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35 Years Ago: Van Halen Begin the ‘Fair Warning’ Tour

Donaldson Collection, Getty Images
Donaldson Collection, Getty Images

Van Halen kicked off a relatively short six-month run in support of Fair Warning on May 12, 1981. This 82-show tour, which sold out in all but three stops, captured the foursome at the pinnacle of their powers. But it didn’t come cheap.

Setting up at Halifax, Nova Scotia, for opening night, Van Halen unleashed 90,000 watts of sound after the crew lugged in 175,000 tons of equipment. A huge lighted sign behind the stage illuminated their now-ubiquitous VH logo, but otherwise the scene reflected the tough, grimy feel that dominates Fair Warning.

“It gets really hot,” David Lee Roth said in 1981. “It gets to be about a 110 degrees Fahrenheit by about the second song. You’re out of wind, and you barely make it to the next song — and that’s only the second song. You feel like an animal. It’s real primal. It has great therapeutic value.”

They also wrote checks for things like a circular fire effect on the gong used by Alex Van Halen, which was said to have cost $1,000. Nevertheless, by the time the dates (referred to as the W.D.F.A. — “We Don’t F— Around” — Tour) were done, Van Halen reigned among the era’s road kings, having raked in $10 million.

“I never imagined that we would get to where we are this quick,” Eddie Van Halen told Guitar Player that year, but he insisted the band remained unchanged by fame. “Everything I did is because I wanted to do it,” he said. “If I weren’t playing this arena, if I were playing a club, I’d still be doing it because that’s what I want to do. I love playing the guitar.”

Van Halen opened the tour with “On Fire” and then “Sinner’s Swing,” their first live premiere from Fair Warning. The set list for these dates also featured “Jamie’s Cryin'” and “Runnin’ With the Devil” from their self-titled 1978 debut; the band’s biggest hit single to date, “Dance the Night Away”; as well as “Unchained,” “Hear About It Later” and “So This Is Love?” from the new album, among others.

Though the multi-platinum Fair Warning contained no standout single, fans began to warm to its dark tone as the shows continued. The album entered the charts later in May 1981, eventually reaching No. 6, and was certified gold before the tour ended.

The first leg of the North American shows included a three-night stand in Oakland that was apparently filmed in its entirety, though only edited clips of “Unchained,” “Hear About It Later” and “So This Is Love” have emerged so far. Along the way, they sold out three straight nights in Philadelphia, and two in Washington, D.C. The fourth leg ended with Van Halen opening for the Rolling Stones in October 1981 in Orlando.

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