In January 1977 I was working in my Burbank office at Warner Bros. Records when my secretary came in and said, “It’s Marshall Berle for you on line one. He says he has an unsigned band for you to see in Hollywood.”
To be honest, I rarely bothered to take calls concerning unknown local bands. By the time Marshall called, I was a Warner Bros. vice president and staff producer—I’d already recorded albums with Van Morrison and Little Feat and discovered and signed the Doobie Brothers as well as Montrose, whose 1973 debut album would become a landmark in hard rock. I’d even had a fleeting moment of pop stardom in the ’60s as the drummer in Harpers Bizarre, remembered today chiefly for our top 10 cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy).” But Marshall was an old friend; he’d booked the Beach Boys, so I knew he had an eye and ear for young musical talent.
So I picked up his call. He proceeded to tell me that he was managing the recently reopened Whisky a Go Go and was booking a lot of young acts. Then he said, “Ted, I’ve got a band for you. Their name is Van Halen. They’re from Pasadena, and next month they’re going to be playing two shows on back-to-back nights at the Starwood.” The first time I ever heard the name Van Halen was when Marshall said it to me. This wasn’t some sort of oversight on my part. At the beginning of my career at Warner Bros., I’d gone to clubs like the Troubadour to scout talent. But by 1977 that kind of street work was no longer part of my portfolio. Still, based on Marshall’s recommendation, I was intrigued. I put the dates on my calendar and told him I’d be there.
So on February 2 I went down to the Starwood, on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. I spotted an empty table with a candle and a card with my name on it, but I didn’t sit down. I bounded up the stairs to the balcony so I could watch the show from the shadows, thinking that if this band wasn’t any good, I could exit without any drama from anyone in their camp. One thing hit me before the show even started: They hadn’t drawn a crowd—the Starwood was almost empty.
When Van Halen came onstage, it was like they were shot out of a cannon. Their energy wowed me, especially because they performed like they were playing an arena and not a small Hollywood club. So my interest was piqued, even though their singer didn’t impress me. At that moment that didn’t matter much, because their guitar player blew my mind.
Right out of the gate I was just knocked out by Ed Van Halen. It’s weird to say this, but encountering him was almost like falling head over heels in love with a girl on a first date. I was so dazzled. I had never been as impressed with a musician as I was with him that night. I’d seen Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, all of those transcendent artists, but Ed was one of the best musicians I’d ever seen live. His choice of notes—the way he approached his instrument—reminded me of saxophonist Charlie Parker. In fact, as I watched, I was thinking there are two musicians in my mind who are the absolute best of the best: Parker; jazz pianist Art Tatum; and now here’s the third game changer, Ed Van Halen. So right away I knew I wanted him on Warner Bros.
When I think back on that night, it wasn’t just one thing about him that grabbed me. It was his whole persona. When he played, he looked completely natural and unaffected; he was so nonchalant in his greatness. Here he was playing the most incredible shit and acting as if it were no more challenging than snapping his fingers.
By the time their first set ended, I was sold. I slipped out of the club and hustled back to my car. Driving home in the rain, I was so amped about what I had seen that I stopped at two different pay phones, trying to get Donn Landee, my favorite recording engineer and right-hand man in the studio. I finally got him after I got home. I said, “I just heard this band called Van Halen at the Starwood. We’ve got to go after these guys. You’re not going to fucking believe it when you hear them. This kid guitar player is amazing!” I was so electrified by what I’d seen that I hardly slept a wink that night.
At daybreak I called Warner Bros. Records chairman and CEO Mo Ostin, asking him to clear his calendar for that evening because there was an unsigned act he needed to see with me in Hollywood. He said, “If you’re that excited about this act, I’m there.” By approaching Mo I was being strategic. I could have just as easily gone to Lenny Waronker, Warner’s legendary head of A&R (who’d produced Harpers Bizarre), but I knew Mo, unlike Lenny, was a heavy metal fan. Mo listened to the Who. He’d signed the Kinks and the Jimi Hendrix Experience to Reprise. So in my mind I had Mo pegged as the executive most likely to respond to Van Halen the way I had. I knew I had enough juice inside the company to get them signed. But I wanted it to happen fast, before any other labels got wind of our interest in the band. And I knew Mo could sign them on the spot if he dug them.
I said, “We’ve got to go after these guys. You’re not going to fucking believe it when you hear them. This kid guitar player is amazing!”
That evening the two of us, along with Russ Titelman, another Warner staff producer and vice president, went to the club. We met Marshall, and the four of us watched from the balcony. Once again, Ed’s performance moved me. His sound! The low-end thump from his cabinets—it just didn’t seem like those kinds of seismic tones should be coming out of those speakers. The other thing that sticks out in my mind is that they played “You Really Got Me.” I knew that Kinks song would resonate with Mo. On this second night I thought I should pay more attention to the band’s singer. As a performer and vocalist, he underwhelmed me. His stage presence was awkward, and his singing wasn’t great. I didn’t know it at the time, but David Lee Roth had patterned himself after Jim “Dandy” Mangrum of Black Oak Arkansas. Sitting there in the darkness watching Roth, I was actually a bit nervous that Mo was going to be turned off by the singer’s antics and perhaps might pass on Van Halen. Truthfully, Roth made me nervous, too. I thought, What am I going to do with this group if we sign them and the singer can’t hold up his end of the bargain? I could make the guitar player a solo artist if the worst came to pass. I found myself mulling over dumping the singer for a stronger vocalist, like Montrose’s lead singer, Sammy Hagar. I thought, hell, he might be the perfect singer for Van Halen.
When the lights came up, Mo, Russ, and I shared our impressions with one another. As it turned out, Russ didn’t really like Van Halen all that much, but Mo wanted to sign them. We told Marshall we’d like to meet them, so he took us backstage. The four guys were all really nice, and when I talked to Ed about perhaps making a Van Halen record, it was refreshing to discover that he was so unaffected by his talent. Mo pulled Marshall and me aside. Mo said to Marshall: “Do they have a manager?”
“No, I’m just kind of looking after them.”
“Well, they do now. You’re their manager.”
Right there, we made the deal. I was ecstatic.
I frequently discussed Van Halen with Donn before we first got them into Sunset Sound. He knew how passionate I felt about them, particularly when it came to Ed. I insisted, “Above all else, we have to get his guitar sound on tape and not try to do anything to it. We’ve got to capture it.” Donn understood. Truth be told, without his involvement, I don’t think Van Halen would have happened.
For their demo session, my goal was to run through their best originals and a couple of their covers. In the spirit of the sessions I’d done with Van Morrison, I wanted to capture their sound and their songs on tape in as raw and live a fashion as possible, so I planned to get all the basic tracks laid down in a few hours. This way I’d have a reference tape that documented the band’s repertoire and could assess the strengths and weaknesses of the different tracks. Our time in Sunset would also give me a good sense of how the band members handled the studio environment. I certainly knew well that some musicians who were phenomenal live performers crumbled under pressure once the red record light illuminated.
On the day of the session, the guys came into Sunset with their roadies and started preparing. Now I’d seen a million guitar players lay out their amps and effects in a studio, but I’d never seen a rig quite like Ed’s. His pedal board consisted of a little piece of plywood with his effects and cables duct-taped to it. It looked like it was jerry-rigged together with spit and baling wire. But of course when he plugged in, turned up the volume, and stepped on those different pedals, it all sounded fantastic. We knocked down something like 25 tunes in about three hours. The band was well rehearsed and powerful, and Donn did a remarkable job of getting their sound on tape. When I relisten to those tapes, it’s as obvious now as it was then that they had a bunch of excellent songs: “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Feel Your Love Tonight,” “Somebody Get Me a Doctor,” just to name a few. At that point they were like gemstones that needed cutting and polishing before they really shined.
Van Halen’s biggest issue was one that as a producer I feared I couldn’t fix. The truth was that Dave’s performance in Sunset Sound only raised my anxieties about his abilities. Some of his vocal performances, to be frank, just weren’t acceptable. To be sure, he was distinctive as a singer; his train-whistle screams were identifiable in a good way. But every time I heard him get pitchy or completely miss a note, I worried that the public was going to be turned off by this band because of his limitations.
Donn picked up on the same things. Since I’d confided in him my thoughts on Sammy Hagar, he’d turn to me when we were both at the board and whisper, “You’ve gotta call Sam.” I’d nod and say under my breath, “You’re right.” He knew that Dave scared the shit out of me. Thinking back on that first go-around with Dave in the studio, I started wondering if I should stop talking about it and actually see about firing him. While he had his moments, he mostly just croaked along while the other guys played the most amazing shit. At first Van Halen was like a really terrible algebraic formula that you need to solve but don’t know how to. On the plus side, I had a great band with an incredible guitar player and a singer who did these screams that were different than anything I’d ever heard. I still don’t know how he did them. He also had this engaging personality and looked great onstage. But the fact remained that he really couldn’t sing well. Could I find a way to pull better performances out of him? I honestly didn’t know.
Some of Dave’s vocal performances, to be frank, just weren’t acceptable.
As I mulled things over, I tried to attend as many Van Halen rehearsals as possible. They practiced in the basement of Dave’s father’s house in Pasadena. I listened to their new songs and gave them feedback. They had a great big blackboard, like you’d have in a classroom, and we’d write these ideas down. At these rehearsals Dave would show me his lyrical ideas, things that became classics like “Atomic Punk” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” When we took breaks I’d talk at length with him. That’s when I came to appreciate his astounding intellect; he’d quote a line from Tom Sawyer and then a comic book. I still don’t know anybody who can keep those kinds of stream-of-consciousness raps going like he can. Captain Beefheart used to try to do that; all the guys around Frank Zappa thought they could do that. But Dave naturally is that way. His intelligence came through in his writing, too. The more I read his lyrics, especially “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” the more impressed I became. His line in that song about bleeding for something you really desire just stuck with me. He was extremely well read and smart, and that showed up in his whole approach to fronting Van Halen. He also had a tremendous sense of humor and dead-on comic timing. I thought that aspect of his personality, in particular, made for something unique within the heavy metal realm. Most bands of that genre were so strident and serious to the point of cliché. Dave had a unique way of laughing through the daily events of life that was infectious.
So for me solving the puzzle of how to make Roth work within the confines of Van Halen came down to this: He wasn’t a conventional singer, to be sure. But he had certain gifts that were rare in the rock world, and those assets outweighed his flaws. In the end I hung in there with Dave, thinking that I’d find a way in the studio to accentuate his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. That’s why I decided against calling Sammy. I love Sammy as a person and as a singer, but if I’d tried to put him in Van Halen in 1977, I’d have made the biggest mistake in rock history, because Van Halen never would have made it without Dave fronting the band.
When we went back into the studio in August, I had a good handle on how I wanted them to sound on their record. I wanted Van Halen, sonically, to have its heavy and dark aspects, but I wanted the band’s pop sensibilities to shine through. When people listened to the album, I hoped they’d smile rather than grit their teeth. Van Halen’s harmonies, I thought, would be their secret weapon. When bassist Mike Anthony and Ed sang together, they sounded youthful, like the early Beach Boys. I wanted to have this pop, fun, Southern California sun-kissed vibe. Roth’s wonderful sense of humor also fed that upbeat feeling. Ultimately, Ed’s guitar playing would be the X factor in helping to determine the success or failure of their album. If Donn and I showcased it properly, it could cover up a whole host of sins related to Roth’s vocals.
The vibe during the session at Sunset was upbeat and loose, which I think came through on the record. Dave was instrumental here. When we cut “Runnin’ with the Devil,” he started goofing around with this English bobby whistle that he wore on a chain around his neck. He made all kinds of noise with it, and we ended up using a bit of it on the record. If there was any overt tension when we made the first record, it was between Ed and his older brother, Al, the band’s drummer. They played off each other to a significant degree, so if one of them made a mistake, they’d turn on each other. Ed and Al had worked out these parts—these little synchronized parts for the bass, drums, and guitar. Ed would sometimes forget a fill, and he and Al would yell at each other, but they’d work it out after blowing off some steam. Truth be told, it was Al who struggled more in the studio than Ed. Listen to the drum fill right before the second verse on “Feel Your Love.” It’s a bit floppy and imprecise. As a drummer, that made me crazy. Now compare it to Ed’s rhythm playing right after the solo. Ed’s like a fucking metronome. He was always so locked in, in terms of timing. But also notice that I left Al’s fill on the record, because the rest of the take was good. I’m not sure I ever mentioned to Al that I had a problem with it. It was more important to keep those guys at ease and confident that the record was coming together than try to rework a basic track that, apart from a minor flaw, was excellent.
Working with Ed gave me a chance to really draw on my bebop jazz influences. I thought of Ed’s solos as similar to those of Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. When I listened to Ed within the confines of Van Halen, I had a visual of those two jazz legends playing with a piano or bass accompaniment. When they soloed, the piano and bass dropped down in the mix and played a supporting role. I thought of Ed’s solos in the context of Van Halen’s instrumental attack the same way. That’s why I wanted to feature his parts so prominently on the record. My bebop chops allowed me to understand Ed’s playing and how to make Van Halen work on record in a way that a lot of record executives—the guys who passed on signing the band—didn’t. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out what is in some ways obvious: Mike’s bass was an important part of the Van Halen sound. The root of the chord was always so solid with Mike. He knew, almost intuitively, how to stay a simple course when we recorded so Ed’s guitar parts could shine. I didn’t need to work all that much with Mike on the first album because I knew he was on top of things.
When we cut the basic tracks, I wanted to be sure to get performances on tape that felt fresh and energetic, especially with a great live band like Van Halen. So we’d record a few takes and then pick the best one as the master. That still meant, though, that we had work to do with Dave. When we cut the tracks, he always sang along with them, and we’d coach him through it. I then needed to do triage—and decide which aspects of his performances we’d later fix. If he hit a sour note, and I didn’t seem to react, Donn would throw me a look. He’d whisper, “Are you going to keep that take?” I’d feel guilty, but I’d say, “I gotta, Donn.” He’d whisper, “That’s terrible.” After we’d laid down the basic tracks, I’d cut Ed, Al, and Mike loose for the day, and Donn and I kept working with Dave. To be honest, I did that because I didn’t want anyone, especially the other three guys in Van Halen, to see how much we had to struggle to get Dave’s vocals on tape. It took forever sometimes. He’d be straining, and we’d work on getting him to hit certain notes. I did my best to keep Dave’s confidence up, knowing from experience as a vocalist how shitty it is to feel like you’re not pleasing the producer. But it was a tedious process, one that I know was draining and frustrating to Donn. Unlike the three other guys, he had to be there for every second that Dave was in the vocals booth.
Even though recording this album was less time-consuming and onerous than some of the other bands I’d produced, I’d walk out of the sessions totally drained because I was obsessed with getting everything right on Van Halen. In my head, between things like Al’s fills and Dave straining to hit notes, I was crazed. But eventually I realized those imperfections weren’t really flaws—that’s why it’s Van Halen. So I wanted it to be perfect. But you know what? The humor came across. Ed’s virtuosity came across. Al’s power came across. Dave’s smarts came across. It didn’t need to be a pristine performance. Probably my favorite song I ever worked on with any artist is “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.” It’s like the perfect rock song. The guitar part is timeless. You can’t get a better riff. One thing that people often miss is the way Ed constructed it. He spilled that final part of the riff into the next bar. That made the whole thing groove. Donn added a lot to that song. He got Ed’s massive rhythm guitar sound on tape, and I’m almost positive it was Donn’s idea for Ed to double his solo with a Coral electric sitar. Ed’s solo really sparkles as a result.
During our last sessions for the album, something serendipitous happened. We’d moved from Sunset’s studio 2 to studio 1. I’m still not sure why. One of the days we worked in studio 1, Donn and I were preparing to track something in the next few minutes. Ed was by himself in the studio. I remember he was kind of noodling around on his guitar. I was out in the little side room getting coffee. I headed back and walked out into the studio. Ed was playing what would become “Eruption.” My ears perked up.
I stopped him and asked, “What’s that?”
“Ah, nothing. It’s just something I warm up on.”
“Well, let’s hear it again. We gotta record it.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No, we have to record it. Right away.”
He really didn’t think it was anything. But it was astounding. I walked into the booth, thinking Donn hadn’t been listening to what Ed was doing. I said, “You’ve got to hear this. Turn on the monitors.” Donn turned on the speakers, and we listened. I said, “We’ve got to record this. Let’s roll tape.” Donn looked at me and said, “I’m already rolling.” So it turned out that he had heard Ed playing and had turned on the tape machine. We got Al and Mike in the room. I don’t think more than ten minutes went by from the moment I first heard “Eruption” to the time we recorded it. After we’d gotten it on tape, Ed looked uneasy.
“What’s wrong, Ed?”
“Ah, I dunno. I think I can do it better.”
I said, “No. No. That’s good.”
I didn’t let him do it one more time. Sometimes I regretted that, because, I swear to God, three, four years later he’d remind me that he “could’ve played it better” than the version that ended up on the record. Even more mind-boggling to me is that Ed wasn’t even going to show this piece to me or to Donn. If I hadn’t walked by at that moment, it wouldn’t have ended up on the album. Now it’s universally recognized as the greatest guitar solo of all time.
After the record was in the can, the guys invited me to see their farewell show in Pasadena at the Civic. I stood out in the middle of the audience and soaked up the scene. They put on a great performance; Ed sounded exactly like he did on the record. I also noticed how Dave put the spotlight on Ed every time they went onstage: When Ed played “Eruption,” Dave hit everyone with all of this “Edward Van Halen!” hyperbole. He made their performances a showcase for Ed. Dave was savvy that way. The other thing I remember about that show at the Civic is how incredible “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love” came off live. The whole crowd was pumping their fists. It was like I was at a Beatles concert in the middle of Pasadena, and Van Halen didn’t even have a record out. That was great to see and a confidence booster for me as their producer. The game changer—I’m telling you, maybe the most emotional moment in music, for me, ever, in anything—was when I heard them play that song that night.
I believed in Van Halen and wanted them to break through. But what was a bit weird for me was that most people at the record company weren’t high on their music. When I’d play the record, nobody there was enthused. That was upsetting because, honestly, that meant that nobody at the label was really interested in Van Halen as one of the promising new acts for 1978. Meanwhile I was sold 100 percent on these four guys. It was like dating a girl in high school that you thought was the biggest catch, and all of your friends thought she was nothing special. So it was frustrating—I knew these guys had limitless talent. I knew breaking Van Halen was going to be an uphill battle at the label and in the marketplace in general. You couldn’t easily get Warner Bros. people to put a lot of money behind a heavy metal act like Van Halen in those days. Van Halen, on paper, seemed too niche and too out of step with the times.
So it was up to me to really push them behind the scenes. Along with signing and producing them, I’m the one who got the promotional and tour support train rolling for them at the label. Promotion matters. You can’t manufacture a hit out of a terrible song, but you also can’t very well sell a great song that nobody hears. So I did my best to work the system to prioritize things for them at Warner Bros. Otherwise I feared they’d never get the financial support they needed to break through.
“You Really Got Me” was a good tune for them, but my gut told me it wasn’t a stone-cold, top 10 hit, and, in the end, it wasn’t. The song stalled out in the Billboard Top 40. But that was enough to get Van Halen, a brand-new act, on the radar of rock fans and industry types. That’s not to take anything away from those guys. They made a great album and were killers in concert, so they made their own breaks. But there’s a lot that goes on behind the curtain when it comes to breaking a new act. See, along with being their producer, I was also a vice president. Every Thursday we’d have a priority meeting regarding promotions. When Van Halen came up, there’d be hemming and hawing. I’d be in those meetings—talking about millions of dollars—pumping up money for them. Still, I had to be careful. Van Halen was seen as “my” band, and as an executive you have to seem objective. So I’d have to do it on the sly. If I got word from Marshall that their record wasn’t getting a good push in certain markets, as a vice president I could try to fix it for them.
I also helped with tour support. An unknown band like Van Halen wasn’t just magically going to have the kind of funds they needed to put on a great show. In fact, when it came time for the band to first go on the road, Marshall and I had trouble finding a big tour for them. I had to flex my muscles to get them onto a tour with Journey. They might have never gotten that kind of live exposure otherwise. The amount of money we’d put out in 1978 for publicity and promotion for them was a small fortune. If I hadn’t been a vice president, if it was just Marshall calling up and making these requests to another executive who didn’t give a shit about Van Halen, Warner Bros. never would have invested that kind of money. It cost tens of thousands to send them to Europe and Japan. Those tours paid off big and had a lot to do with them getting recognized internationally. I spearheaded tour assistance from the label, but really what I was trying to do was invest corporate resources in something that I believed was going to pay off for everyone, and, in the end, it turned out I was right. By October their album had sold over a million copies, and we’d released four singles. Those guys became superstars, Warner Bros. made a lot of dough, and I did well, too.
I guess I want to share my behind-the-scenes role because I want it known how much I wanted to see those guys make it. I poured my heart and soul into Van Halen because I saw how hard they’d worked and how little they had to show for their years of effort when I signed them in 1977. They were so broke it was ridiculous. Ed had his car door tied closed with guitar string. Ed and Al hauled their gear in this battered, ragtag Ford Econoline van that looked like they’d driven it straight out of a junkyard. Dave’s dad had money, but Dave wasn’t living high on the hog. Dave’s car was in such bad shape that when he couldn’t start it one day after a session at Sunset, he left it and never came back for it. I swear, it was still sitting there, tires flattening and covered in pollen and bird shit, months after we finished the record. I know Mike was in hock to his parents. It’s so great and fulfilling when you see someone come from nowhere and suddenly put out a record. It’s even better when you see guys like that finally make money from their music. That’s what really makes you feel good as a producer.
The thing is, years later a lot of artists don’t remember that hungry feeling. If I’d said to them down at the Starwood, “So here’s the deal: We’re going to lay out a million and a half bucks to put you on the road around the world to build your name, but you’ll have to pay us back,” they would have said, “Great! Where do we sign?” Any unsigned, unknown artist would have given anything for a deal like that from Warner Bros. But instead, decades later, it became a point of contention with Van Halen. They seem to resent the way Warner Bros. treated them. But I think if they’d reflect back on how badly they wanted a record deal, they might see things differently.
Adapted from Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music by Ted Templeman as told to Greg Renoff. Reprinted by permission from ECW Press.