If you think you know everything there is to know about Van Halen’s early years, think again. Greg Renoff’s “Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal” which will be released on October 13, tells the detailed story of how 4 young men from suburban Pasadena came together to form a band that went from struggling to get small gigs to dominating the international rock scene.
On the way to their hugely successful debut album and first world tour when they blew away headliner Black Sabbath just about every night, Van Halen pushed their way to triumph past seemingly insurmountable odds in the early and mid-1970s. And then there were the rowdy, raunchy backyard parties.
Most Van Halen fans have heard about the notorious, alcohol-soaked backyard parties in the Pasadena area that the band played as they built a loyal following — but never knew the details. This is where Renoff’s exhaustive research (372 pages and 711 endnotes, as of the advance reading copy used in this review) and meticulous attention to detail truly pays off. Readers are treated to extensive accounts of these bashes — especially the legendary one that raged out of control and ended with a police helicopter hovering above as “dozens of San Marino police officers fought their way onto the property” (p. 106) — that they can almost feel as if they were actually there.
The book gives fans their first look into what actually happened as Van Halen struggled to become locally famous — and infamous. Renoff was motivated by the lack of information about the band’s early years, and decided to write “Van Halen Rising” because “before anyone outside of Los Angeles knew about the greatness of Van Halen, everything that had made the best episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ must-see TV had already happened to the band,” (p. xx) he told the atombash.com.
Renoff started researching the book in 2009, “and really got ramped up by 2010,” the author said. He traveled to Pasadena to do research at the library of the Pasadena City College (the Van Halen brothers and David Lee Roth went to school there) and to conduct a number of in-person interviews with people who went to middle school and high school with the Van Halens and Roth.
He uncovered countless tidbits that will impress even the most hardcore, longtime fans. One item he turned up that surprised him was when record producer Ted Templeman “saw Van Halen at the Starwood Club in early 1977, he signed the band primarily on the basis of Eddie’s talent. He told me that he really liked the band, but Eddie was who sealed the deal in his mind that Van Halen should be a Warner Bros. band,” Renoff said. “I expected him to say ‘I loved the whole band,’ but he was more like ‘I liked the band, but I LOVED Eddie.’”
While fans know that Roth was determined to join the Van Halen brothers’ band (then known as Mammoth), they probably don’t know just how his persistence and creative determination finally got him into the band. One theme that runs throughout much of “Van Halen Rising” is that the interaction between Roth and Eddie Van Halen in the early years of the band served as a blueprint for the highs and lows of their entire relationship over the next 4 decades.
“… the seeds of that greatness stem from a time long before the band played arenas and produced platinum records. They took root in places like Victory Park and John Muir High School, in backyards and biker bars, in improvised concert halls and Sunset Strip hotspots,” Renoff wrote at the end of the book (p. 355) that takes readers there, in often vivid detail — in a book that’s as entertaining as it is informative.
Signed copies are available from the Van Halen Store.