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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


Rock fans all over the world this week mourned the sad passing of guitar legend Eddie Van Halen. Now I have written about Van Halen in earlier incarnations of this blog largely in praise of their first two albums which despite their hard rock credentials have a great pop sensibility about them with an array of great songs like "Runnin' With The Devil", "Dance The Night Away" and my personal favourite "Jamie's Cryin'".

I fully admit that it was this steering towards great pop licks with an admittedly raw edge rather than the guitar virtuoso work of Eddie Van Halen that drew me to them. However, the first album of theirs I bought was their oft-maligned 1982 album "Diver Down", which I loved because it had some fantastic cover versions on them - particularly their second go at a Kinks' track with the excellent "Where Have All The Good Times Gone". However, lurking in there was a couple of short guitar interludes by Eddie which genuinely I found difficult to believe could have been produced by a guitar.

As ever mercifully I prefer my guitar solos not to go on too long and become indulgent but there was no doubting the dexterity coupled with as sense of rhythm that he was able to demonstrate with surprising ease.

It wasn't blues and it wasn't classical - it just felt other worldly. It sounded more like a church organ than a guitar.

In recent days, Eddie has been referred to as the "Mozart of the Electric Guitar" such was his (originally precocious) skill and you may doubt it but, lest we forget, he was the very sound of the future itself. You may recall a cassette of electric guitar frenzy being played through a set of headphones clamped to George McFly's ears in "Back To The Future". The energising effect of Van Halen's playing on the unwitting George could even reset time, it would seem. It was actually Eddie noodling around making white noise on the tape.

However, whether you like Van Halen or not, Eddie Van Halen was responsible for one of the most important historical moments in rock and pop music - of course, his solo in Michael Jackson's "Beat It" from 1983.

He was approached by Quincy Jones to play on the record as the legendary producer was keen to put out a more rock-styled production as part of what he knew would be a successful album. At the time, Van Halen were probably as big a draw as the Jacksons so this was no leg up. Jackson himself initially was unsure.

Apparently, he nailed the solo in a couple of takes after Quincy had asked him to do a slightly less metal version wanting to make sure it was picked up by the right radio stations. Regardless, this kind of fretwork had never really been played on a pop/dance record before and when you hear it in isolation you can really hear how mind-blowing an effort it was. Actually, the record is a guitar aficionado's dream as the famous hooks and riffs were played by Steve Lukather - legendary session musician and member of Toto.

This is really the first genuine crossover hit - certainly of the MTV era - and the inclusion of a rock legend on a pop record was a real eye-opener. Genres of music tended to keep to their own lanes until then and whilst cover versions may be re-appropriated it was virtually unheard for this kind of collaboration to take place.

In doing so, it opened up MTV - then a crucial medium - for Michael Jackson and together with a scintillating promo, the rest is history as we know.

It was undoubtedly a brave act by all parties to take on this musical melding but it opened up the genres to each other and certainly made the lines of what you liked much more blurred and far more democratic.

Jackson would try the trick again on "Black And White" with Slash - a far weaker song - but by then the floodgates had opened. "Beat It" paved the way for records such as the classic "Walk This Way" by Run DMC and Aerosmith which was a fully-fledged clash of cultures and genres tater than a cameo but "Beat It" is where it started.

Nowadays, there are so many collaborations largely at the behest of music marketing teams linking otherwise disparate artists together - from country or soul or indie or rap - that it does not seem like a strange thing that Coldplay should sing with Rihanna or McCartney with Kanye West but in 1982, it was simply not a thing.

Of course, it is (and was) a trick that was a naked attempt to crossover but it was a genius move from Quincy Jones to conceive it. However, undoubtedly, Eddie Van Halen, despite his undoubted virtuosity, had far more to lose with a more focused and potentially more aggressively purist audience and in taking that chance alone deserves all the praise that is coming to him in the coming weeks and months.

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