Up until this point, Van Halen had a rather blunt sound. The debut album was very much a proto-glam disc that boasted loads of heavy metal energy and rock ‘n roll wit, carrying as much sex appeal as one can ask for. Its successor dialed things back a bit, subtracting some of the oomph that clouded the first disc while retaining the same overall idea. But after that, we enter a new decade and a new album where David Lee Roth and co. would start to vary the songwriting. That album goes by the title Women And Children First, a fantastic record that gets overlooked thanks to the super-giants before it, and later albums in the mid-80s. Seeing that it’s now forty years old, I wanted to take this opportunity to talk about it in depth.
Women And Children First is like a proverbial smorgasbord in terms of make-up, which opened up the protective barrier against inconsistency. But considering how strong the songs themselves are, it was well worth it. Moreover, the nine tracks are divided into what feels like chunks and said chunks somewhat stick to the same ideas within themselves. That ultimately covers up the issue of inconsistency, serving up a brief three-course meal of sleazy rock meets heavy metal shock.
But before tearing those apart, let’s look at the things that the entire album brought to the table. For one, this was where the band would begin tampering with overdubs and other noises, focusing less on backing vocals as a primary feature. To little surprise, there are also tracks that dig into structures that are less favorable to the ears of your average radio schmuck. Shifts in attitude and layout happen within the tracks more often, and this would be greater emphasized on the follow-up Fair Warning. If nothing else, this was part of a greater transition that would bring the band from the raw 1978 heavy metal energy to the poppy and synth-dense 1984.
It was a smart move for the band to cram their radio-oriented songs to the front, which is the best way I’d describe the first three tracks. This prevented the listener from being too taken back when finding that maybe Women And Children First isn’t like Van Halen’s first two efforts. By now, just about everyone has heard “…And The Cradle Will Rock” as well as “Everybody Wants Some.” Neither are hard to get behind, although I will admit the latter’s absence of famous Eddie Van Halen rhythms during much of the verses was at least a hint. That allowed Alex Van Halen to stand out behind the kit, backing Dave’s spoken verses in a way that highlights them both. And then you have “Fools,” one with a famous shred-lick in the beginning that drastically changes into yet another catchy ditty. Despite the lack of backing vocals overall, this one relies heavily on those chants in the chorus.
The center of the disc is where I get the most satisfaction. This is the hot center pit, a fitting description for what is unmerciful heavy metal, to the levels of “On Fire” from the debut. “Romeo Delight” wastes no time at all pummeling you with speed metal riffing, and quickly spat vocals with tons of life and enthusiasm. Sure, it cools down a bit for the “feel my heartbeat” segment. That’s ultimately meant for suspense to loop right back into the furious chorus built on burning riffs backed by Michael Anthony’s booming basslines. “Loss Of Control” flips this on its back, speeding things up even more while taking back the crunchiness. However, you get a tastier flavor of Eddie’s fret-loaded rhythms, and Dave’s crazy frontman charm. The only thing separating these two songs is the “Tora! Tora!” break, a minute-long instrumental that is nothing shy of a doom riff to balance out the speed. It’s unsettling in the most spectacular way.
Exiting this disc is executed with an idea of smoothness, which is how I’d describe the final three tracks. While they may have never had radio success, they’re as welcoming as can be. “Take Your Whiskey Home” ties itself to the closer “Yours In A Simple Rhyme” by including bouncy passages in both, light guitar patterns, and jumps between calmness and heavy rock digs. On the other hand, “Whisky” ‘s acoustic intro sits alongside “Could This Be Magic,” a tune crafted completely around a softer gang chorus and early 20th-century singing styles. That, backed with acoustic riffs paired with an acoustic solo makes it the most unique song, also acting as the title song. It flows smoother than butter, and dropping it between the other two was an incredible move. “Magic” also features Nicolette Lasrson during some of the chorus parts. She was an American pop singer famous for working with Neil Young, and the only woman to ever be recorded on any Van Halen track. It really pains me how overlooked these three songs are. Oh, and a hidden track that’s about twenty seconds in length known as “Growth” gets thrown onto the end. Can’t say there’s much to it, beyond perhaps throwing the listener back to the unsettling feelings of the metal tracks to walk away with.
Women And Children First has so much going on, and for that reason, it’s my favorite one to talk about. The first record is the obvious classic, and rightfully my favorite, but I’d be lying if I said it had more going on than what we’ve got here. If you’ve overlooked the David Lee Roth albums that weren’t global superstar records, I highly suggest going back and starting with this one. It’s a brief listen, so there’s really no issues with digestibility.
Women And Children First came out on March 26th, 1980, through Warner Bros records. There’s an endless supply of physical copies, be it vinyl, cassette, CD, original, remaster, and reissue on vinyl and CD formats. Find the one that fancies you most right here.