Van Halen's fifth album Diver Down has kind of an odd reputation among the group's early work with frontman David Lee Roth. Coming after their first two classic albums of the '70s, a pair of more subdued records at the top of the '80s, and the juggernaut 1984, it's not that Diver Down is bad...but five of the seven songs - including hit singles "(Oh) Pretty Woman" and "Dancing in the Streets" - were covers.
But there was a method behind the madness: the band had every intention of taking a short break after a 1981 tour. "Dave came up with the idea of, 'Hey, why don't we start off the new year with just putting out a single?'" Eddie Van Halen recounted to Guitar Player in 1982. But when it started selling well, Warner Bros. Records asked for a new LP to go with it. Twelve days later, they got their wish.
Diver Down still outsold and out-charted Fair Warning and Women and Children First - at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 album charts, it was their highest placement yet - and even Eddie told Guitar World the breakneck sessions were "a lot of fun." If all you know is the covers, let's dig a little deeper on four of our favorites from this Van Halen classic.
"Hang 'Em High": the band had been working on this song since their earliest recording sessions - early bootlegs exist with different lyrics but the same structure - and it's not far off from the frenetic pace of their 1978 self-titled debut.
"Cathedral": A fair chunk of Diver Down is dominated by instrumental pieces - the strutting "Intruder" rolls right into "(Oh) Pretty Woman," and a flamenco-style solo starts "Little Guitars." "Cathedral" - so named for its organ-like tone - is the only one to stand on its own, an ethereal, 90-second break in the middle of the album's action. Ed had been playing it in concert for a year before it ended up on the first side of this album.
"Little Guitars": Before this slow-burning rocket lights up Diver Down's second side, Eddie launches into one of his most delicate solos on record. But it wasn't fingerpicked - the versatile guitarist figured out how to attain the same sounds with his pick and a series of left-hand pull-offs. "If there's something I want to do and can't, I won't give up until I can figure out some way to make it sound similar to what I really can do," he bragged to Guitar Player.
"The Full Bug": The last full song on the album (before a smirking cover of the Roy Rogers/Dale Evans classic "Happy Trails") is another typically straightforward rocker - arguably one of Roth's best vocals on the record. The singer, who also contributed a short acoustic intro and harmonica solo to the record, was typically mystic about the song's origin, comparing the lyrics to stomping on a particularly resilient cockroach. "You just jam your toe into the corner and hit as hard as you can," he told Sounds. "And if you did it right you got the full bug. So this slang means—bammm!—you have to give it everything you've got. Make the maximum effort, do everything possible, get the full bug."