Wherever there was a party happening in Pasadena, California, in the mid-1970s, you could rest assured that Van Halen wasn’t that far away. For a number of years before being signed to Warner Bros. Records, the upstart hard rock band would play anywhere: backyards, school gyms, frat houses, basement bars, and dingy clubs were all up for grabs as they began establishing their sound and their image.
As a band of the people, it was only natural for Van Halen to integrate a fair number of covers into their repertoire. “We’re capable of playing six different Kinks’ songs,” David Lee Roth told Sounds magazine in 1982. “Because at one time, back in our bar days, I bought a double album from K-Tel or something that had 30 Kinks tunes on it. We learned all of one side and played them into the dirt during the club gigs, twice a night each one, because they sounded so good and they were great to dance to”.
The one that the band decided to record for their debut album and debut single was ‘You Really Got Me’, perhaps the most famous of all Kinks songs. Through Eddie Van Halen’s virtuosic guitar playing and Roth’s mammoth personality, Van Halen’s version of the song became a staple in their repertoire and an early hit for the band, cracking the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100.
By the time that the band reached 1982’s Diver Down, Van Halen were completely fried. Well over half a decade of nonstop recording, touring, and promotion meant that the group were reliant on cover songs and instrumentals to fill out the new album. It didn’t matter: Van Halen were too big to fail, and even a minor album like Diver Down sold millions of copies when it was released.
“When we came off the Fair Warning tour last year , we were going to take a break and spend a lot of time writing this and that,” Eddie told Guitar Player in 1982. “Dave came up with the idea of, ‘Hey, why don’t we start off the new year with just putting out a single?’ He wanted to do ‘Dancing in the Streets.’ He gave me the original Martha Reeves & the Vandellas tape, and I listened to it and said, ‘I can’t get a handle on anything out of this song.’ I couldn’t figure out a riff, and you know the way I like to play: I always like to do a riff, as opposed to just hitting barre chords and strumming. So I said, ‘Look, if you want to do a cover tune, why don’t we do ‘Pretty Woman’? It took one day.”
The band’s cover of Roy Orbison’s ‘Pretty Woman’ was indeed a hit, reaching number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Instead of spending time to write new material, the band re-entered the studio and cut a number of other covers, including The Kinks’ ‘Where Have All the Good Times Gone’ from The Kink Kontroversy album. Van Halen admitted that “the solo was more sounds than lines. I ran the edge of my pick up and down the strings for some of those effects. I think I used my Echoplex in that song.”
The group decided to take a proper break after Diver Down, with a full year and a half devoted to writing and recording the band’s commercial peak, 1984. That album featured some of the band’s biggest hits, including the number one record ‘Jump’ and classics like ‘Panama’ and ‘Hot for Teacher’. More importantly, the album featured no cover songs, a trend that continued for every subsequent Van Halen record.