Van Halen’s first album is the greatest debut record of all time. Some may well not agree with this.

Before I started writing this editorial, I browsed through Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 debut records of all time and was surprised that Van Halen was stuck near the middle at number 40. As I stated in last month’s editorial, where I raged against the music of the 21st century, the music industry (and it most certainly is an industry, in that it follows the money) encourages a shallow talent pool populated by ever-simpler, more derivative music—so long as it sells.

Van Halen

Squeezing into the list at number 90 is Drake’s Thank Me Later, which made me sad. I have declared to my daughter that the family car is a Drake-free zone, as I can find nothing redeeming about this man’s music. A shuffling, machine-generated beat, overlaid by mumbled lyrics detailing banal topics via poorly constructed rhymes—I’m utterly perplexed by Drake’s popularity.

I guess his debut album is deemed to be important for the number of sales and streaming requests it has generated. And given that Thank Me Later was the genesis of his inexplicable popularity, I guess, yeah, it’s important, but to put this music on the same list as serious heavy hitters like Rage Against the Machine and Elvis Presley makes no sense to me.

But back to Van Halen. I first heard this album at my friend’s house when I was 15 years old. Neil and I hadn’t known each other that long, and his house was a busy, crazy place. His brother, Richard, had a decent stereo system for the day and for his age, consisting of (I think) Akai separates. On one of my first visits, I heard “Runnin’ with the Devil” blasting out of his room. I’d never heard music like it. In retrospect, that’s because nothing like it—really—had existed before this album’s release. I was enthralled.

Eddie Van Halen’s audacious guitar technique exploded into the music sphere in 1978. It was revelatory at the time and still sounds incendiary today. His combinations of hammer-ons and pull-offs spawned an entirely new category of guitar wizardry that to this day is a direct result of his influence.

Van Halen was a watershed record.

Van Halen

I’ve been thinking this over since receiving Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs’ reissue of Van Halen (LP, Mobile Fidelity UD1S-032), released as part of the label’s Ultradisc One-Step series. As I related in my “For the Record” review of MoFi’s One-Step version of the Muddy Waters classic Folk Singer, these records are an all-out, no-excuses attempt to make the best possible version of an LP. This pressing of Van Halen is a two-disc set, cut at 45 rpm on MoFi’s high-end SuperVinyl.

When the box set arrived, I didn’t open it immediately. I left the shrink-wrap in place and turned it over in my hands. This is premium packaging, I recall thinking. It deserved to be thought about, considered, and appreciated. Not just eviscerated on the way from the door to the listening room, as I often do with new records. Also, my neighbor Rob is a huge Van Halen fan, and I’d promised to hold onto the album for a few days until we could listen to it together over a rye and Coke.

Days turned into weeks, and Rob was still unavailable, having started a major construction project—working long hours and arriving home too shagged to do anything other than collapse on the couch.

Van Halen

I’d considered and appreciated as much as I could, so I called another neighbor, Ron, who isn’t that much of a Van Halen fan, but is always up for a coffee and a listen. We sat down in front of the DALI Epikore 11 speakers, which seemed like a perfect choice for debuting this huge, aggressive record. I was running the DS Audio DS-W3 cartridge into the EMM Labs DS-EQ1 phono stage, and firehosing all this information into the Hegel P30A preamp and H30A amplifier. This was a system with balls. A hard-rock system.

“You got your seatbelt done up tight, Ron?” I asked as I lowered the cueing lever on the VPI Prime Signature.

The almost psychotically bad neighbors to our north had recently sold and moved out, and a very nice couple moved in over Christmas. While the Unfriendlysons lived next door, their blinds were always pulled down tight, and—I’m not being dramatic here—a sense of misery that bordered on doom emanated from that house.

The new folks arrived and the first thing I saw them do was raise the blinds and let light into the house. It actually felt like they were letting the evil out. I hadn’t truly realized how much bad neighbors could drag you down until that happened.

We’d had the new folks over, along with our other neighbors, for a Christmas coffee-and-cake gathering. While they were here, I showed them the system in the basement and explained that on the odd occasion, I’d turn up the stereo kinda loud for a short period. “Never more than once every two weeks, and never for more than ten minutes at a time,” I told them. “If it ever becomes a problem, please, please let me know and I’ll accommodate you in any way I can,” I reiterated.

Van Halen

Side 1 of the MoFi Van Halen set is around eight minutes.

From the opening drawn-out, descending note of “Runnin’ with the Devil,” I was transfixed. Even today, 46 years after its release, this track sounds fresh, crisp, and larger than life. The system was already playing quite loud, but I nudged the volume up to the point where it felt like a physical force. Eddie Van Halen fires off two nearly identical solos in this track, and the definition and bite on the first note of each were astonishing. Right through these solos, I could hear incredible realism on the leading edge of every note. Ron leaned over to me and shouted: “That gave me goosebumps! I haven’t had goosebumps in years!”

And bass! There was bass here. Now, with hindsight guiding my way, I have realized that one of the biggest deficiencies of Van Halen has always been the thin bass on every version that I’ve heard. Here, now, there’s bass! Michael Anthony’s Fender bass dueled with Alex Van Halen’s kick drum, and I immediately gained new appreciation for how well this rhythm section held down the band’s ball-busting groove.

There’s huge depth to MoFi’s remastering. Listening to “Eruption,” I could feel blisters forming on my face from the sharp, shredding notes of Eddie’s guitar. And there’s one break in this track where he descends into silence before resuming the attack. I’d never noticed that this isn’t total silence—there’s a pregnant potential to this pause, one where you can feel that the guitar is still plugged in, still electrified. There isn’t much in the way of dynamics on this album—it’s pinned into the red most of the time. On “Eruption,” clever engineering and mastering gave it the illusion of dynamics.

And how the hell MoFi got this level of definition, of searing, soaring treble, without adding any sibilance, distortion, or etch to the highs is beyond me. However it was done, I heartily approve.

On my 1978 Canadian pressing (LP, Warner Bros. Records KBS 3075), that impression of magnificence is totally missing. It’s still great music, but the feeling of scale, of momentous size, of sheer, browbeating aggression, is absent. Compared to the MoFi Ultradisc, the Canadian pressing is small and thin, lacking in dynamics and bass. Same with streaming the album via Tidal. Neither version makes me want to turn it up. Neither version feels as pagan, as celebratory, as did the MoFi reissue’s tribute to the old gods.

Van Halen

From a sound-quality perspective, the first side was definitely the winner. There was a sense of crisp delineation of instruments and voice on “Runnin’ with the Devil”and “You Really Got Me” that wasn’t quite as well developed on the rest of the album. Oh, don’t get me wrong—all four sides sounded great, but the first side was the greatest. When I listen to my Canadian pressing, it’s more uniformly okay, and I think that MoFi’s superb version leaves the small differences in production with nowhere to hide. Again, I’d like to reiterate that later tracks, such as “Jamie’s Cryin’” and “Ice Cream Man,” sounded superb and benefited from MoFi’s expertise, but I guess there’s a reason they were on side 2 of the original LP.

As with Folk Singer, MoFi’s One-Step discs were totally flat, and dead silent. The packaging is also deluxe, with smooth, matte slipcovers, inside which the records are further protected by a white cardboard sleeve. There’s not much by way of extras in the outer slipcover. There’s a nice, solid print of the original album cover—front, back, and inner liner—and that’s it. Still, it’s a beautiful package, and at least a couple times a week I decanted one or the other of the two 12″ 45s and nodded my head approvingly.

This is Firebird Trans Am music. Muscle-car music. There’s a complete absence of artifice to this album, of subtlety even. Every song thrusts its groin outward while exuding a mixture of testosterone and Axe body spray. I can see why this attitude would sink the album back a bunch of places in Rolling Stone’s sniffy, Grey Poupon–mustard pantheon of top debut albums. I can understand why banal entries by Cardi B, Billie Eilish, and Olivia Rodrigo might be slipped in if you’re looking for 21st-century relevance. And Van Halen’s seemingly misogynistic lyrics likely didn’t help with female panelists.

Van Halen

But what other music can make you want to get in a fight, chug a beer, quit your job, and ride a motorcycle to Las Vegas? Each time I play this album, my heart rate spikes and I feel like I’m back in my teens, wearing tight jeans, hair feathered back, driving downtown. It’s an affirmation of life, is Van Halen, even if it’s a life that’s poorly lived in a smoky pool hall.

As I write this, Van Halen is on back order over at MoFi’s web store. I’m not surprised, given the album’s watershed importance and ongoing popularity. I strongly suggest you click that back-order button and get your name on the list.

. . . Jason Thorpe