This week the world lost guitar god Eddie Van Halen after he passed away of throat cancer aged 65. He’s been remembered as a once-in-a-generation musician with remarkable talent.
Van Halen’s albums and tracks are legendary already, but Eddie’s lightning-quick fingers and fret-tapping technique was revolutionary. But there’s a lot more to Eddie and Van Halen than most know.
10 Van Halen was first called The Broken Combs
Van Halen have had countless incarnations, with eight different members throughout their almost 50-year history. But they’ve also had plenty of identity changes, having originally been known as the Broken Combs when Eddie and Alex formed a band in high school in 1964. With Eddie on violin and Alex playing sax along with school mate Kevan Hill on cello, they played at school lunchrooms.
The Broken Combs lasted two years, before they moved up a few notches on the hard rock scale. In 1972 they called themselves The Trojan Rubber Co, before changing to Genesis. Given the name Genesis was being used by a popular English band, they changed again, this time to Mammoth, but again realized it was being used, albeit this time by a smaller LA band. They finally settled on Van Halen in 1974, allegedly driven by lead singer David Lee Roth, not either of the brothers despite the obvious link to their surname. Apparently one of the other name options was Rat Salade. Bullet dodged!
9 Gene Simmons wanted to call them Daddy Longlegs
Van Halen and Gene Simmons linked up in 1977 after the Kiss singer watched them live with well-known radio DJ Rodney Bingenheimer. Simmons would produce a 10-song demo tape for Van Halen, before their breakthrough self-titled debut album in 1978.
The group hoped the partnership with Simmons would help them get their break in the industry but ultimately it didn’t prove fruitful. Amid all that, Simmons is understood to have wanted them to re-name themselves again, this time to ‘Daddy Longlegs’ for reasons not disclosed. Long story short, Simmons couldn’t land a record deal for Van Halen so they went their separate ways. They also wisely stuck with the name Van Halen. But who knows, maybe the arachnid name may have grown on us?
8 Eddie & Alex were born in Amsterdam
They’ve always been seen as the hard rock band with ground-breaking guitar solos from Pasadena, LA. But it’s often not known that both Eddie and Alex were born in Amsterdam in the Netherlands and emigrated with their parents to the United States in their early years.
The brothers’ father, Jan, was actually a Dutch jazz musician. Jan was a talented pianist, clarinetist and saxophonist. In 1962, Jan and wife Eugenia relocated the family to LA, encouraged by stories from family members who’d previously emigrated. They left with only 75 guilders which equated to around US$40 at the time.
Interestingly, Van Halen’s song ‘Amsterdam’ on 1995 album ‘Balance’ wasn’t actually written by the Amsterdam-born brothers, but instead by latter lead singer Sammy Hagar.
7 Eddie met his first wife at a Van Halen gig
It’s rather cliché, but Eddie and his actress first wife Valerie Bertinelli crossed paths for the first time at a Van Halen concert in Louisiana. Valerie wasn’t really a big Van Halen fan either, instead dragged to the show by her brother Patrick, before she bumped into Eddie backstage tuning his guitar. She said it was love at first sight.
“I looked at him and he looked at me and that was it,” she said. “My heart melted.” In a story similar to that from ‘A Star Is Born’, they caught up after the concert and spent the night talking for hours.
Valerie was then a relatively well-known actress on popular US sitcom ‘One Day At A Time’, so Eddie soon moved in with her in the Hollywood Hills. They married not long after in 1981, but divorced in 2007.
6 Van Halen are in the Guinness Book of Records
It may come as a surprise, but Van Halen hold the mark for the highest-paid single appearance of a band in the Guinness Book of Records. In 1983, Van Halen appeared at the US Festival for 90 minutes, which was worth a stunning US$1.5 million. Some fans may argue this proves Van Halen are the biggest rock band in the world!
Van Halen headlined Heavy Metal Day of the three-day festival organized by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak on Memorial Day Weekend in southern California. They got top billing, and money, ahead of the likes of David Bowie, Stevie Nicks, The Clash and U2.
A radio station figured out that that equated to Van Halen making $275 per second, but Eddie rebuked that comment when he spoke to Guitar World years later. “What he didn’t realize is that we put every penny of that into the production,” Eddie said. “We didn’t make a f**king dime when it was all over.”
5 Eddie lost 1/3 of his tongue to tongue cancer
Eddie eventually lost his battle with illness this week but it all started in 2000 with tongue cancer. He subsequently underwent surgery on his tongue which removed one third of it. He was remarkably declared cancer-free in 2002 but more recently he suffered from throat cancer.
Known as a notoriously heavy drinker and smoker from his teenage years, Eddie actually pointed the blame for his tongue cancer at guitar picks. He claimed: “I used metal picks – they’re brass and copper – which I always held in my mouth, in the exact place where I got the tongue cancer.
“I was smoking and doing a lot of drugs and a lot of everything. But at the same time, my lungs are totally clear. This is just my own theory, but the doctors say it’s possible.” Either way, the loss of a third of his tongue never affected him musically.
4 “Jump” is the band’s only US number one single
When you look up Van Halen on Spotify, you’ll find some massive hits with more than 70 million streams, including “Jump”, “Panama”, “Runnin’ with the Devil”, “Hot for Teacher” and “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love”, so it’ll come as a surprise to know that only “Jump” went number one in the US.
Three of those aforementioned anthems came off the monster hit album “1984” with “Jump” getting the most attention thanks to Eddie’s ridiculous guitar solo. “Panama”, “I’ll Wait” (both from “1984”) and “Finish What Ya Started” got as high as 13 on the Billboard charts and number two on the Mainstream Rock Tracks list. Popular 1988 track “When It’s Love” got as high as five.
Van Halen’s breakthrough hit “Runnin’ With The Devil” may have been later voted by VH1 in the top 10 greatest hard rock songs of all-time but it only reached a peak of 84th on the US charts.
3 Eddie’s son was named after Mozart
It’s relatively well known that Eddie’s son Wolfgang joined the band in 2006, replacing Michael Anthony as their bass player as a teenager. Wolfgang, now 29, remains part of the band to this day.
But what’s little known is that the inspiration behind his birth name was to pay homage to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The Van Halens grew up in a musical household and their father Jan provided a classical music background, which included exposing the boys to Mozart’s work.
Interestingly, Eddie’s full name is Edward Lodewijk Van Halen, with his middle name in honour of Ludwig Van Beethoven, as Lodewijk is the Dutch version of the German name Ludwig. While Eddie started a rock band, he always had an attachment to classical music from his youth and he passed that on, albeit in name only, to his son.
2 “1984” never went no.1 on the charts
When you think about Van Halen albums, you usually think about “1984” given some of the singles which it included. However, despite its universal appeal and longevity, the album never actually managed to be number one on the Billboard charts in the USA.
The big reason was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” couldn’t be bumped. It’s worth noting, “Thriller” was released in December 1982, while “1984” came out in January 1984, but MJ’s album sat number one on the Billboard charts for an astonishing 37 weeks, from February 26, 1983 to April 14, 1984. For five of those weeks, “1984” sat as number two but could never bump MJ off the top spot.
But Eddie can take some comfort and joy in the fact he provided the guitar in massive hit “Beat It” on Jackson’s album, meaning he technically did get that number one spot.
1 Eddie never technically learnt how to read music
In a 2012 interview with Esquire, Eddie admitted this fact. “I went to Pasadena City College, junior college, just for music,” Eddie said. “But I never learned how to read (music). For scoring and arranging, a Henry Mancini book was the bible. And I never read it, of course.”
Eddie instead claimed he watched his instructors’ fingers and had “good ears” for picking up the subtleties of music. He’d mimic them and improvise at recitals and competitions which he’d often win. It’s clear he was blessed with musical talent but his musician father’s influence was significant. He was also schooled by Lithuanian choirmaster Stasys Kalvaitis in his youth. Either way, Eddie improvised and it worked for him for his whole life.