There have been many masterpiece albums released over the past 60 years of rock ‘n roll history; ‘Sgt. Peppers’, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, ‘Sticky Fingers’, ‘Electric Ladyland’, etc. There have also been just as many albums that have been overlooked. Even albums by major artists are sometimes overlooked or underappreciated.
Van Halen’s fourth album, ‘Fair Warning’ was released in April 1981. By this time, Eddie Van Halen’s lightning-quick playing was responsible for selling millions of electric guitars. Their first two albums had a fair amount of cover songs that helped propel sales of those records into the millions. They put the Van Halen spin on ‘You Really Got Me’, ‘Ice Cream Man’, and even ‘You’re No Good’ a song made popular by Linda Ronstadt! By the time they were ready to record their fourth album, Eddie and David Lee Roth had different ideas about the direction the music should take. DLR wanted to continue down the pop-friendly road, whereas Eddie was looking to go a darker route. ‘Fair Warning’ is a dark and moody excursion to the seedy side of town. Songs like ‘Mean Streets’, ‘Dirty Movies’ and ‘Push Comes to Shove’ are tough, unapologetic commentary on the down and out side of society. A trip to the ‘other side of the tracks’, if you will. Even the instrumental ‘Sunday Afternoon in the Park’ brings to mind shady characters and dirty deeds as opposed to children playing and dogs chasing frisbees. It was a park you wouldn’t let your kids near. The album cover is from a painting by Canadian artist William Kurelek, depicting his rough childhood; a boy running headfirst into a wall, a boy being violently kicked out of his house, and another image of a boy being held down and punched by a neighborhood bully. Tough stuff indeed.
Two singles were released from the album. ‘So This Is Love?’ reached #15 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart. ‘Unchained’ hit #13 on the same chart. In the early days of MTV, before they released the monster hit album ‘1984’, I would wait for hours for the only Van Halen video the network would play. The video for ‘Unchained’ featured live concert footage of the band. The best part? During the ‘Come on Dave, give us a break’ section of the song, the camera panned to fans holding a big banner with those words emblazoned on it.
To this day, ‘Fair Warning’ is my favorite Van Halen album. However, it is often overlooked when the band’s history is discussed. The record didn’t even make it on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums list. Don’t get me started on that! They say that pain and misery bring out the best in artists. Van Halen’s fourth album makes a great case for that belief.