Time again for another edition of S-Tier songs. I’m now into double digits finally, as I wasn’t going as hard on these as I intended to earlier in the life of the blog. But we’re full steam ahead now and ready to induct another worthy song into my “hall of fame.” For more about S-Tier songs and the previous inductees, head here.
Today it’s finally time to touch greatness. It’s a famous cut from one of the best debut albums ever recorded and from rock music’s most important and influential bands. The song is heavy, thunderous, totally absurd and completely amazing.
Van Halen – Runnin’ With The Devil
Our song today is the opening track from the self-titled debut that would set the music world on fire and reinvent rock for a new decade. Van Halen would conquer stage and charts for a very long time and they did not dawdle around on their first album.
Runnin’ With The Devil opens the illustrious Van Halen career with a slower-paced affair that riffs along and pounds its message home through one of music’s tightest rhythm sections and the signature vocals of one David Lee Roth. It is a party song and headbanger rolled into one and it truly gets the party started on one of rock’s ultimate albums.
Everything that would come to define Van Halen is present on Runnin’ With The Devil. Of course there is Eddie Van Halen, six-string extraordinaire and on the Mount Rushmore of guitar. Eddie keeps most of his work to rhythm here, noodling around a bit during the verses then slamming home the point on the chorus. Of course the song features an EVH solo, what Van Halen song doesn’t? It is the first official notes of the guy widely considered to be (at least) the next most-important player to Jimi Hendrix.
But the band Van Halen was never just about Eddie, even if discussions about EVH could last from now until the end of humanity without treading worn ground. Another signpost of the Van Halen sound was the interplay between bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen. Alex brought the pain to the drums, completely evident on this track. And Michael Anthony pinned down the rhythm with the bass.
Of course, on Runnin’ With The Devil, the bass part doesn’t get any simpler. You could take a person who has never played an instrument and have them playing this part of the song in 15 minutes, no problem. But that isn’t the point. When Michael’s bass gets going with Alex’s drums and also Eddie’s rhythm playing, it generates this fucking unreal heaviness and drive that bands have been trying and largely failing to replicate ever since. It is present on many Van Halen works over the years, yes even the Sammy Hagar records, but is in abundance on our song today.
And all of that, a trademark of Van Halen’s rock dominance for nearly two decades, takes a back seat to the star of this tune. It is David Lee Roth who sings and scats his way to an all-time classic performance. The verses go by without anything to get carried away by, but then the band takes up the chorus proper while Dave lets loose on whatever the hell he feels like doing. On the first chorus he adds his own thing in his soaring voice. On the second chorus he goes to another planet and pulls out a rant that has nothing to do with anything but just fits the song perfectly. His diatribe has led to circulation of the isolated vocal track for the song and it lives on in rock fame and infamy.
And Dave fills the song with various shrieks in whatever places he feels they should go. It’s something not just any singer could do, but Dave just fooled around in the studio and threw them in wherever he pleased. It’s one of several points of comparison between DLR and Michael Jackson, who was a huge fan of Van Halen and Roth. People the world over sought to play guitar like Eddie Van Halen with varying degrees of success, but there isn’t a long list of singers who could touch what David Lee Roth was doing in his prime. It took no less than the King of Pop to perform on par to Roth.
And as with any song, the words have their meaning. Well, except this one. No one really knows what the hell Roth is singing about and no one really cares. It might be about choosing to live that nomadic lifestyle as a rock star out on the road all the time as opposed to choosing a “stable” at-home life, but who knows? I don’t.
Why is this an S-Tier Song?
Runnin’ With The Devil is an assembly of talent and performance without peer, both in 1978 and even to this day. It lays the groundwork for a decades-long sound executed by the brothers Van Halen and Michael Anthony. And it features the nonsensical, over the top yet fantastic vocal stylings of David Lee Roth. It is one of many songs from the group that would go on to inform and influence the Los Angeles rock scene into the early 1980’s and define the music for the decade. Van Halen would cause the world to rock out with them, but the group stood alone in terms of talent and execution.