When I was a kid, there was an advertisement in almost every comic book I read for a mail order “monster”, 7 feet tall with glow-in-the-dark eyes. It only cost ONE DOLLAR (plus .25 for shipping and handling). I had to have it, and so I asked my mom to write out a check for a buck and sent away for it. After what seemed like several months, it finally arrived. The “monster” was a crappy rendering of the Frankenstein Monster, printed on cheap, garbage bag-like material. Oh, and there were two tiny phosphorescent stickers that you has to stick over his eyes for the “chilling” glow-in-the-dark effect mentioned in the ad. It was a huge let-down. Even as a little kid I thought, ‘all that waiting, all that excitement and anticipation, for this? What a rip-off’.
That, my friends, is exactly how I felt after hearing Van Halen’s fifth album, ‘Diver Down’.
As the 70’s gave way to the ’80’s, Van Halen were the most dangerous band on earth. They had it all: monster chops, a badass image, a steamroller live show. Van Halen records were open invitations to an endless party. They effortlessly filled the void left by US hard rock dinosaurs like Kiss, Aerosmith, Nugent and Blue Oyster Cult, who had all seemingly gone extinct by the end of the decade. By 1982, they owned hard rock.
So why is their 5th album such a joke? What the fuck happened? In June of ’82, Rolling Stone said that ‘Diver Down’ proved that Van Halen were ‘running out of ideas’. It sure looked that way on the surface, as the whole of DD is made up of 5 cover songs, 3 instrumentals and only 4 original songs, one of which was demo’d back in 1977 and recycled here with a new title and new lyrics. But didn’t 1984’s ‘1984’ prove RS wrong? So then, what is the story behind this shameless excuse for an ‘LP’? Who’s to blame? And why? It’s been thirty-two years and I still want to know who to see about getting my money back.
In lieu of that refund, we’ve at least gotten an explanation: After the mammoth ‘Fair Warning’ tour, Van Halen needed a break. To feed the machine while taking a well-deserved rest, the band recorded a cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman”, backed it with another cover, this time a rendition of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ closing TV theme song “Happy Trails” (another ‘song’ demo’d back in ’77), and filmed a music video for the single for MTv. While the single and video were intended to buy the band time to recuperate from the grueling ‘Fair Warning’ tour, it instead became a hit, prompting Warner Bros. to invoke their contractual option and demand an album. Immediately. The label wanted the record fast, in order to capitalize on the success of the single. It’s always about money.
With no time to write any new material, VH was forced to enter the studio and somehow come up with enough material to make an album. This was not a band “running out of ideas”; rather, it was a band with no time to think; to create. So Van Halen, recorded one ‘song’ per day until they passed the thirty-minute mark, somehow pulling enough scraps of this & that together to hand in to their label, who weren’t the least bit interested in concepts like ‘quality’, or ‘value for money’. Who cares if the record sucks? The single is red-hot, so fans will buy the album. The WB execs were right: by 1998, ‘Diver Down’ had sold 4 million copies… twice as much as their previous effort, ‘Fair Warning’. Bastards.
Is this the worst Quadruple-Platinum album ever? Maybe. It might also be the shortest. All of the albums from the Diamond Dave era are brief; only one VH album creeps past the 35 minute mark: their 1978 debut. And although ‘Diver Down’ might feel like the shortest listen in the VH catalog, ‘Fair Warning’ holds that title, at a mere 30 minutes, 58 seconds. But ‘Fair Warning’ is a proper album, a substantive, satisfying experience… ‘Diver Down’ is just filler padded with fluff. An record with the impressive track count of 12 songs that ultimately adds up to 31:24 is either the worst LP ever, or the greatest EP ever.
I worked hard listening to this record, trying to find reasons to like it. For a while I refused to accept that it was just plain bad; I must have been missing something. But try as I might, “Hang em High” and “The Full Bug” just weren’t enough for me. After the dark menace of ‘Fair Warning’, this half-assed lightweight was a real curveball. The idea of 3 instrumentals might sound exciting, but when one of them is a synthesizer/drum drone with lead guitar played with a beer can (I’m serious; look it up), then look elsewhere for EVH’s latest mind-blowing innovation. This from the greatest guitarist since Hendrix. It was pretty clear Eddie’s heart wasn’t in this.
I’m sure lots of kids were as bewildered as I was, but there were obviously four million fans who ate it up. There are hardcore DD defenders on the internet today, super-fans lacking any objectivity, in complete denial, and loyal to a fault. I respect that. The album still sucks. It’s an ugly zit on the face of the otherwise impeccable Dave-era Van Halen catalog.
As Johnny Rotten once asked, “”Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” I did. If only we’d known at the time that ‘Diver Down’ was a ‘contractual obligation album’; that our heroes were threatened with legal action to enter the studio under duress and with nothing and somehow deliver a commercially viable product to appease the suits. Viewed through that lens, the ‘Diver Down’ fiasco makes perfect sense.
There were, however, right under our noses all along, significant clues to what was going on here… The band chose the title and cover art for good reason: flying the ‘diver down’ flag indicates a SCUBA diver is submerged somewhere in the area. David Lee Roth cryptically said at the time that the album cover was supposed to show that “there was something going on that’s not apparent to your eyes. You put up the red flag with the white slash. It means, it’s not immediately apparent to your eyes what is going on underneath the surface.” Genius. Record still sucks.
The critics had a field day with ‘Diver Down’. Here’s the last paragraph of Jeffrey Morgan’s review of DD from the August 1982 issue of Creem Magazine:
“Just when Van Halen needed to come back with a killer album to cement their status in the marketplace as the current rock ‘n’ roll kings, they had to go and pull a stunt like this. Diver Down is as bad a career move as I’ve ever seen – so much so that if these guys are featured in this magazine in two year’s time, I’ll be surprised. And don’t laugh: if it happened to Aerosmith, it could happen to these bozos, too.”
Here’s the very next issue of Creem Magazine, dated September 1982:
Not only were Van Halen featured, but they were on the front freakin’ cover. Thankfully, VH survived the debacle; the U.S.S. Van Halen was sturdy enough to withstand one stinker. Truly great bands can survive one bad album…even if it’s 7 feet tall and has eyes that glow in the dark.