Death by Power Ballad: Van Halen, “Love Walks In”
I recall reading a hilariously incoherent interview with Van Halen in Musician magazine, at some early juncture in 1986, prior to the release of 5150, the band’s first record with Sammy Hagar. Eddie, Alex, Mike, and Sammy were obviously bombed, and gave no indication to writer J.D. Considine that they were capable of doing anything but a ton of blow and spectacular amounts of alcohol. Amid the dick jokes, pot shots at David Lee Roth, and general belittling of Considine, though, one got the impression that the four of them were at least having a good time together, and you had to believe that a band that got along that well could, conceivably, make music that captured that spirit.
5150 delivered. From the party-on vibe of “Good Enough,” “Summer Nights,” and “Best of Both Worlds” to the keyboard-laden goodness of “Dreams” and the smokin’ “Why Can’t This Be Love,” one recognized that the band was capable of moving forward, machismo and gusto intact, and cement its standing as arena rock capo dei capi for the foreseeable future.
What convinced me that this new marriage would last, though, was the ballad on the record, a little keyboard-driven thing called “Love Walks In.” David Lee Roth is famous for saying he once told Eddie Van Halen that nobody wanted to see the guitar hero’s dead ass stuck behind a keyboard, but maybe in actuality, Roth knew nobody wanted to hear his smart ass try to sing a ballad as gorgeous as this one.
Notice I said try. For all his bluster and paaaawwtaaaay screams and bottles of expensive (but oh so good) tequila, Hagar has always possessed a voice with a greater range than Roth’s, both in pure octaves and dynamics. When Hagar hit the high note in the first verse (on the word awake in the line “Contact, asleep or awake”) you just had to know this was a different band—the dude who sang and whoooa’ed through “Jump” and “Everybody Wants Some” and “Somebody Get Me a Doctor” would not have hit that high note. That guy was good, real good; this guy was something totally different. The way he handled the bridges in the song, with equal parts strength and vulnerability, spoke volumes to what was possible for the new Van Halen, from the structure of a song to its very basic essence—its melody.
Ah, melody. Eddie Van Halen has long been a well-known gee-tar hero, one who explored and reinvented the technical aspects of how one approached the instrument, who spent inordinate amounts of time looking for specific sounds, to the point of cobbling together his own instruments and amplifiers from pieces of others and factory castoffs. His legendary technique, though, quite often overshadows his deftness with a melody. Few in the genre can string together a series of notes and chords, repeat them three or four times in a song, and lodge them in your brain for an eternity. “Love Walks In” has one of the melodies that helped define not only the power ballad arts, but late-’80s arena rock in general.
It also opened Eddie Van Halen to explore his penchant for balladry on each subsequent Van Halen record, from the good (Balance‘s “Not Enough”) to the bad (“When It’s Love,” from OU812) to the exquisite (“Right Now,” from Pepsi Commercial). For the ten years Hagar was in the band, anything seemed possible. “Love Walks In” gave us a hint as to the depth and breadth of those possibilities.