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Why Van Halen Rejected Their First Album Cover: “They Tried to Make Us Look Like the Clash”

Van Halen Punk Cover
Warner Brothers

In early 1978, Van Halen released their now-legendary debut album. While its artwork — the four individual photos with the band’s logo in the center — are now almost as recognizable as their hit songs, if they hadn’t gone toe-to-toe with Warner Bros. Records, the album’s cover, the group’s logo and, most importantly, their image, would have been much different when ‘Van Halen’ hit record stores.

The four members of Van Halen, and their manager Marshall Berle, met with Warner Brothers executives for the unveiling of the artwork for ‘Van Halen’ (shown above) towards the end of 1977. What the label offered up that day was a marketing disaster in the making. The proposed logo renders their name in a jagged, abrasive-looking typeface. Strangely, the cover photo, places drummer Alex Van Halen in the foreground while lead singer David Lee Roth, eyes shut, appears at the rear of the shot. Guitarist Edward Van Halen, standing to his brother’s left, grimaces. Bassist Michael Anthony, posed next to Roth, looks like he wants to cry.

To say the meeting got tense fast would be an understatement. “You should see the first album cover Warner Bros. designed for us,” Edward explained later to Guitar World. “They tried to make us look like the Clash. We said, ‘F— this s—!’”

Still, this graphic arts debacle by Warner Bros. did not materialize out of thin air. At the time, punk rock was all the rage on the Sunset Strip, and Van Halen frequently shared stages at clubs like the Starwood and the Whisky a Go Go with pioneering punk and new wave acts like the Mumps, the Dogs, and the Motels. From Warner Bros. perspective, it just made good business sense to try to capitalize on what appeared to be the musical wave of the future by trying to convince the public that Van Halen was part of the punk movement.

After enduring a torrent of criticism from the Van Halen camp, Warner Bros. scrapped the proposed artwork. The label then hired photographer Elliot Gilbert to shoot the band onstage at the Whisky. His shimmering images of Roth, Anthony, and the Van Halen brothers, with their glowing trails of color, made clear that Van Halen was a live act hot enough to melt rock.

Van Halen I
Warner Brothers

In the meantime, designer Dave Bhang drew up a new cover and created the now-iconic winged ‘Van Halen’ logo. Edward recalled that after Bhang showed the band this logo the quartet “made [Warner Bros.] put it on the album so that it would be clear that we had nothing to do with the punk movement. It was our way of saying ‘Hey we’re just a f—ing rock and roll band, don’t try and slot us with the Sex Pistols thing just because it’s becoming popular.’”

Despite the band’s objections, the Van Halen ‘punk rock’ logo did make it onto an official Van Halen release in January 1978. With the album’s street date looming, Warner Bros. had started manufacturing the now-very collectible “Looney Tunes” red-vinyl promotional EP, with the old logo, before the band had demanded the label scrap it.

In the end, though, it what was embedded in the grooves of the album that would make ‘Van Halen’ a legendary LP. With monster tracks like ‘Runnin’ With The Devil,’ ‘You Really Got Me,’ and yes, ‘Atomic Punk,’ ‘Van Halen’ proceeded to sell millions and made clear that the metallic Van Halen was anything but a punk band.

Greg Renoff (@GregRenoff) is a Tulsa-based historian and author of ‘Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal,’ which will be published by ECW Press in October 2015.

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