first round game
(2) van halen, "panama"
(15) helix, "wild in the streets"
and van halen moves on
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchshredness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on 3/4.
joe bonomo on van halen's "panama"
After Van Halen finished recording “Everybody Wants Some!!” during the 1980 sessions for Women and Children First, the band should have looked at each other, collectively shrugged, nodded, and as the dust settled in the studio, muttered, Yeah, so we’re breaking up now. We’re never gonna top that. From its primordial, crawling-from-the-ooze opening, “Everybody Wants Some!!” sounds like the very birth and cry of The Rock And Roll Song. So simple and elemental is the song’s pre-verbal rumble, so perfect is its humor, winking earnestness, strutting, mock-heroic, man-on-the-make spectacle, gigantic, hooky guitar riffs, throbbing drums, and universal sing-along chorus that, in it, Van Halen perfected themselves, and arguably rock and roll, too. Why the hell continue to write? Play a last enormous pay-per-view gig somewhere, end with this tune, and call it a career.
Of course had Van Halen indulged my little alternate-history, we wouldn’t have had the epic “Mean Street” or “Unchained” from Fair Warning, “Top Jimmy” or “Hot for Teacher” from 1984, and whatever your post-1980, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen favorites are. And we wouldn’t have had “Panama,” maybe Van Halen’s greatest rock and roll song—certainly one of the great rock and roll songs of the 1980s—a sonic statement-of-purpose from a larger-than-life band, and another one that was pretty damn hard to top. Roth would split in 1985, taking with him his grab bag of swagger, self-importance, hilarity, sparkly scarves, insecurities, and intuitive grasp of spectacle. The band was never the same again.
I courted my wife with mix-tapes and cheap drinks, not with a cool car. Never a gear head or big auto guy, I drove a POS Ford Taurus, the 2 liter engine of which whined mournfully as it bravely ascended the hills of Athens County, in Ohio, where we met. The engine never sounded particularly sexy; it sounded needy. But it got us around. (I did manage once, when we were parked, to get both front seats to lean back simultaneously with teen-sex-movie panache, but that was mostly luck.)
Though I didn’t fantasize about cars or car culture, like anyone else I bought into the myth. I marveled at the Duke Boys’ General Lee Dodge Charger stock car as it leaped over swamps, gators, and hapless cops. I can still feel the vividness of the tough that some kid behind me muttered in the movie theater, where we sat in the dark watching Smokey and the Bandit, as the Bandit’s Trans Am sexily slithered into view. (I took note of Sally Field’s evolving reactions to the car, and to its driver.) I goofed on Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s Kustom Kulture cars that I’d see on the “Weirdo” t-shirts worn by the public school kids, or in the back of comic books. The zany cartoonishness of Rat Fink and Roth’s other hot rod characters was more my speed. I drove a boat-sized Grand Torino station wagon to high school toga parties. I read Musician magazine, not Car and Driver. I left cool cars to cooler guys. But that didn’t mean that I couldn’t get off on a car song. I loved Chuck Berry. I loved the Beach Boys. I understood the dirty jokes in “Drive My Car.” Soon I’d hear the Modern Lovers’ stirring “Roadrunner” for the first time and feel the pavement beneath me move.
“Panama” is about a car and a girl, but it’s mostly about the feel of the roar and the heat of combustion. It’s really a song about an engine, how it motors the mind and the body and can elevate us off the ground. The back story: while in Las Vegas attending a drag race, Roth had seen a car called “Panama Express.” Aware that his band had never written a car song, or having had it pointed out to him—he changes the story—he worked up some lyrics. (Roth later named one of his own cars “Panama” and mounted its bumper and hood in his front foyer. The lyrics may or may not also be about a stripper he knew.) The words’ imagery and tone are well-worn: fast car + fast girl x sex = checkered flag! But Roth’s best lyrics are typically clever, and funny, too. The car (or is it the girl?) is a “model citizen” with “zero discipline.” She’ll take off around the corner, but he'll catch her. One of Roth’s best lines, “Got an on-ramp comin' through my bedroom,” makes the smut so absurdly clear that by the time we reach the band’s trademark breakdown after the guitar solo—you know the one—
Yeah, we're runnin' a little bit hot tonight
I can barely see the road from the heat comin' off of it
Ah, you reach down, between my legs
Ease the seat back…
—it feels redundant. But who the hell cares? As with all peak-era Van Halen breakdowns—think “I’ve been to the edge…” (from “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”), “I like the way the line runs up the back of your stocking…” (“Everybody Wants Some!!”), “One break, coming up!” (“Unchained”), and the schoolboy comic opera of “Hot for Teacher”—the monologues are delivered by a young, lucky guy, poised between just right and too much. Roth’s stage- and studio-patter are fun because the guy who’s doing it is funny and he’s having fun. She's blinding. He’s flying. Got the feeling, power steering, pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now! and we’re at the final chorus. The song stops on a dime, as all well-made cars do.
Famously, during the recording of “Panama” the guys drove Eddie Van Halen’s ‘72 Lamborghini Miura S to 5150 Studios in Studio City and miked the exhaust pipes as Eddie revved the engine. On the recording, the band’s grins are virtually audible; in rock and roll, all teenagers’ late-night fantasies come true. Yet, as taped and mixed for the song’s breakdown, the gunned Lamborghini somehow sounds less like a motor than Eddie’s playing does; his astonishing guitar work turns a stock lyric into a sports car. With bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen having built the chassis and engine block, Eddie creates a combustion chamber. (At the Roland site, Josh Munday does a helpful job of explaining how Eddie obtains his tone, via a humbucking pickup, a Marshall Plexi amplifier cranked to its loudest levels, and effects.)
Among the many great archeological artifacts online is the isolated guitar or vocal track, usually reverse-engineered from master recordings. There are tons of these online, and listening to them allows you both to geekily imagine that you’re in the studio mixing (or playing) and to marvel at how a song is built from the foundation up. There are several of Eddie’s isolated tracks online. Listen to “Panama.” Eddie’s a longtime admirer of the sadly-departed Malcolm Young, rhythm guitarist in AC/DC, and as everyone knows, there was a surreally thin line between literally and figuratively in the engine that was the AC/DC rhythm section: you don’t need hallucinogenic drugs to envision Malcolm’s right and left hands as gears or pistons. The engine that Eddie builds for “Panama” is just plain wacky, as high-energy and funky as his red and black-and-white striped “Frankenstrat” Fender Stratocaster, which he infamously jerry-rigged early in the band’s history by ham fisting the double-coil pickup of one manufacturer’s guitar onto the body of another manufacturer’s guitar. Eddie wanted a guitar that felt like a Strat but sounded like a Gibson. The thing looks like demented craft project: some paraffin wax; a piece of vinyl shaped into a pick guard; three screws for five mounting holes; some double-sided masking tape; a quarter jammed in as a shim; red Schwinn bicycle paint. Read all about the mad science here.
A self-described “tone chaser,” Eddie takes his guitar to exhilarating places in “Panama,” as he does in his best work in the band. Isolated, his playing assumes dimensional shape—raw, rousing chords in the intro and chorus, lidded-cool idling during the verses and the breakdown, and swooping, diving leads and fret board tapping in the solo. I marvel every time I listen: his playing has so much personality that it’s a band in itself. Eddie’s rightfully lauded as a mold-breaking lead player yet, as the only guitarist in Van Halen, he’s also the rhythm player. What’s remarkable is how he alternates—morphs, really—between lead and rhythm in any given song. He was hardly the first to pull off this style—there’s a reason why Eddie is spoken in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—yet coupled with an outrageous frontman, the giddiness of the songs, the blend of raw rock riffing and pop hooks, and the mass, international commercial successes of his band, it sounded, looked, and felt as if Eddie was doing something new. To my ears, his rhythm/lead tandem playing on “Panama” is especially outrageous. I listen to the isolated track, close my eyes, and (this would feel likely even if I didn’t know the origin of the song’s lyrics) I see churning gears, I smell gasoline and oil, feel heat, thrumming, throttling, elevation. Above all I feel speed. This guy’s telling a story with a beat-up, cobbled-together guitar. Indulge me: he’s writing the imaginary theme song to an imaginary documentary. The History of Gasoline Propulsion, or, How an Engine Works!
Van Halen’s rhythm section is solid; with Roth and Eddie up front, there’s little room for more flash. Yet, Alex and Anthony are capable of surprise. In the full band version, listen to the four-bar bridge into the chorus: Roth has just bragged that she’s coming home with him but he’s worried that he’ll lose her in the turn ahead. “I'll get her!” he yelps, as Alex, Anthony, and Eddie steer the song through a tight S-curve, the passengers airborne and guffawing in the back seat. It's maybe my favorite moment in the song (and that’s saying something, given the righteous chorus) because I can’t hear it without seeing—feeling—a car careening down a road toward the head-on damage of a hairpin turn and, for a frightening but elating second, lifting off the ground en route. Amusement park fear and the fun of all that. Ohmygod we’re gonna tip over! Whoa-oh! Nope! “Panama!”
The iconography’s indelible: Roth aloft via a wire rig, swung to and fro across the stage, wearing shades, pantomiming swimming while holding a boom box; Anthony, too, flying about the stage, laughing and dearly clutching his trademark custom Jack Daniels bass; Alex pounding his drums and peering through stockinged female legs; Eddie blowing smoke rings at a piano when he isn’t clutching his Frankenstrat, darting about the stage and sliding on his knees like a first grader in Rock God School. Everything in the “Panama” video, co-directed by Roth and Peter Angelus, is 80s bright, hair-sprayed. The concert scenes show a loud band on the top of the world having a blast in front of a worshipful crowd. Partly filmed during a sound check and show at the Providence Civic Arena (now The Dunkin' Donuts Center) in Rhode Island on March 17 or 18, 1984, the shoot captures the band a third of the way into their mammoth, 101-date 1984 tour through U.S. and Canada, and they’re loose, well-oiled, and on fine silly/hokey form (despite the toxic differences between certain members).
Writing for The Awl, screenwriter and producer Stephen Falk (You're the Worst, Orange Is the New Black) nails the appeal of the video for a particular audience: “For a 12-year-old boy, this video had it all: a cool airplane, jumping, kicking, spandex, karate, cops, chest hair, head hair, hot chicks, motorcycles, booze, screaming fans, rhythm gymnastics. It was the perfect music video for the confused sexuality of puberty,” adding, “To me, Eddie and David were what I hoped an adult male friendship could be: driving around in an awesome car, drinking, acting like goofs, but also leaning on each other tenderly while singing. Aside from epitomizing the androgynous frat boy bonding of the best hair bands, Van Halen spoke to the pure dumb fun of being a guy. No one wanted Van Halen to think.” Repeatedly watching the video on VCR with his buddy, Falk felt as if he were “let in on what this at-the-time unknown, scary void of impending adulthood and sexuality and being a man was all about.”
I’ve never been crazy about the video—it’s awfully corny—but that has to do with my general shunning of most mainstream popular culture when I was in my late-teens and 20s, which I semi-regret now. I’m an admitted fameist (I might need help) and the “Panama” video is a vivid lesson in showy excess: the mile-long stage, the props, the light show, the over the top theatrics, etc., reminded me then that I’d never see Van Halen playing “Panama” in a small packed club or an intimate theatre. They seemed so far away, so world-wide, that I could barely imagine them. Roth left Van Halen in ’85. The subsequent dull blur: Van Hagar; the Wilderness Years; rehab; infighting; public posturing; silly, on-again/off-again reunions. And then a surprise: 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, a Roth-led Van Halen (minus Anthony) revisiting and filling out some early demos and half-finished songs. The thing smokes, and, a little like R.E.M.’s Accelerate, if you’re of a certain age and can look past the nostalgia, the songs remind you of how great Van Halen once was back when they seemed ahead of the pack, gunning it for the finish, grinning all the way. “Panama” is one of the emblematic tracks from that careening, downhill era.
Joe Bonomo's most recent book is Field Recordings from the Inside, a collection of essays. He's the music columnist at The Normal School and teaches at Northern Illinois University. Visit him at No Such Thing As Was and Twitter. Here he is hard at work during his college radio show. He could very well be cuing up "Panama" but it could just as well be the Olympic Sideburns, the Milkshakes, or the Troggs.
dave madden on helix's "wild in the streets"
This is a song that never found its way to the Billboard charts, though its eponymous album hit 179 on the Hot 200 (a spot held as of this writing by Thomas Rhett), so odds are you’ve never heard it before either. But if you watch the video, you’ll recognize everything. The leather, the glam bandanas, the pirouetting hairdos. I’m chiefly interested in the moment at 01:47 when the three guitarists stand abreast and chop their axes in unison to the floor, because it’s a move I remember most vividly from 1984’s This is Spinal Tap, a parody of heavy metal that hit the streets three years before Helix’s single did. The significance of this has less to do with TiST’s canniness and more with metal’s imperviousness to parody.
Here’s Lewis Hyde:
In the Categories, Aristotle argued that we ought to be able to look at any group of things, say “apples” or “human beings” or “jazz recordings,” and determine what is essential to membership in the category and what isn’t. A human being, for example, must have an animal body, that is essential (bronze statues are not human), but it makes no difference whether a person’s hair is brown, black, or gray. A human being’s hair color is not an essential, it’s an accidental.... Accidentals are present by chance, essentials by design.... The real significance of a thing lies with its essences.
What, if anything, is essential about Helix? There’s much to be made fun of in their “Wild in the Streets” video. Start with the gratuitous glasswall smashing, or all that practiced tumbling. Or how singer Brian Vollmer’s face at certain power moments looks in closeup like the face of the leader of the Fire Gang, who, in the woodsy segment of Henson’s Labyrinth, offers to rip young Sara’s head from her body. What it is, I think, are those rounded fright-eyeballs that try but fail to draw attention from Vollmer’s missing tooth.
Or you can make fun of the lyrics, full of nonsense:
We got a taco in hand, spread it around,
like a soda: cold as ice.
God-damned, kicked around,
and then stuck when you want to die free.
You can raise all your pounds, hand in all your money,
but things they go to cash.
You got to stand up, break it out,
kick this one inside it.
The wrong! The reasoned! The enervated!
This train keeps a’rolling,
in the air.
Feet just for the running, we’re never looking back.
WILD! IN! THE! STREETS! (repeat)
If your criteria for judging a metal song is all about lastingness (Helix got just two weeks on the Hot 200) or originality (Bon Jovi’s “Wild in the Streets” dropped one year before Helix’s), it’s easy to call this one a failure and vote for Van Halen. Some art indeed gets itchy and tugs at its boundaries like a churchboy in wool. And then there’s art like this, which knows its place and settles there, and which forges for its maker a kind of splendorous regalia they’ve always wanted to don and be seen in.
What I’m saying is that metal is music to fuck to, if you’re a certain sort of white person. The sort, say, who gets a mess of his buddies together and forms a band. Look at Helix. All is tight in these Canadian boys’ bodies: their pants, their stomachs. The way they toss an arm over another’s shoulder, like soldiers at a gangbang. One of them has a jawline that you can tell from his smile would feel so good resting in the palm of your hand. He’s a guitarist, but as usual it’s the drummer who’s the band’s most fuckable member. As he twirls his little sticks at 02:55 I can tell he wants me to watch, but all I can keep my eye on are the hairs in his armpits, glowing in backlight.
The cynic in me looks at these men and sees something vacuous. So you wrote a song sounding enough like other songs just to score some pussy? What does that leave me with, then, in this gilded age when men like you are going wild in the streets with torches and guns just to hold on to all the spoils they’ve been handed by luck of their birth? And why should you get any reward for this, even one as paltry as my vote?
There’s an idea hovering just outside my grasp that Helix’s selfishness in this regard can be a kind of gift. It has to do with flushing myself of ego—never an easy job for a critic. Let me say something nice. I will always love the moment at 02:53, after his tepid guitar solo, when Brent Doerner hits that high B and lets it open up on the decay as the song’s intro riff comes back in, strutting in staccato’d oblique counterpoint. Together they form a sound which, if guitars are your thing, makes your heart swell the way Whitney’s vocals do after the key change on “I Will Always Love You”.
I’m serious about this. My heart is enormous, if at times hard to find. The truth, if I can be honest, is I’ve never been as beautiful as any of these men, despite my full set of teeth, and the only art I’ve made that hit 179th of anything were those 1,000 origami cranes I folded to try to ward off my great aunt’s cancer. And those I copied out of a book. For all my born days, I’ve committed myself to seriousness and boundary-pushing artmaking, and where it’s got me is right here, writing 1100 words about a song that’s going to lose.
And maybe this is my good fortune. The thing about being a fool is that anybody pays you only passing attention. There’s so much us mice can manage when the cat’s away. I’m talking here about what Wayne Koestenbaum calls “the bliss of being minor, disqualified, forgotten, ignored.” It’s what makes comedy such a joy, that categorical Oscar snub. To be up for others’ consideration is to be caught in a set of claws—or to feel, as Vollmer actually sings, “shot down, kicked around. It gets tough when you want to be free.”
Which brings me back to Aristotle. One look at this bracket and it’s clear that seriousness and originality are accidental to metal, not essential. Helix exists (still!) despite everything we might think of them. If metal is glamrock stripped of its art-school pretense, or punk unanxious about credibility, Helix is an essential metal band. They are what Spinal Tap got right. When you have no pride, when you are at root a sinner, you become metal, and metal is stronger than us all.
Dave Madden bought his first cassette tape, Poison's Open Up and Say... Ahh!, in 1988, just in time before its cover got censored. He then went on to write The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. Essays of his have appeared in Harper's, The Normal School, DIAGRAM, LitHub, and elsewhere. He's received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and currently teaches in the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. Find him on Twitter.