John Scanlan's Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock 'n' Roll (Reaktion Books – Reverb) is a different kind of book. Instead of the typical rock bio that documents the chronology of the band's rise to fame and inevitable excesses and egos while at the top, Scanlan took a unique approach.
“My intention, initially, was to look at Van Halen in terms of creativity and aesthetics,” the author said. “I figured that Van Halen at least represented something culturally significant, in that they could only ever have come from Southern California in the early-to-mid 70s. So, that became a starting point for writing a new book.”
Scanlan, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University (UK), extensively researched the formative years and early influences on Van Halen – including a comprehensive look at the Sunset Strip from the 1960s, as a center of music, to its decay in the early 70s, and Zen as another influence. He also wanted to “try to re-establish the idea that they are a 70s band,” the author said. “This was partly because I was so fed up with people associating them with the 80s and hair metal.”
He delves into David Lee Roth's background, especially the summers he spent as a kid with his uncle Manny, the owner of Cafe Wha? in New York City. Scanlan points to this as evidence of the singer's roots in the Beats and Zen, further separating Van Halen from the hair metal bands of the 1980s.
Much of the book focuses on the volatile relationship between Eddie Van Halen and Roth. In fact, the period of 1984-2007 (Roth left the band in 1985 and returned for a successful reunion tour in 2007) is covered in less than 15 pages.
Fortunately, the band's early years are the most interesting, and Scanlan doesn't disappoint. He gives an in-depth history of how Eddie's most famous guitar solo, “Eruption,” came to be – as well as how “Top Jimmy” developed from Roth's involvement in the LA underground scene (especially his financing of the Zero-Zero club), and the Van Halen brothers' explanation of the “brown sound” they try to achieve.
Reverb is Reaktion's new series of books about music, and this is the first in the series. “The books would be about how music is inseparable from the times and places of its making,” Scanlan said.