Tuning Up: The Best Van Halen Song of All Time
First cranked in the 8-track player of his parents’ ’79 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight, this tune epitomizes the glory of early Van Halen for PG’s head honcho.
I’ll always remember the sunny afternoon in the summer of 1979 when the skinny little 7-year-old me walked out the front door and set eyes on the brand-new, gleaming red Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight 4-door parked in our driveway. The new ride was my favorite color, with a suave white tolex-like accent on the roof and tufted red seats plush and comfy as a living-room couch. But none of that would’ve mattered if not for the cutting-edge technology lodged in the middle of the dashboard. It looked like the same ol’ FM/AM push-button radio from our green bomber, but no—push in that middle section, and it opened up like R2-D2 waiting for you to insert the blueprints to your musical destiny while cruising in an oil-crisis-oblivious V8.
Early on, we only had three 8-track cartridges—a freebie collection of parent-soothing tunes, a Carly Simon album, and my brother Sam’s Van Halen II cartridge. This was a mere year after “Eruption,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and the rest of VH’s first album had blown my mind. I didn’t play guitar yet, but it didn’t matter. The seeds had been sown, and any trip in the new car wasn’t just bearable now, it was something to look forward to. Catchy, swaggering tunes like “Beautiful Girls,” “You’re No Good,” and “Dance the Night Away” made even an underage turd like me feel like a cruisin’ badass.
In the ensuing decades, my musical tastes went through fairly seismic shifts. Much of the stuff I listened to as an impressionable, overcaffeinated teen guitar fanatic does nothing for me today. Not so for the original-lineup VH albums. With those, Edward Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, and Alex Van Halen changed the world in ways their acolytes could never match, and most of it has stood the test of time beautifully. “Mean Street,” “Little Guitars” (both parts), “Unchained,” the list of incredible tunes is long. But for me the one that encapsulates everything awesome about golden-age VH is “Light Up the Sky” from that second amazing album.
From the very first notes—a simple but killer guitar-and-bass counterpoint intro—it’s perfect driving music. To this day, I still listen to “Light Up the Sky” at full volume, over and over again, in my car. Like a great action movie, its first “scene” immediately grabs your attention, then leaves you with a cliff-hanger snare crack before building suspense with a methodical, insistently chugging verse guitar part made more menacing by Anthony’s throbbing, subtly shifting unison lines. The guitar sounds mean yet articulate, with Edward’s impeccable mix of straight-ahead rock chords and more sophisticated grips creating the sorts of nuanced moods and textures he still rarely gets credit for.
Meanwhile, Roth is in top form: His voice is strong and impressively varied—that inimitable scream before the solo!—and his lyrics are typically cryptic but not yet stupidly weird. And Ed and Anthony’s background vox add a sense of otherworldly wonder mingled with a sense of impending doom and roaring triumph.
Production is clean, hi-fi even. Every instrument is highlighted by a spatial depth that both juxtaposes quite drastically with the down ’n’ dirty vibe of the band’s debut and perfectly highlights this particular song’s master class in dynamics. Never before had Ed and Alex displayed such seamless descents into whisper-quiet interplay as they do during the funky-chorded interlude before the solo. The solo may not be Ed’s most pyrotechnical (though in my opinion it’s got some of his most musical whammy work), but in terms of sheer memorability it’s almost unmatched. Short and sweet, it’s like a mini song in itself. And when it ends with those four double-stop bends, it’s yet another masterful cliffhanger segue to a drum break featuring Alex’s best solo work. It may not be as technically impressive as, say, the intro to “Hot for Teacher,” but it rules at creating a sense of anticipation—like the falling action before the final plot twist at the end of the movie—the one right before you realize the too-easy disposal of the bad guy, or the nail-biting car chase, was really just prelude to a huge plot twist where everything explodes in a glorious crescendo of fire and adrenaline.