Van Halen‘s Diver Down was a masterclass in making a lot out of a little.
The band had only itself to blame for the rushed circumstances of its fifth album. When Van Halen wrapped the Fair Warning tour in late 1981, they had planned to take a well-earned break from the nonstop album/tour schedule they had been following for four years. But first, at the behest of David Lee Roth, they decided to bang out a quick cover tune and music video to buy some time, settling on a rendition of Roy Orbison‘s “(Oh) Pretty Woman.”
The gambit backfired gloriously when “(Oh) Pretty Woman” shot to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Warner Bros. promptly demanded a new album within weeks to capitalize on the band’s momentum. Van Halen had dashed their R&R plans because they couldn’t stop making hit records if they tried.
Consequently, Diver Down – which was released on April 14, 1982 – contains only four full-length original songs, along with five covers and three instrumentals. Some critics lampooned the album upon release and took it as a sign the band was running on empty. But even though Diver Down was an admitted rush job, it was far from a hack job. Van Halen play the covers with well-oiled bar-band panache, and their originals crackle with spontaneous verve and virtuosity, particularly Eddie Van Halen‘s solo compositions.
Fans were apparently grateful for the palate cleanser after the knotty, progressive pop-metal of Fair Warning, and Diver Down peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went quadruple platinum. Read on for a track-by-track guide to the most misunderstood and divisive Van Halen album of the DLR era.
“Where Have All the Good Times Gone!”
Four years after issuing “You Really Got Me” as their first single, Van Halen pilfered the Kinks‘ catalog once again for the opening track on Diver Down. Van Halen had roughly half a dozen Kinks songs in rotation during their club days, having learned a whole side of a compilation album that Roth owned. “Where have all the good times gone? I’m serious,” the singer lamented to Creem in 1982. “It happened to punk rock a lot, it happened to new wave, it happened to reggae and heavy metal and on and on — a lot of business people just want to make a buck, and they’re becoming craftsmen more than songwriters.”
“Hang ‘Em High”
The fastest, heaviest rocker on Diver Down, “Hang ‘Em High” was originally recorded with different lyrics under the title “Last Night” for consideration on Van Halen’s debut album. It shares its title with a 1968 Western starring Clint Eastwood, and its lyrics appear to be inspired by the actor. Roth’s comments about the song at the time of its release support that conjecture. “It’s all those Westerns where there’s some kind of dissonant sound in the background, like they’ll have one harmonica that only hits one note – eeeee – and that’s when you know that the hero is coming into town or something terrible or wonderful is going to happen,” he told Creem. “And what happens is Edward will come up with a song or a riff or part of a song, and then immediately I’ll hear it and I’ll know right away what the scenario is. I’ll just know.”
The traditional instrumental number on Diver Down was far removed from the breakneck shredding of “Eruption” and “Spanish Fly,” but no less compelling. Using a boatload of echo and chorus, Eddie Van Halen emulated the sound of a church organ on his 1961 Fender Stratocaster, hammering notes with his left hand while twisting the volume knob with his right. “If you turn it too much, too fast, the thing heats up and freezes up,” Van Halen told Guitar Player in 1982. “I did two takes of it, and right at the end of the second take, the volume knob just froze, just stopped.”
Van Halen didn’t agonize over the swinging, languid “Secrets.” The lyrics were inspired by a series of greeting cards Roth bought in Albuquerque, N.M., written in the style of Indigenous poetry. “You’ve got to fill up your bucket,” the singer explained to Creem. “You’ve heard music by people with empty buckets? Music all about groupies, about airplanes, about going on the road, hotels. Not too many people can relate to that. They like to hear about it once or twice, but most of us feel left out.” Eddie Van Halen, meanwhile, swapped his signature Frankenstrat in favor of a double-neck Gibson EDS-1275, popularized by Jimmy Page, and cut the laid-back solo in one take. “What people don’t realize is a song like ‘Secrets,’ it doesn’t call for a fucking crazy solo,” Van Halen told Guitar Player. “You have to do a solo that fits the song.”
“Intruder / (Oh) Pretty Woman”
Following the grueling Fair Warning tour, Van Halen decided to bang out a quick cover song to keep themselves in the public eye and buy time with their record label. They settled on Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” which was accompanied by an elaborate music video featuring the costumed band members — Roth as Napoleon, Eddie as a cowboy, Alex Van Halen as Tarzan and Michael Anthony as a samurai — rescuing a drag queen from the clutches of two perverted dwarves. The video ran longer than the three-minute song, so Van Halen wrote the droning instrumental “Intruder” (featuring Roth on the Minimoog analog synthesizer) to flesh it out. “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was a hit, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Unfortunately, Van Halen’s plan to buy themselves time backfired, as Warner Bros. demanded an immediate follow-up album upon learning of the single’s success. “When you put out a hit single, you better have an album to go behind it, because nobody — the company, the act — makes any real money on a single,” producer Ted Templeman wrote in his 2020 autobiography, Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music. “I’m sure those guys thought that by releasing a single and video, they could temporarily pause the annual album/tour cycle that they’d been on since 1977. But instead, the word came down to me from Mo [Ostin] and Lenny [Waronker] that Warner Bros. wanted a new Van Halen album within weeks. Van Halen’s management agreed. So the message to the band and me was ‘OK, guys, you’ve got a hit. Let’s get moving. Go into the studio.'”
Read More: How Van Halen’s ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’ Led to Rushed ‘Diver Down’
“Dancing in the Street”
You’d be forgiven for assuming that cover songs are an easier, lower-stakes exercise for a band than writing originals, but that was hardly the case with Van Halen’s rendition of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street.” Eddie Van Halen ornamented the Motown classic with a pulsating Minimoog synthesizer riff, which he had originally planned to use for a composition. “It was going to be a completely different song,” Van Halen told Guitar World in 2014. “I envisioned it being more like a Peter Gabriel song instead of what it turned out to be, but when Ted Templeman heard it, he decided it would be great for ‘Dancing in the Street.'” The disagreement over “Dancing in the Street” widened the schism between Eddie Van Halen, who wanted more control to push the band in new directions, and Roth and Templeman, who preferred the hard-rocking, live-in-the-room approach of their early records. It didn’t help that Van Halen perceived the critical reaction as ill-informed. “I spent a lot of time arranging and playing synthesizer and shit on ‘Dancing in the Street,’ and they’re just gonna write it off as, ‘Oh, it’s just like the original.’ But that’s bullshit,” he told Guitar Player.
Read More: Did One Song Force the Collapse of Van Halen’s Original Lineup?
“Little Guitars (Intro) / Little Guitars”
Eddie Van Halen wrote and recorded the poppy, rhythmically dexterous “Little Guitars” on a miniature Gibson Les Paul copy built by Nashville luthier David Petschulat. “I think the best thing that I do is cheat,” Van Halen said of the song’s 40-second flamenco guitar intro. “I bought a couple of [Carlos] Montoya records. I’m hearing this guy fingerpicking, and I’m going, ‘My God, this motherfucker’s great. I can’t do that.’ So what I did was I just kind of listened to that style of playing for a couple days, and I cheated. … What I’m doing is trilling on the high E and just slapping my middle finger on the low E. … If there’s something that I want to do, I won’t give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can’t do.” The intro to “Little Guitars” also inspired Roth’s lyrics. “I got the idea for the song from the acoustic part – it sounded Mexican to me so I wrote a song for a senorita,” he told Creem.
“Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)”
According to Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth got the idea to cover this 1924 Milton Anger and Jack Yellen tune after hearing it on his Walkman while he was at his father’s house in Louisville, Ky. “He just picked it up and recorded it and played it to us, and we just started laughing ourselves silly and going, ‘That is bad! Let’s do it!'” Van Halen told Guitar Player. The song became an even bigger family affair when Roth suggested getting Van Halen’s father, Jan, to play the clarinet. “He hasn’t played his clarinet in 10 years because he lost his left-hand middle finger about 10 years ago,” Van Halen said. “He was nervous as shit, and we’re just telling him, ‘Jan, just fuckin’ have a good time. We make mistakes! That’s what makes it real.’ I love what he did, but it’s just that he’s thinking back 10 years ago when he was smokin’, playing jazz and stuff. … But fuck, it’s exactly what we wanted.”
“The Full Bug”
David Lee Roth flexes his harmonica and rudimentary acoustic guitar skills for the last time with Van Halen on this boozy blues-rock jam about the virtue of finishing what ya started. “You know when you have a cockroach and they run around the house and get into the corner?” Roth asked Creem. “We used to have these shoes called PRFCs – Puerto Rican Fence Climbers, OK? And this was aptly titled because if you were running from somebody or the police or what have you, and you were wearing your PRFCs, you could hit the fence at a dead run and your foot would stay anyway. And these were also great for when the cockroach moves into the corner and you can’t get at it with your foot or the broom anymore. You just jam your toe into the corner and hit as hard as you can, and if you did it right, you get the full bug. So this slang means, to get the full bug, bammm! You have to give it everything you’ve got, make the maximum effort, do everything possible, get the full bug.”
David Lee Roth has always worn his love for old-school Hollywood showbiz on his sleeve, so the decision to cover The Roy Rogers Show theme song should have come as no surprise. “You wouldn’t believe the number of TV commercials and radio jingles this band can sing in four-part harmony,” Roth boasted to Creem. “I was nannied and weaned by TV — that’s the babysitter around here when you’re growing up, to sit in front of the tube. You turn into a vidiot. I remember all the commercials. … We’ve been singing ‘Happy Trails’ together for general airport use for years. And we wanted to do something wonderful and different for you.”
Van Halen Albums Ranked
A ranking of every Van Halen album.