1980 saw the release of Van Halen’s “Women and Children First,” their third album in a chain of classic releases spanning the late 70s into the early 80s. “Women and Children First” is probably the bands’ most under-appreciated album. This is due to the fact that it’s in the middle of a chain of classic releases like “Van Halen,” “Van Halen II” and “1984.” Yet it hasn’t quite received the cult status of “Fair Warning” or the sales of “Diver Down.”
Although “Van Halen II” (1979) is a classic album, it’s slightly underwhelming when compared to the magnificent self-titled debut (1978). It’s the classic case of the “sophomore slump,” when a band that has been playing clubs for years uses up all its best material on the debut, and then has to use what’s left over for the follow-up (although what was “left over” was still pretty good!). For “Woman and Children First,” the band recorded a whole new batch of songs that sounded fresh, and less like leftovers.
It goes without saying that Van Halen was at their prime during the Roth years (1978-1985). The debut album and the follow-up see Van Halen young, fast and furious. This was also the case by the time Van Halen released “Women and Children First,” but the band also sounds a little more loose, more relaxed, but without losing any of the fire or passion that made them so great. Eddie’s playing, which goes without saying, sounds terrific. Every song on “Women and Children First” has one, or two killer, killer solos. Bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen provide a stellar rhythm section and David Lee Roth shines as only he can. There has never been, nor will there ever be, in the history of rock n’ roll, a singer that has the charisma, charm, showmanship and ironic wit of David Lee Roth.
“Women and Children First,” starts out surprisingly mid-paced (although never tepid) with its first couple of songs. The classic rock staples “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Want’s Some!” get the album off to a great start. The former a dedication to the endurance of the rock n’ roll sprit and the latter a tribute to, well, what everybody wants. Both songs feature Eddie Van Halen at his best. His solos never sounded more soulful or melodic. And Dave just shines. “Everybody Wants Some” really shows classic David Lee Roth at his best, especially with his “I like way the line runs up the back of the stocking,” and “no no no no no, don’t take `em off”, and “yeah, that’s it, a little more to the right” lines. These two tracks really show classic Van Halen at there finest. The pace slows down even more for the bluesy “Fools” an ode to the powers that be that would obstruct the prowling of the Diamond one.
The pace goes into hyperdrive with the classic “Romeo Delight” which is probably one of Van Halen’s most underrated songs. The main riff is absolutely killer and Eddie’s playing is fast and furious. One of the best moments of this song comes towards the end, when the rush of the song comes to a sudden halt, and then you hear the sound of a tapping, softly at first, and then getting louder and louder. Dave’s quite melodic “oh baby, feel my heartbeat, feel my heartbeat, feel my heartbeat” over the tapping which gets increasingly louder adds the perfect effect as only Diamond Dave could. The Sabbath-like “Tora! Tora!” which leads into the anarchic “Loss of Control” are two non-song tracks that add a bit of spice to the album and are essential to its overall flow.
The band goes semi-acoustic towards the end of “Women and Children First.” “Take Your Whisky Home” sounds like an old blues song from the South. The lines “Well my baby, she don’t want me around, she says she’s tired of watching me fall down, she wants the good life, whhah, and all the rest, but I like that bottle better than the rest” show the true spirit of classic Van Halen. The acoustic “Could this be Magic” is pure magic. In it, Dave sings of the inevitable doom of what will become in his current romance, but in pure Dave kitsch. The background vocals and harmonies from Eddie, Michael and Nicolette Larson add the perfect touch. The album closes with the beautifully written ballad “In a Simple Rhyme.” This is simply one of rock’s greatest, most highly underrated love songs. It actually rocks pretty hard, but is elegant and soulful. I would go as far as to say that it’s like a “Sweet Child `O Mine” of the early 80s. Eddie and Michael’s background vocals over Dave’s soulful blues delivery is pure magic. Eddie’s thunderous solo over Michael Anthony’s melodic bass line sounds terrific. And Diamond Dave never shined so bright. Some of his best lyrics are right here:
Then she made the mountains sing
Birds against an icy sky
And I heard bells ringin’
I think I heard an angel sigh
“Woman and Children First” closes with an untitled 15 second Sabbath-like instrumental titled “Growth.” Supposedly, the follow-up album, (which turned out to be “Fair Warning” 1981) would begin with the same riff, although this turned out not to be the case. “Growth” sort of comes out of left field, but is none-the-less an interesting piece of music and a cool way to end the album.
The first six Van Halen albums are absolutely essential cornerstones to any great rock collection. Although “Women and Children First” is not the band’s most well known album, it is still a classic and a must have for any Van Halen fan, or fan of hard rock or classic rock in general.