In 1981 all was not well in the world of the mighty VH. Tensions between guitarist Eddie Van Halen and singer David Lee Roth had been mounting, and it got to the point where Eddie had wanted to quit the group. He recorded music, possibly for a solo album, Roth heard it, and promptly wrote some lyrics–the result…FAIR WARNING. A rather, dark, cynical album, and one of the finest, if not finest, recording Van Halen ever made. The tensions within the band helped to fuel the fire, the intensity, and the passion of the recording process.
With the exception of Van Halen 3, (with vocalist Gary Cherone) “Fair Warning” was the least commercially successful Van Halen album. Although it is generally regarded among fans (especially VH purists) to be one of the bands’ best albums.
Although still a “party” album, complete with sing-along choruses, “Fair Warning” is by far the band’s darkest album. The overall vibe of the album, as well as Eddie Van Halen’s riffs and solos, while undeniably catchy with great hooks, also have a cloudy somberness to them. David Lee Roth’s lyrics, for the most part, are also somewhat more cynical than most of his work, before or since.
“Fair Warning” shows Van Halen at their zenith. Truth be told–the first six Van Halen albums are all masterpieces and essential to any great rock collection, but “Fair Warning” is the crown jewel of VH’s output. Even more so than the classic debut album. “Fair Warning” simply shows each member of the band, and the band overall as a unit, at their finest. “Fair Warning” demonstrates Eddie Van Halen’s best riffs, solos, and overall playing. It’s flashy, yet not self-indulgent, intense, yet also has a lot of soul, something that a lot of technical wizards lack. It was on “Fair Warning” that Eddie found the “brown sound.”
“Fair Warning” is also singer David Lee Roth’s finest hour. His lyrics and delivery are at their most witty, ironic and colorful height–like in the classic “one break, commmming uppp!”–from “Unchained” (which was on the spur-of-the-moment, and not pre-planned). On “Fair Warning,” David Lee Roth is immortalized as the world’s coolest frontman, ever.
“Fair Warning” also shows Van Halen’s rhythm section at their best. Bassist Michael Anthony has never been hailed as the world’s greatest living bassist. He is primly there to serve, along with drummer Alex Van Halen as the musical backbone of the band, to let Eddie do his thing. On “Fair Warning,” although his lines are pretty straightforward, they are also right upfront. You can hear the bass throughout the entire disc, it really stands out and enhances the sound and vibe of the album overall. On songs like “Push Comes to Shove” and “So This is Love,” you can get into the bass as much as any other aspect of the sound.
“Mean Street” opens with the sound of a guitar–quite at first, and then getting louder and louder–of Eddie noodling on the fretboard. And then the main riff kicks in, a mean, killer riff, one of 80s rocks’ finest. At this point you are thrust into the all-consuming greatness that is classic Van Halen. This mid-tempo rocker simply shows classic Van Halen at their best–young, invigorated, ready to kill. “Fair Warning” then moves into the dark, highly underrated “Dirty Movies.” This song starts out melodic, yet somewhat morose and creepy. The underwhellming drums at the beginning add the perfect effect. After a few seconds the main riff kicks in, and this loud and heavy, yet midtempo, melodic rocker begins. This ode to the porn industry shows the band at it’s most cynical–from the perspective of its rowdy audience. The radio staple “Sinners Swing” is a bit more upbeat, but only slightly so. The midtempo “Hear About it Later,” a song about unfaithfulness, is bitter, yet confident. The rhythm section towards the end of the song–with Michael Anthony’s pounding bass over Alex Van Halen’s light percussion is magnificently stunning. “Unchained” is undeniably the albums’ highlight and one of Van Halen’s, and rocks’ greatest songs. From the classic opening chords, the fast paced riff, to it’s conclusion, this song is a masterpiece, and simply shows VH at their peak. The album comes back to earth with the funky, disco-like “Push Comes to Shove.” “So This is Love?” is one of Van Halen’s best songs. It’s incredibly catchy, with a great bass intro, and great riff and hook. If you listen to “So this is Love,” it is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, that’s how magical it is. “Sunday Afternoon in the Park” is a foggy, somewhat offbeat instrumental. It adds a nice touch to the album overall. This instrumental leads into the short-but-sweet closing “One Foot Out the Door” which shows Diamond Dave at his meanest, with lyrics like “Now I’m gonna lose it ’cause that son-of-a-bitch”…A perfect conclusion to the perfect record.
Before Van Halen wrote songs like “Why Can’t this be Love,” before the lead-singer soap opera, there was a time when Van Halen was rightfully called the Mighty Van Halen, and “Fair Warning” proves it. The best word to describe Van Halen at this stage in their career is, quite simply, cool. “Fair Warning” is simply one of the best, coolest rock albums you will ever hear in your life.
The 2000 remaster sounds especially clear and sharp. You can make out subtle things that were easy to miss on the original CD pressing. Now “Fair Warning” can be enjoyed in all its greatness.