Give Us A Break, Dave: Fair Warning Turns 40

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Van Halen – Fair Warning

Released April 29th, 1981 on Warner Bros.

Produced by Ted Templeman

Peaked at #5 U.S., #49 U.K.

Singles:

“So This Is Love?”

“Unchained”

Like Grand Funk Railroad, L.A.’s white-hot guitar-heavy gunslingers Van Halen never got much love from the rock ‘n’ roll press. Rolling Stone, dinosaurs even then, were quick to eviscerate new VH records and Fair Warning was no different. By 1981 though the band had conquered the #1 spot of good time rock music from Led Zeppelin and had begun to earn some grudging respect from the critics. Most of the praise, of course, was heaped on the band’s hot-shot guitar whiz namesake, who was even then being compared by serious critics to Hendrix. While the band was noted for being devil-may-care goof-offs, back of the class shop kids playing for the future auto mechanics and factory lifers of America, a couple of things combined to cause them to start channeling some negative energy. Flamboyant frontman David Lee Roth took a trip to Haiti that ended up opening his eyes to the hard things people had to do to survive in places. The band also wasn’t getting along; the creative tensions between Roth and Eddie Van Halen were ramping up, although they wouldn’t hit their absolute peak for another three years. Van Halen, for his part, was getting frustrated by Roth and producer Ted Templeman, whom he felt was making him stick to a tried-and-true formula (“Just shut up and give us the riffs, Ed!” he would mock the enablers of the Van Hagar era in the late 1990s, and it was probably just as true in 1981 as well). Roth was a good time guy (just a gigolo, as it were) but Van Halen wanted something weightier, more serious; he was starting to believe the hype, and he probably had good cause.

The result of all this eye-opening and tension was Fair Warning, as nasty a mainstream rock record as they come. The Stones got vicious on Undercover, probably their last great record; Fair Warning beat it to the gutter by two years and with a gnarly collection of metallic riffs to accompany it. This is Van Halen at their most aggressive, launching from the get-go with “Mean Streets”, a track that echoes the frustration and despair of the Scorsese movie. “Dirty Movies” reimagines the prom queen as a porn star and is genuinely uncomfortable in parts (like Roth yelling “take it off, take it all off!”). It makes his famous “hey teacher!” smirking on “Hot For Teacher” look tame. “Sinners Swing!” and “Hear About It Later” bring Van Halen’s playing to their most gorgeous, and “Unchained” is probably the best single the band ever put out. The end of the album features synth work that points the way toward where they would go on 1984 and (regrettably) in the Van Hagar era. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park” particularly shows that the mean, aggressive nature of the record wasn’t just in the guitar; the synths presented pound just as hard as the standard rock setup the band usually played.

The album’s disturbing cover art is clipped from a much larger and even more disturbing work by Canadian artist William Kurelek called The Maze, one of my favourite paintings. The whole thing is a self-portrait of the artist lying on his side in the grass of the Prairies, with his skull cut away to show the inner workings of his mind. A patient in an English mental hospital at the time, Kurelek poured his cynicism, despair, and brutal childhood onto canvas in an incredibly detailed way. In terms of fit, it’s dark outlook matches the vibe Van Halen was projecting on Fair Warning perfectly.

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