough both in sound and in style (sounds like an Carribean groove the band stumbled upon) that it really doesn't sound like it could be part of the debut. Very catchy song. The second song is brief guitar instrumental, "Spanish Fly", written and recorded, no doubt due to the legendary guitar solo "Eruption" from the debut. Again, much different from any of the other songs comprising VAN HALEN and VH II. Of course, "Spanish Fly" is nowhere near the calibre of "Eruption".
Fortunately, the same cannot be said of VHII in relation to VH. VHII is a very strong album, but just eclipsed by one of the most legendary hard rock albums of all time. To be fair, VH is a pretty hard record to top, and the fact that the band came up with an album even half as good as VHII is a testament to their strength as a rock outfit
BOTTOM LINE: This belongs in any hair metal or hard rock fan's collection. Sure, if you're just starting to explore the Roth era of Van Halen, get the debut and 1984 first, and after that, your third purchase should be either this or WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST.
(Just a note: one thing that I never liked about the Roth albums is their brevity. All six albums are between 31 and 35 minutes. VH II has a running time of almost thirty two minutes, making it a short album, unfortunately).