40 Years Ago: Van Halen Kick Off Their First Headlining Tour
Van Halen were still firmly focused on performing, even though they had just released a highly anticipated follow-up to their multi-platinum debut. That was how Van Halen reached their fans, but it was also how they recorded.
"The only thing that sells us is our live show," Eddie Van Halen told Jas Obrecht in 1980. "Actually, everything we do is the complete reverse of other people. We applied all we ever knew, which was our live show. We never knew much about recording, overdubbing."
In keeping, the band was back on the road for a concert on March 25, 1979, at Selland Arena in Fresno, Calif., just days after the arrival of Van Halen II. These were the group's first headlining shows, after touring in 1978 as the support act on Black Sabbath's Never Say Die 10th Anniversary World Tour. The dates would be defined by a pair of signature moments, one very public and the other very private.
The first took place on April 8, 1979, during Van Halen's co-headlining performance at the California World Music Festival at Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum. They shared the bill with Aerosmith, whom the up-and-coming Van Halen were determined to upstage.
They appeared at the venue in a fleet of white stretch limousines, then concocted an elaborate prank to take place during the show: Van Halen parked a yellow Volkswagen Beetle on a landing that was visible to the crowd. The plan was to make periodic announcements asking "someone in the Aerosmith organization to please move their car," then crush the vehicle with a World War II-era tank they rented from a Hollywood prop house.
"The theory being that after all of these announcements throughout the day and the night," David Lee Roth said in Crazy From the Heat, "the lights would go down, they'd go, 'Ladies and gentlemen ... da-da-da ... Van Halen,' the spotlights would hit us and the tank would come out from under a cover on that landing, run right over the Volkswagen and we'd pop out of the tank and run down the stairs to the stage."
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Van Halen even test-drove the prank, crushing a second Volkswagen before the big day. But Aerosmith somehow found out about their plan, and planned a counter prank: They were going to show a film featuring stock footage of airplanes blowing up tanks before Van Halen took the stage.
"We decided that because Aerosmith had a little trump card that we weren't going to do the tank trick," Roth said in his autobiography. "So we never ran over the Volkswagen; we just ran down the stairs. We didn't want to be one-upped on our one-upmanship, you know? I haven't spoken with the boys in Aerosmith since then."
Van Halen had to settle for a mind-blowing show, performed in front of a 65,000-fan audience that included Slash. "I subconsciously knew then that rock ’n’ roll was entering into a new era as a result of this great new band," the future Guns N’ Roses guitarist told Uproxx in 2017. "They were really powerful and alive, and there was a palpable rush of excitement the moment they hit the stage. It was loud and aggressive, melodic, rhythmic and fluid, with a boatload of charisma and showmanship on top of all that. That first experience seeing [Eddie] play has stuck with me to this day."
The World Vacation Tour continued into May at Rochester Community War Memorial Arena, where Van Halen took a break to appear on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. Promo videos for "Dance the Night Away", "You're No Good" and "Bottoms Up!" emerged from these sessions. June saw Van Halen appearing at the Texxas Jam in Dallas.
The massive tour then continued to Canada and Europe, came back to North America, went to Asia and returned to North America once more. And it was truly massive. Van Halen's stage setup reportedly included a 22-ton 10,000-watt sound system. There was a 24-person personal security and technical team in tow as well. The caravan traveled from city to city via a Lear jet, two custom coaches and three 44-foot trailers.
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By Oct. 7, Van Halen were back home for an appearance at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., when they passed a second milestone. Eddie Van Halen was onstage when he happened to catch sight of his father, overcome with pride just offstage. "He was sitting by a monitor board," an emotional Eddie said in a talk with Doug Fox in 1998. "He was so proud."
What better way to end things? After 97 career-making dates, the Forum show marked the final show of their World Vacation Tour.
"It was always a dream to play there," Van Halen added. "A friend of Alex [Van Halen]'s drew a poster when we used to play backyard parties – you know the band used to be called Genesis before it was Mammoth. The poster said 'Genesis at the Forum.' You know, that was the place where we used to go see [Led] Zeppelin and Grand Funk – so yeah, it was a dream come true to play there."
The tour was over, but everything kept moving at lightning speed for Van Halen.
Sessions for Van Halen II, held again under the auspices of producer Ted Templeman at Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood, began just a week after the 1978 shows closed down. Most the songs were first-take tries, just like onstage. Van Halen II was completed in less than a month. They finished the World Vacation Tour in October 1979, and went right back into the studio that December. Once again, the follow-up took only a matter of days.
"What we did was applied our live show, our live performance, to plastic – whereas people like Boston and Foreigner, they do it the opposite way," Eddie Van Halen told Jas Obrecht. "They work it out in the studio, and then when they have to go out on tour, they have to rehearse to make it happen live, and it's obvious. With us, actually, there's more mania and more feel and more excitement live, because that's where it's based. That's where it comes from. I mean, that's bottom line. The only thing that sells us is the live show."
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