AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The guitarist, bandleader and songwriter Eddie Van Halen died today of cancer. He was 65. His band Van Halen spanned more than four decades, 12 albums, three lead singers and some of the most dramatic guitar solos in rock 'n' roll history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUNNIN' WITH THE DEVIL")
VAN HALEN: (Vocalizing).
CHANG: That is "Runnin' With The Devil" from Van Halen's self-titled debut album back in 1978. And with us to talk about Eddie Van Halen's music and legacy is Stephen Thompson from NPR Music.
STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.
CHANG: Hey. So tell me; what do you think made Eddie Van Halen such a unique rock star?
THOMPSON: Well, a few things, really. I mean, first of all, he was an absolute master of what you think of when you think of epic, flashy guitar solos. He's considered one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, and his techniques were hugely influential in the sound of rock 'n' roll, especially in the late '70s, well into the '90s. He helped popularize a style of playing called tapping, where the players' left and right hands are both working the neck of the guitar. You can actually hear that in a song called "Eruption" from 1978.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN'S "ERUPTION")
CHANG: That's crazy.
THOMPSON: (Laughter) But on top of those kind of pyrotechnics, he had this massive cultural footprint just in terms of the way that he and his band kind of brought together hard rock and heavy metal with flamboyant pop music.
CHANG: Yeah. Let's talk about some of those hits. Like, what were, would you say, the biggest hits that were quintessential Eddie Van Halen?
THOMPSON: Well, Van Halen had a string of, like, really classic rock records in the late '70s and early '80s. But their album "1984," which came out when I was 12, made them a juggernaut. And that's where you get songs like "Panama" and "Jump," where Eddie Van Halen's guitars meet these really grand synthesizer hooks. I mean, let's actually hear a little bit of "Jump."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUMP")
VAN HALEN: (Singing) Might as well jump. Go ahead and jump. Jump. Go ahead and jump.
THOMPSON: So to speak to just how huge Eddie Van Halen was at the time, "1984," which sold millions of copies, never actually hit No. 1 on the charts because it was blocked by Michael Jackson's "Thriller." And "Thriller" cranked out hit after hit after hit. And one of the biggest of those hits was "Beat It," which has a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen.
CHANG: Eddie Van Halen - well, you know, I mean, he was also known for conflict with his bandmates. Can you tell us a little more about that part of his life?
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, the band Van Halen famously rotated lead singers and most famously with David Lee Roth, who went solo in 1985 and kind of came - and came back occasionally, and Sammy Hagar, who sang on a lot of the band's big hits in the late '80s and early '90s. And, I mean, they clashed a lot. And the sense that I get as an outsider is that Eddie Van Halen was more of a perfectionist and a craftsman, and the singers thought of themselves more as showmen. And so I think that chaos and volatility is a big part of Van Halen's story, but you could also argue that a little tension can force innovation.
CHANG: All right. So for those out there who somehow missed the entire '80s, what would you say is a must-listen-to song right now to remember this guy?
THOMPSON: Oh, man. You know, I was a teenager for so many of the Sammy Hagar years, and I don't want to neglect songs like "Right Now." But I've got to go with "Panama" from 1984 - huge choruses, huge riffs and a ready and welcome reminder that rock 'n' roll at its heart is supposed to be fun.
CHANG: All right. Let's go out on "Panama."
Stephen Thompson, thank you.
THOMPSON: Thank you, Ailsa.
(SOUNDBITE OF VAN HALEN SONG, "PANAMA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.