Published on January 13th, 2014 | by Heath McCoy0
A Love Letter to Van Halen’s 1984 on its 30th Birthday
To 13-year-old me, there was no doubt about it. I had just discovered the coolest cats on the planet.
Baby boomers often wax poetic about the first time they saw Elvis Presley or The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. Well, for me, hitting my teens just in time for the golden age of MTV, my revelatory, transformative rock ‘n’ roll moment came when I first laid eyes and ears on Van Halen’s Jump video, shortly after it debuted at the beginning of 1984 (along with their album, also, conveniently, named 1984) a full 30 years ago.
I was a raging mess at the time, a lost little comic book runt, yet to be visited by the puberty Gods, alienated from my classmates and uncertain about the who the hell I was supposed to be. I used to lie awake at night feeling sorry for myself in this utterly pathetic state, unsure of just how to pull myself out of my pre-teen funk. It was a heavy sort of personal crisis for a kid to come to grips with.
As lame as it sounds, Van Halen was my lifeline.
I remember half interestedly watching Friday Night Videos on cable TV with my little, far cooler than me brother, when that bright, anthemic synth riff that kicks off the song grabbed my attention – and then I was riveted.
The ‘Jump’ video was shot to appear as a simple studio performance by the band, designed to make viewers feel like they were privy to an intimate Van Halen show in their own homes.
What sold the clip, helping take the song to number one on the charts by late February where it dominated for a month, was the band’s spark. There was such energy, attitude, and joyousness emanating from the whole group, with Eddie Van Halen as the grinning, benevolent guitar god, flanked by that party animal rhythm section.
The true star of the video, however, was frontman David Lee Roth. Slicing through the air with his Bruce Lee scissor kicks, the man was a physical force of nature to rival any of the comic book heroes that had been the centre of my universe up to that point. He even dressed like a super hero with those colorful spandex costumes he donned throughout the video, not to mention Thor’s hairstyle.
Then there was that comically libidinous aura of his, on peacock display in the video. In his every move and expression Diamond Dave was leering and suggestive as he laid his lines on whomever the object of his affections was in the song’s lyric, coolly leaning his “back against the record machine.” Clearly this rock n’ roll Tarzan could make any babe in the world his Jane, and I can’t even begin to express how impressive this was to the boy with the Heather Thomas hot tub poster on his bedroom door.
But it wasn’t just the image that so profoundly affected me. It was the song — the agility of the beat, the punch in that riff, the breathtaking flurry of notes in Eddie’s guitar solo. And those deceptively simple lyrics spoke directly to me. “I get up and nothing gets me down. You`ve got it tough, I`ve seen the toughest all around. . . . You`ve gotta roll with the punches…” It was as if Diamond Dave was personally giving me the kick in the ass that I needed.
Then came the hook. “Might as well Jump,” young man! I took the message to heart. Seize the day. Go for it. Be who you be and don`t be afraid. For me, it was a wakeup call and I changed my approach to life accordingly. It helped this lost little outcast forge a new identity. From that moment on I’ve identified myself as a rock fan, and that’s shaped my world in many respects.
A lot of people today, even some Van Halen fans, slam ‘Jump’ as sounding dated and hokey. It’s often regarded as the band’s major sellout moment, pre-Sammy Hagar (who replaced Roth as Van Halen’s singer for over a decade, after an acrimonious split in 1985). The lyrics in particular are sometimes dismissed as being essentially throwaway, a dumb, gimmick song about, well, jumping, in keeping with the video and it’s obnoxious, hairy-chested, absurdly leaping frontman. (Diamond Dave`s campy, uber-macho persona hasn’t always gone over quite as well with successive generations).
I disagree. I think ‘Jump’s’ detractors are missing the song’s subtle cleverness. Without falling prey to the sin of sappiness (as Hagar so often did), ‘Jump’ is the ultimate expression of positivity and take on that world spirit. That impression has never left me and I still listen to the song today when I feel like celebrating, or, when I need to pick myself up.
I realize that, to many, these sentiments will seem hopelessly square. Van Halen deserves to go down in history as a sort of wise ass, Californian version of Led Zeppelin, but, instead, they’re often lumped in with the likes of other big-haired, chart-busting 80s hard rockers who weren’t half as special. And, truthfully, they’ve done so much to tarnish their own legacy over the years that successive generations of rock fans have missed what makes the group great to this day.
But I know that the band that busted my rock n’ roll cherry was indeed great, and that my life-changing Ed Sullivan/Friday Night Videos moment wasn’t wasted on cheese. Van Halen was a loud, dirty guitar band at heart, and Jump exposed a softer, synth-pop side that made some fans uncomfortable. But the band had always shown a pop side, and ‘Jump’ was just that in its purest, finest form.
One thing is unquestionable, and that’s the huge pop culture impact the song and the album made. It feels gratifying, vindicating even, to see both get their due in the media on this landmark anniversary, 30 years later.