Songs of 84: Jump / Van Halen

Anyone who was a school student in the 80s probably owned one or more of those Various Artists compilations released as a collaboration between major labels. I had purchased Shakin’ 84 with the money I was given for my 8th birthday. A friend of mine had Throbbin’ ‘84 and he graciously lent me his vinyl copy to make a tape of it.

These albums were, I think, deliberately sequenced to be too long to fit on a C-60 cassette, so eventually I had to buy my own copy. That said, these albums were always a wonderland of the well known, the lesser hits and the soon to be totally obscure records that shone brightly in the public consciousness of the time. Big hits like Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and Paul Young’s “Love of the Common People” rubbed shoulders with moody indie tracks like The Cure’s “Love Cats” and short lived Japanese popsters Sandii and the Sunsetz’ single “Sticky Music”. Throbbin’ ‘84 also gave us 5 and a half minutes of the brilliant “Just Be Good To Me” by the SOS Band (cut down from the 9 minutes plus on the band’s latest album)

Opening side two was a track that I wasn’t that familiar with at the time, by a band I knew nothing about. Van Halen, and their synth laden track “Jump”. Great tune, although the odd rhythms of the middle section sounded to me like the stylus was skipping across the grooves of the record – a common problem with those densely packed grooves on those 80s compilation albums, and a real worry as this wasn’t even my own record!

“Jump” was a very atypical track for the band, whose stock in trade was big, loud, and very heavy guitar based rock and roll. No doubt the hardcore VH fans were offended by the use of synthesisers – they were within the purview of lightweight pop bands. There was precious little of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar on the record anywhere, aside from some subtle rhythm guitar in the pre-chorus and one of Ed’s typically unhinged solos in the middle.

That said, it was a massive hit for the band, hitting number 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and number 2 in Australia. Soon after, every heavy metal band wanting a hit record was forced to add synths to their sound in one fashion or another.

The truth of the matter is that Van Halen has started using synths on their records as far back as 1981’s Fair Warning, with a track tucked away at the end of side two called “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”, which featured Eddie experimenting with some odd sounds as a foreboding intro to the final track “One Foot Out The Door”. They used them again on 1982’s Diver Down, especially on the cover of “Dancing In The Street”, but they were used more as window dressing rather than a dominating feature. For the next album “1984”, they were front and centre, although they really only poked their head up in two songs in 3 tracks – the opening instrumental title track, “Jump” and the follow up single “I’ll Wait”. The rest of the album was the standard guitar-bass-drums of the classic Van Halen sound.

Eddie Van Halen was an accomplished guitarist, but it wasn’t the first instrument he learned to play. He learned piano from an early age, so it was no stretch for him to play synths on his albums with ease. He was first given a drum kit and his brother Alex was given a guitar to learn. Alex spent more time sneaking into Eddie’s room to play drums than he did on the guitar, so Eddie thought he’d get his own back and steal Alex’s guitar to play, and the rest is history.

Eddie is best known for popularising the “two handed tapping” guitar technique, which is where the player uses both left and right hands to play a sequence of notes on the fretboard. While he popularised the technique, he didn’t invent it. Some sources say that jazz guitar maverick Les Paul did, others say it was Jimi Hendrix, however Eddie has admitted he heard Brian May of Queen use the technique on the solo of “It’s Late” on Queen’s 1977 album News of the World. He simply took the idea, sped it up to ludicrous speeds and made it a feature piece of his playing, perhaps best demonstrated on his unaccompanied solo piece “Eruption” from the first Van Halen album in 1978.

“Jump” is something of a perfect record. So much so that the listener instantly knows the song is within seconds of the synth riff starting, and pretty soon after the feel good endorphins start running. It is the very definition of an enduring classic.

David Kowalski, a writer and podcaster, is celebrating songs that turn 40 this year.

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