Some Critics Hated ‘Van Halen’ at First – Here’s Proof
Van Halen's self-titled debut has earned its proper place as one of the most influential albums in rock history. But at the time of its 1978 release, as is often the case with hard rock and metal, the established rock press weren't so thrilled with them.
Robert Christgau, the self-appointed "Dean of American Rock Critics," gave it a grade of C. As is his wont, he didn't go into specifics, preferring instead to obliquely dismiss it. "For some reason Warners wants us to know that this is the biggest bar band in the San Fernando Valley," he wrote. "This doesn't mean much--all new bands are bar bands, unless they're Boston. The term becomes honorific when the music belongs in a bar. This music belongs on an aircraft carrier."
In Rolling Stone, Charles M. Young had mixed feelings about Van Halen's debut album. He loved their cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" and said that "they have three or four other cuts capable of jumping out of the radio the same way 'Feels Like the First Time' and 'More Than a Feeling' did amid all the candyass singer/songwriters and Shaun Cassidy-ass twits." He also praised Eddie Van Halen, saying that he "has mastered the art of lead/rhythm guitar in the tradition of Jimmy Page and Joe Walsh; several riffs on this record beat anything Aerosmith has come up with in years."
(Really? Less than two years after Rocks?)
Young also liked David Lee Roth for singing hard rock with "energy and not sounding like a castrato at the same time" but called the lyrics "largely forgettable" and defined their rhythm section as "competent and properly unobtrusive." But he was definitely wrong about their future, suggesting that, by 1981, Van Halen would be "fat and self-indulgent and disgusting, and they'll follow Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet."
Perhaps Young's critique is why, in 2004, Rolling Stone published a retrospective review, spotlighting how Eddie "crammed a whole season of soap-opera plot twists into every solo, making liberal use of the whammy bar but never losing the melody." They also called "Jamie's Crying" a "surprisingly empathetic song about a girl regretting a one-night stand" and closed by acknowledging that Roth is their definitive vocalist: "[S]ince their 1985 breakup, nobody involved has ever recaptured that spontaneous cheeseburger magic."