Words by Phillip Mottaz
Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included Sleater Kinney's "Rollercoaster," The Stooges' "No Fun," and CCR's "Ramble Tamble."
Some songs live in my guitar. I have a very natural (read: "dumb") style that's mostly just strumming along, and certain songs from certain bands tend to dwell within my strings. Others do not. The space taken up by "Dead Leaves On The Dirty Ground" and "Buddy Holly" have kept the well-known catalog of early Van Halen at bay. I like to think this has more to do with style than technical proficiency, and I'd be right. While my kind has neither the cranial capacity nor the opposable digits (name the episode!) to appropriately perform a classic Van Halen tune, I think the reason I'll never play one of their songs well is because our styles are so different. I strum along with the tune, feeling the song. Eddie Van Halen's style has never been anything less than cerebral. It's all about exploding everywhere at once. It's certainly interesting, but it's also a little maddening. When you think of "Beautiful Girls," what do you hum?
When most people in their late 20s or early 30s hear the opening strains of "Beautiful Girls" on their radio, the first image they conjure is a pool full of Speedo-clad men telling house sitters Adam Sandler and Chris Farley that they "look like they need to get wet." The "Schlitz Gay" bit from early-90s SNL has the kind of legacy no one could have predicted, and much of that staying power has to do with this song. I find the choice to use this song in this commercial parody came about for a couple reasons. First, it's a great song, and even in the lowest comedy, a great song is a great song is a great song. Secondly, its full-frontal late-70s machismo translates perfectly to a pool party for gay men. It's cartoonish, thanks so much to David Lee Roth, in how "sexy" it is. For all the work one could put forth to the contrary, "Beautiful Girls" is completely harmless, light as a feather and therefore -- to the mid-90s male sensibility -- un-masculine. And finally, it's funnier to have a song called "Beautiful Girls" about a bunch of men. The lessor comic would have played something from Culture Club or some other "gay" band. But these are supposedly beer-drinking gay guys, so they need a beer-drinking gay guy song. They've got a big beer taste and they're gay, after all.
The impact and success of this commercial parody has done much to marginalize the overall Van Halen legend. It's not solely responsible, of course; so much of that responsibility lies with the band itself. But there was a period where VH was The band, and The theme gong of The band needed to portray their voice, and no matter how many "Panamas" or "Jumps" followed, "Beautiful Girls" epitomizes The voice of The band. In his interesting commentary on OK Computer for the 33 1/3 series, critic Dai Griffiths claims that if you want to hear what 1997 felt like, you would play tracks 6, 7 and 8, a run from "Karma Police" to "Electioneering" that includes the weird spoken word non-song "Fitter Happier". This claim is obviously pretty ridiculous (It might work if that's what 1997 felt like to the writer, but I even doubt that's possible. If it felt that way for him, how did he get his senses together in under a decade to write a book, let alone dress himself. Am I implying that he's crazy for thinking 1997 felt like a weird spoken-word alien voice thing? Yes, I am.), however I like the balls it takes to make such statements. And while it might just be rock critic talk, I usually love that stuff, so I'll reconfigure his hypothesis to fit my needs here by stating: "Beautiful Girls" sounds like what every teenaged boy wishes parties were like.
That was the entire appeal of Van Halen from the start. When those squeals, screeches and beats kicked in, fun was forthcoming. The feeling of fun transcends the music itself and lifts it beyond mere notes and guitar solos. A guitar soloist and weird vaudeville-style ring leader are coming to your ears, and there's no way you should miss it. This blatant happiness has become less and less cool, especially since being the best 80s metal band remains as prestigious as being great at Wii bowling. The criticism remains that this music is fluff, and while that may be true, it doesn't make it un-great. It's the best fluff around, if that's any kind of complement.
Touching back on the "harmlessness" of the song, I'm not saying that "Beautiful Girls" displays a pro-feminist stance, or that the band itself was anything but leturous. But "Beautiful Girls" is far superior to, say, "Girls Girls Girls" in the way most VH songs are better than those of their contemporaries because "Beautiful Girls" is harmless in the right ways. In a musical genre so reliant on style, the band or song with the most style takes the title of "best," but they also made music that anyone could sing, hum and get. That's not simple dumbing it down. That's relatablility. In the song, Roth is a bum in the sun, having fun and all he needs is a beautiful girl. He doesn't (specifically) need sex. He doesn't (specifically) want sex. We all apply the Van Halen legend (which is to say, the legend of rock stars in general) to assume that Roth does specifically want to have sex with this and any other (non-specifically) beautiful girls. But the omission of this specificity changes the song from just another horny trip to the beach to the longing-for-love genre we've heard from Cochran, Petty and every other artist to walk the earth. In fact, by the end of the song, Roth doesn't get the girl. He's hitting on her, but she leaves (as evidenced by his outro riffing "What's your name--hey! Where you going?"). So, in fact, through the harmlessness of their lyrics, "Beautiful Girls" becomes resoundingly feminist.
This is why Van Halen is brilliant, especially on the first couple records. They implied everything through the overall band package that they never had to actually say "let's fuck." This, in a nutshell, is cool. If we had all been so capable, high school would have been a breeze.
This cool remains so prominent in "Beautiful Girls" that you almost forget how -- for a band built around the guitar prowess of Eddie Van Halen -- there is very little front-line soloing. In fact, there are two, but neither one steals the show. They're just there to help the song as a whole. The only real solo in the "go nutzo" style we can all hear since "Eruption" comes at the end, when everyone's going nutzo. That's one of the great elements of "Beautiful Girls;" it's more than an Eddie Van Halen song. It is a Van Halen song. The Band, not the man. This distinction may illuminate the problems which tore the original group apart back in 1984. Eddie was obviously an extraordinary guitar player, and his impact among his followers is still being felt today. But people loved Vah Halen the band more than Eddie Van Halen himself. If this hadn't been true, then David Lee Roth would've had absolutely no career following his departure and Eddie should have released solo albums. The song lives outside of any mere guitar or comedy bit. This week, it lives in my lungs.
Video Note: I searched and searched for the actual album cut and didn't find one. Believe it or not, the recent reunion of DLR and Eddie doesn't skimp on the chops for "Beautiful Girls." Of course the original cut remains superior. It's full of Class-A Roth clowning at the end that you miss out on in the live cut, though you do get plenty of Lounge-Lizard Dave, which may speak more honestly to the heart of the man's charms. Furthermore, I couldn't find the original "Schlitz Gay" commercial, so I'm sorts of screwed. So if you've got a big beer taste and you're gay, do yourself a favor and drop $.99 and get the song from iTunes.