5 Essential David Lee Roth-era Van Halen Deep Cuts 50 Years After Their Debut Sunset Strip Show at Gazzarri’s

In 1974, Van Halen played their first Sunset Strip show at Gazzarri’s, a former West Hollywood nightclub. Though the band had previously performed at house parties and high school events, booking a show on the Sunset Strip was a crucial step forward for them.

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David Lee Roth explained the importance of Gazzarri’s in his memoir. He said, “This is where all the heat’s coming from, this is where all the light’s coming from.”

According to Alex Van Halen, only four people attended the first show, and their set consisted of only covers. However, soon, they became Gazzarri’s house band, like The Doors before them.

Here are five essential deep cuts from the David Lee Roth era to celebrate Van Halen’s April 4 Sunset Strip debut 50 years ago.

“Take Your Whiskey Home” from Women and Children First (1980)

Roth sings about the dangers of addiction over this heavy blues track. Eddie Van Halen’s acoustic intro demonstrates something many guitarists forget—the magic was in his hands. On the early Van Halen albums, Eddie often soloed over drums and bass without additional guitar overdubs. His guitar is hard-panned to the left speaker, and when the solo hits, it sounds like you are sitting in the middle of the band’s Pasadena, California, rehearsal room. The swinging groove of “Take Your Whiskey Home” wouldn’t be out of place on ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres.

Well, that liquor in the nighttime leaves strange memories
Seems a lifetime since yesterday
Come the daybreak, and come tomorrow
That woman’s waited up all night for me again

“Atomic Punk” from Van Halen (1978)

Eddie forever changed the electric guitar on Van Halen’s self-titled 1978 debut. “Eruption,” “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” and The Kinks cover “You Really Got Me” get most of the attention from this record. But “Atomic Punk” equally showcases Eddie’s talents. He’s using his picking-hand palm to create the phased scratching noise while Roth sings about the ruler of a dystopian future. It foreshadows Tom Morello’s guitar-DJ technique with Rage Against the Machine 14 years later.

I am a victim of the science age
A child of the storm, whoa, yes
I can’t remember when I was your age
For me, time’s no more, no more

“Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)” from Diver Down (1982)

Following the Fair Warning Tour, Van Halen was planning on a break. To appease fans, they released a cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Women,” which became an unexpected hit. Warner Bros. Records pressured the band to produce a new album, so they quickly recorded Diver Down. Roth suggested covering the 1924 tune “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).” Showing the band’s diversity, Eddie plays through complex jazz changes using a hollow body guitar, supported by Alex’s brushes and Michael Anthony’s acoustic bass. Jan Van Halen, Eddie and Alex’s father, plays clarinet.

Well, way down yonder in Louisville
Lived a cat named Big Bad Bill
I wants to tell ya
Ah, the cat was rough and tough and would strut his stuff

“Fools” from Women and Children First (1980)

The wailing intro and interplay between Eddie and Roth eventually break for an “Eruption”-like shredding guitar solo that becomes the heaviest riff from the Roth era. The song also features Anthony’s signature backing vocals, a crucial part of Van Halen’s sound. “Fools” is reckless and full of the kind of swagger missing from the Sammy Hagar era of the band. Roth v. Hagar debates rage among the diehards, but Eddie’s playing never sounded so inspired as it did during the Roth years.

My teachers all gave up on me
No matter what they say, I disagree
And when I need something to soothe my soul
I listen to too much rock and roll

“Drop Dead Legs” from 1984 (1984)

Midway through 1984, Roth lets loose with some of his finest poetry: Dig that steam / Giant butt / Makes me scream and Throw my rope / Loop-de-loop / Nice white teeth / Betty Boop. It’s the kind of Kabuki lyric writing Anthony Kiedis of Red Hot Chili Peppers might admire. Eddie’s stabbing riff is sluggishly driven by brother Alex, whose drum groove feels half a beat behind the rest of the band. Then, Eddie burns a mind-blowing fusion solo over the outro while Alex hammers his ride cymbal like he’s chiseling marble against a looming deadline.

Dig those moves, vampire
Set me loose, get it higher
Throw my rope, loop-de-loop
Nice white teeth, Betty Boop

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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