Scanlan, John – Van Halen (Book Review)

Spread the metal:

Reviewed: June 2016
Released: 2012, Reaktion Books
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: JP


A philosophical and sociological approach to Van Halen. Academic in focus, but not overbearing or inaccessible for fans.

I’ve been on a bit of a Van Halen kick lately so it was a nice coincidence to come across a couple of books about Roth-era Van Halen. I’ve decided to review both of them. Please feel free to read the other book review in this mini-feature, VAN HALEN RISING by Greg Renoff.

It seems mildly odd perhaps that a professor from a university in Manchester, England would choose to write a book about Van Halen and Zen philosophy. Maybe that is why this was such an interesting book. EXUBERANT CALIFORNIA, ZEN ROCK ’N’ ROLL doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and certainly falls into the academy category. The 216-page paperback has thirty or so black and white photos to add a bit of a visual element, most of them I had never seen before. Fortunately, the prose is not too academic or verbose, it was a good read and entertaining work, for most Van Halen fans.

The main thrust of Scanlon is that Van Halen really only could have been founded, survived, thrived and exploded in California in the late 70’s. To me that inherently makes sense, Van Halen could not have been a product of downtown Detroit, or East London in the 70’s it just would not have worked. It is within the realm of possibility that they could have existed but certainly not become one of the world’s largest Hard Rock bands. Scanlon goes into fairly elaborate detail about the early years of the band and how the physical, mental and sociological environment of Southern California was the perfect breeding ground for the innovative band. Combining surf culture, hippie culture, hard rock culture, beat culture Roth’s hyper-kinetic style and the bands hyper-kinetic musical style created something unique.
The book follows a fairly conventional re-telling of the early years of the Van Halen family, the ill-fated first auditions with Roth, then the joining of forces later on to make magic and history. Weaving through the narrative are examples of Zen philosophy (practiced, perhaps unconsciously by Roth) and how the laid back style, attitude, lyrics, writing, recording of the band all combined into a white-hot party mix. This Zen style was embraced by an entire generation as the band virtually single-handedly invented the melodic Metal genre that was to dominate the North American music scene from 1983-1993.

Scanlon makes his point very convincingly and I really had no argument. His theory is sound, I couldn’t poke any holes in it. EXUBERANT CALIFORNIA, ZEN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL is a unique and interesting look at band that we all know and love.

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Format Reviewed:
Publisher: Reaktion Books
Pages: 216