Gritty, violent, harsh.
Not exactly adjectives you’d use to describe Pasadena’s Ultimate Party Band.
Fair Warning, Van Halen’s fourth studio album released in 1981, is the band’s darkest sonic statement and unlike anything else in their catalog.
The record contains no radio hits and few pop moments. It is their weakest-selling long-player of the David Lee Roth era. It is also one of their greatest artistic achievements.
Frantic, lawless, depraved. Van Halen offers the only album of their career that is not the soundtrack to the Eternal Southern California Beach Party. It is uncharted territory. A wrong exit off the LA freeway into the desperate parts of town.
Danger in the rearview mirror
There’s trouble in the wind
Badness bringing up the rear
The menace is loose again
Dirty movies starring former prom queens, seedy mean streets that lead nowhere. It’s always the end of the night and everything is in doubt.
No one’s above suspicion
It is Van Halen’s nastiest, most hopeless record. They would never go any deeper or rock any harder.
Opener “Mean Street” is the centerpiece. A place you do not want to find yourself after dark. It’s a dangerous rocker that opens with one of the most virtuosic guitar moments ever put to tape. Edward Van Halen shatters the fretboard with a finger-tapping technique that is still untouchable to this day.
“Unchained,” a concert favorite, is proto-pop-thrash. An early metal chug-a-lug with a burning riff and a sleazy strip-club middle eight:
Take a look at this
Hey man, that suit is you
You’ll get some leg tonight for sure
Tell us how you do!
The album doesn’t let up, or forgive. Its riffs snake and coil, venting pent-up energy from a bad trip that hits back in a serious way. Fourteen hours later it’s “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” a doom and gloom instrumental that sounds nothing like a Sunday afternoon, or a park, unless it’s Needle Park in the dead of winter. The song butts heads with the record’s closing statement, the punk-infused “One Foot out the Door,” which is over before you hear it.
Total time: 30 minutes, 58 seconds. You may need to take a breath.
And then there is the album cover.
In 1953, while hospitalized and being treated for mental illness, Canadian artist William Kurelek painted a raw, unflinching psychological self-portrait that would become his most famous work.
The Maze depicts a tortured childhood, a vision of confused madness. The troubled subconscious of a young man at odds with himself, his world, his god.
Brutal, savage, without beauty.
It’s the source for the perfect image to accompany the nihilistic soundscapes held within the sleeves of Fair Warning, Van Halen’s most brilliant moment.
Kurelek, William, The Maze. 1953. The Leicester Galleries, London.