Our list of Top 10 Van Halen Keyboard Songs recalls a time when Eddie Van Halen apparently became bored with being the most celebrated guitarist of his generation.
Adding synths led to no small amount of curious looks, angry recriminations and frank incredulousness in the '80s – from the fans, the media and even from confidants like David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman. "Nothing can replace the guitar in my life, but I also love keyboards," Van Halen told Hit Parader as he began redrawing his guitar-god image. "I've always written a lot of our material on keyboards. It's just that in the past, I'd reinterpret it on guitar. ... This only expands our sound."
History shows that Van Halen's keyboard experiments ultimately hurtled his group to previously unimagined chart heights, even if he rarely played them late in his career. Which ones were best, though? Check out our Top 10 Van Halen Keyboard Songs.
"Dancing in the Street"From: 'Diver Down' (1982)
Eddie Van Halen turned to the keyboard after struggling to find a new way to approach a proposed cover of this old Motown favorite on the guitar. Not that Van Halen got any credit for the effort. "It takes almost as much time to make a cover song sound original as it does writing a song," Eddie said at the time. "I spent a lot of time arranging and playing synthesizer on 'Dancing in the Streets,' and they [critics] just wrote it off as, 'Oh, it's just like the original.' So, forget the critics! These are good songs. Why shouldn’t we redo them for the new generation of people?"
"Mine All Mine"From: 'OU812' (1988)
If Van Halen's pulsing, prog-influenced electronic keyboard work seemed effortless on this song, the words on "Mine All Mine" were anything but. In fact, Sammy Hagar told Martin Popoff he "rewrote that song lyrically seven times, ripping papers up, drinking tequila all night one night to where I had the worst hangover in the world and I couldn't even go into the studio." Finally, after another long session with co-producer Donn Landee, Hagar had a breakthrough, creating something that matched Van Halen's ominous synth work. "When I finished, he jumped up with fuckin' eyes bugging out of his head and said, 'That's the coolest song you ever wrote.'"
"When It’s Love"From: 'OU812' (1988)
Like "Mine All Mine" (see No. 9 on our list of the Top 10 Van Halen Keyboard Songs), "When It's Love" was all completed except for the lyrics. An initial pass found Eddie unleashing every keyboard sound in his considerable arsenal, layering in Oberheim, Roland and Yamaha synths. He even ran a MIDI cable into his grand piano at one point, all before Hagar showed up to begin the OU812 sessions. The Van Halen brothers played this overstuffed demo for Hagar when they picked him up at the airport, and Van Halen's grandest power ballad was completed before they even arrived at the studio. Alex Van Halen later marveled over the reaction to this track's in-concert debut when "at the end, everybody lit matches and were singing along."
"Why Can’t This Be Love?"From: '5150' (1986)
Eddie Van Halen created the unforgettable synth pattern on this entry from our Top 10 Van Halen Keyboard Songs by utilizing an arpeggiator on his Oberheim OB-8, creating an entirely new pop feel. "What's wrong with that?" Eddie asked rhetorically back then. Eddie took advantage of Hagar's far greater vocal range by writing a middle section where Hagar doubled his keyboard part. "I would never have attempted to ask Dave to do that," he told Guitar World.
"Sunday Afternoon in the Park"From: 'Fair Warning' (1981)
We get it. You're wondering why this extra-short bit of farting around is ranked so high. But think about this: If you could have crept into Eddie's 5150 studio, would you go looking for another unreleased piano ballad or more of this creepy weirdness? Give us 45 minutes of this dark, electro-funk – composed on an Electro-Harmonix synthesizer – over another "Not Enough" anytime. An impish Van Halen described the instrument as "one of those cheap little kid's toys." He certainly seemed to be getting a kick out of moving into this entirely new world. "Yeah," he admitted later. "I do a lot of weird things, put it that way."
"Dreams"From: '5150' (1986)
Composed on a MIDI-ed piano, "Dreams" was one of three 5150 songs – along with "Good Enough" and "Summer Nights" – that had been attempted before David Lee Roth's departure. The song only came to life once Sammy Hagar took over vocals. Co-composed along with producer Mick Jones, "Dreams" was completely rearranged, as they juggled several sections around. Still, for all of that effort, the signature keyboard (created by connecting Van Halen's Steinway grand piano to a Oberheim via the MIDI) remains this track's defining element.
"I’ll Wait"From: '1984' (1984)
On "I'll Wait," David Lee Roth salivates over a Calvin Klein underwear model whose picture he'd reportedly taped to a hotel television. Nothing that unusual, right? Except "I'll Wait" nearly tore the sessions apart, as Eddie went to the mat – along with Landee – for another synth-focused track on 1984. "That was one they really didn't want," Van Halen later admitted in the talk with Guitar World. "It was actually that, more than 'Jump,' they didn't want to touch with a 10-foot pole." Van Halen and Landee's instincts proved correct when "I'll Wait" raced to No. 13 on the Billboard chart.
"Right Now"From: 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge' (1991)
The soaring piano interlude that frames this song reached back to Eddie Van Halen's youth, long before he came to the U.S., and even longer before he became a guitar hero. Back then, his connection to music was much different. “I never took guitar lessons," he once recalled. "I took classical piano lessons from the age of 6 when we lived in Holland.” In truth, though, "Right Now" – as familiar as it became on MTV – isn't representative of this album's more guitar-oriented approach. Eddie's turn away from keyboards was imminent.
"And the Cradle Will Rock ... "From: 'Women and Children First' (1980)
"And the Cradle Will Rock" was another song written on piano then transcribed later for guitar. The difference? This time, Eddie Van Halen actually put a keyboard on the song – but only after deftly disguising it for public consumption. "I had an old Wurlitzer electric piano," he told Guitar World, "and I pumped it through my Marshalls." In time, he'd make the keyboard a much more prominent element of the Van Halen sound, both in the studio and onstage. But not, as we see with our top choice, without some growing pains.
"Jump"From: '1984' (1984)
Eddie Van Halen later stepped back from the keyboard, using sequencers for renditions of songs like "Jump" onstage. But there's no escaping the band's biggest hit. Not that the others saw this coming. In fact, "Jump" had already been rejected for Van Halen's 1982 album, Diver Down. "We had intentionally stayed away from keyboards until then," Roth recalled. "At the time, it seemed important." But Eddie later said he asked for, and received, a single run-through of the song, and that take became Van Halen's first No. 1 hit. "I really hadn't heard it for a long time," Templeman told Billboard, "then he laid it down one night in the studio. It just killed me. It was perfect."