By 1982, the members of Van Halen were exhausted. Having spent nearly the entire past decade fighting their way to the top of the rock world through endless touring and one album a year since 1978, the band had climbed to the top while running on fumes. Nearly all of their original material had been used up and their creativity was starting to falter in the face of fatigue, but a new album was still requested by their record company.
Originally, the band were simply going to record a cover song as a single to give them some more time to assemble new original material. But as Van Halen’s fanbase continued to grow exponentially, it became clear that an entire album was going to be needed to satiate the public. The solution came with a series of covers, a dive into the band’s vault of demos, and some quickly-recorded instrumentals, all of which combined to make up the band’s fifth album, Diver Down.
First and foremost is ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone!’, the band’s second recorded Kinks cover after ‘You Really Got Me’. Although reliably raucous and enjoyable, the song is a clear indication that Van Halen is running on empty in terms of creativity. “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”.
‘Hang ‘Em High’ originated from a demo that had been kicking around the band’s archives since before they recorded their debut album in 1978. Following that was ‘Cathedral’, an instrumental that fits squarely within Eddie Van Halen’s pantheon of brilliant show-off tracks that he packed onto each album. ‘Cathedral’ is almost the anti-‘Eruption’: playing with volume and dynamics rather than sheer brute force, ‘Cathedral’ embraces softer symphonic tones that would help point the band in a more electronic direction for their future material.
What really holds Diver Down back is the lack of thoroughly inspired material. ‘Secrets’ is perhaps the softest song from the entire David Lee Roth era, with no distortion or cannon-blast drums in its three and a half minutes. Another instrumental, ‘Intruder’, follows in the tracklisting, the second of three on the album. Side one ends with the band landing another hit single with a cover, this time with Roy Orbison‘s ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’, but Eddie indicated that the cover was a clear sign of the band’s fatigue from working endlessly over the previous years.
“I said, ‘Look, if you want to do a cover tune, why don’t we do ‘Pretty Woman’? It took one day,” Van Halen recalled to Guitar Player magazine in 1982. “We went to Sunset Sound in L.A., recorded it, and it came out right after the first of the year. It started climbing the charts, so all of a sudden Warner Bros. is going, ‘You got a hit single on your hands. We gotta have that record.’ We said, ‘Wait a minute, we just did that to keep us out there, so that people know we’re still alive.’ But they just kept pressuring, so we jumped right back in without any rest or time to recuperate from the tour, and started recording.”
Roth’s original idea was to record ‘Dancing in the Streets’ as a single to buy the band more time to get more original material together for their next record, but Eddie initially baulked at the idea. “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.”
The version of ‘Dancing in the Streets’ that eventually wound up on Diver Down has plenty of riffage and guitar fireworks to satiate Van Halen’s preferences, but it plays as yet another creative sidestep, especially considering its reliance on synthesisers. ‘Little Guitars’ starts with another Eddie solo, this time on nylon-string acoustic, before lifting into a staidum-ready rocker that the band could pull off in their sleep.
Diver Down takes its most bizarre turn on ‘Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)’, a music hall/vaudeville track featuring the Van Halens father Jan on clarinet. Roth’s bon vivant personality often led him to these kinds of songs, whether it was ‘Ice Cream Man’ or ‘Just a Gigolo’, but never had the band gone so far into honest-to-god ragtime jazz than on ‘Big Bad Bill’. Two more tracks, the undercooked bluesy original ‘The Full Bug’ and the goofy a capella closer ‘Happy Trails’, close out the album. All told, Diver Down comes and goes in just over half an hour, making it Van Halen’s shortest album.
Overall, Diver Down is a pleasant diversion but little more than that. It certainly sounds like the band are having a good time reinterpreting some of their favourite songs, but there’s also an evident lack of spark that comes from picking out material that had been passed over up to that point. Running on fumes and built-up confidence, Van Halen still had enough juice to make Diver Down an interesting listening experience, but the cracks were starting to become obvious. Had Van Halen continued to grind away and produce lower-quality material like Diver Down while working themselves to death, they would have likely faded into the crowded background that was now emerging around them in the rock and metal world.
Instead, the band took nearly two years to perfect their follow-up, 1984. With no covers and increased attention paid to then-modern production like electronic drums and synthesisers, 1984 was the breath of fresh air that solidified Van Halen as the world’s biggest and most exciting rock and roll band. The complete overhaul caused significant tensions that were only exacerbated by the album’s success and the lingering personality conflicts that had always existed, but all members learned an important lesson: take your time to make something great. When you don’t, you get a perfectly fine but ultimately less important album like Diver Down.