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Had to see 'em to believe 'em

MTV's birth helped many bands get their foot in the door by getting their faces in your living room.

August 08, 2004|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

The early '80s wasn't a fertile period for guitar rock. With the arrival of new-wave music and techno pop, synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines dominated pop, giving rise to a generation of bands built around keyboards.

The simultaneous rise of MTV, however, left room for the emergence of old-fashioned guitar heroes and rock stars from the classic mold as it also elevated unlikely players to the upper echelon of popularity, thanks to a new emphasis on visuals.

Van Halen

"The Best of Both Worlds" (Warner Bros.)

Pasadena wasn't exactly a hotbed of rock 'n' roll when brothers Alex and Eddie Van Halen decided to start a band in the '70s, but it quickly became one when fans got a taste of Eddie's astonishing guitar technique and singer David Lee Roth's rock-god personality.

The quartet's version of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" started its national following, and after it turned into a Top 40 single they turned to other old hits: Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" and Roy Orbison's "(Oh) Pretty Woman," trying to build on that audience.

But it wasn't until they took an "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude toward the synthesizer rock revolution that they achieved their breakthrough. Longtime fans cried "Sellout!" when the synth-laden 1984 single "Jump" arrived, with video in tow, but they were outvoted by new fans, who sent it to No. 1 for five weeks on Billboard's singles chart.

When Roth departed for a solo career, some doubting Thomases predicted a quick demise for what was left of Van Halen, but in drafting former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar in 1986, the Van Halen brothers survived, though Hagar lacked the visual and sexual magnetism that helped Roth's solo efforts win heavy rotation at MTV.

Since then, Hagar's been out and in, Roth's been back in and out, and the lead-singer post has sometimes looked like a revolving door.

As with many two-disc career retrospectives, "The Best of Both Worlds" feels as if it's stretching at several points, especially with live versions of "Ain't Talking Bout Love," "Panama" and "Jump" appearing along with the studio renditions. With 36 cuts, it'll satiate Van Halen aficionados, but others may find themselves reaching periodically for their CD player's "skip" button.

ZZ Top

"Rancho Texicano: The Very Best of ZZ Top" (Warner Bros.)

The celebrated "little old band from Texas" had established itself in the '70s as a regular presence on FM radio, charted some minor hits with "La Grange" and "Tush" and seemed destined as the '80s arrived to continue as a minor force in rock with a cult following.

Then they figured out MTV and became one of the least likely success stories of the decade, with a series of snappy singles and eye-popping videos that started with "Gimme All Your Lovin' " and continued with "Sharp Dressed Man" and "Legs."

Suddenly, belly-button-length beards were hip, and this once-crusty roadhouse band became the epitome of retro cool.

The trio's musical formula has proved surprisingly enduring: stripped-down blues-based rock built on insistent guitar riffs, propulsive rhythms and slyer-than-thou attitude.

Guitarist Billy Gibbons keeps the instrumental rewards coming with his economically expressive fret board work, and the band has shown itself willing to expand the sound often enough to stave off ennui, while cleverly inventive stage shows have further contributed to the group's longevity.

This two-disc set, boiled down from the recent "Chrome, Smoke & BBQ" four-disc boxed set, samples generously across ZZ Top's 34-year recording career, demonstrating the varied ways blues and boogie can be adapted with contemporary flair. It's still a lot of music for all but the truly committed, and a single disc could have given a more concise, and probably more powerful, look at a career that's been full of surprises and turnarounds.


"Seconds of Pleasure"

(Columbia Legacy)

Guitars blaze and hooks abound in the only album from this British foursome, whose members -- Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe, Billy Bremner and Terry Williams -- had appeared often on one another's recordings.

It's unlikely any of these guys would have become an MTV star, but by putting this out in October 1980, just before the dawn of video music, they never got the chance.

But whereas both Van Halen and ZZ Top often carve out expansive spaces for lots of guitar heroics, Welsh rocker Edmunds keeps the solos compact and in service of bristling pop singles. Edmunds is as accomplished a guitarist as they come, born and bred into the waste-not, want-not tradition of roots rock.

The songs bounce along, from spunky versions of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook's Chuck Berry-esque "Wrong Again" and Berry's own "Oh What a Thrill" to Lowe's ebulliently twangy "Play That Fast Thing (One More Time)" and the cheery, Motown-infused full-band composition "Heart."

The CD reissue includes bonus tracks, with four Everly Brothers songs that were on an EP that came with copies of the original album, as well as three live tracks that capture the energy of Rockpile's driving performances.

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