The Number Ones

February 25, 1984

The Number Ones: Van Halen’s “Jump”

Stayed at #1:

5 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.


Historically, hard rock has had a tough time on the Billboard Hot 100. That was true in the ’60s and ’70s, when heavy metal was just coming into existence and when its heroes almost never got anywhere near #1. Even Led Zeppelin, the biggest and best band that the genre had to offer, only made the top 10 once. (1969’s “Whole Lotta Love” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.) It was true in the ’90s, when grunge had a huge cultural impact but barely dented the Hot 100. (Nirvana, for instance, peaked at #6 with 1991’s “Smells Like A Teen Spirit,” their only top-10 hit and another 10.) It’s sure as hell true now.

Traditionally, hard rock bands sell albums and concert tickets and T-shirts, but they scare away pop-radio programmers convinced that they’ll turn off audiences and advertisers the first time a distorted guitar riff kicks in. There’s one big exception to that history: The late ’80s, when a whole wave of poodle-haired LA glam metal bands rode a glitzy MTV-backed wave — and a reaction against the British synthpoppers of the early ’80s — and briefly dominated the pop charts. Plenty of the leading lights of the Sunset Strip scene made hits, and a few of them will appear in this column. In 1984, the world got a preview of what was coming.

Before 1984 (and 1984), Van Halen were already one of the biggest bands in the world. Their 1978 self-titled debut had sold 10 million copies, and it remained required listening for every shop-class hesher in America for years. The band’s next four albums were all commercial destroyers; even 1981’s Fair Warning, considered the flop of the band’s early years, still went double platinum. Van Halen toured stadiums and provided a template for hundreds of bands who tried to master the same combination of outrageous theatricality and finger-tapping technical pyro.

But Van Halen had never been a presence on the pop charts. They got rock-radio play, of course, and they were shameless enough to cover old hits whenever possible. (Their highest-charting single before 1984, a 1982 cover of Roy Orbison’s 1964 chart-topper “Oh, Pretty Woman” had peaked at #12.) It turned out that Van Halen only really needed to do one thing to cross over on the pop charts. They needed to discover the synth. With “Jump,” that’s what they did.

Eddie Van Halen had wanted to play keyboards for years. He’d been both a classically trained pianist and a drummer before picking up the guitar in his teenage years, and he’d seen where popular music was moving. When Eddie played the guitar solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” one of the biggest hits of 1983, he got a firsthand look at how the combination of rock riffage and high-’80s studio-craft could smash through everything around it. But Van Halen singer David Lee Roth and regular producer Ted Templeman weren’t into the idea of those keyboards, and they kept shooting down Eddie’s ideas. Eddie wrote the “Jump” keyboard riff as early as 1981, but he had to build his own studio before he could convince Roth to write some lyrics and sing over it.

In 1984, Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth had been bandmates for more than a decade. Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex, both born in the Netherlands, had moved to Pasadena, California as kids. They started playing music together in the ’60s; originally, Eddie was the drummer and Alex the guitarist. They’d formed a band called Genesis in 1972, recruiting David Lee Roth as their singer because they didn’t want to keep paying him to rent a sound system. Upon learning that there was another band called Genesis — one that will eventually appear in this column — they changed their name, first to Mammoth and then to Van Halen.

For years, Van Halen built up a huge reputation as a nightclub band in Southern California — first in Pasadena and then, eventually, on the Sunset Strip. They’d pass out flyers at high schools, a strategy that worked beautifully even though it’d probably get them arrested today. After seeing one of Van Halen’s club shows, Gene Simmons from Kiss produced a demo for them. (Kiss’ highest-charting single, 1976’s “Beth,” peaked at #7. It’s a 4.) Warner Bros. finally signed Van Halen in 1978, and the band became huge almost immediatley.

Musically, those early Van Halen records aren’t the heaviest things in the world. They aren’t that distant from what studio-rock bands of the era like Journey and Foreigner were doing. But you could never confuse Van Halen with any of those bands; Van Halen had way too much personality. Eddie Van Halen’s high-pitched acrobatic shredding was a whole new thing, an attention-grabbing display that went out of the realm of raw power and became its own kind of peacocking display. And while David Lee Roth was never a good singer in any conventional way, he became one of the all-time great frontmen in rock history through sheer absurd swagger. Roth was basically a Tex Avery cartoon wolf in human form, and he yelped and panted and catcalled where more pedestrian singers would’ve been content to just sing.

Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth couldn’t stand each other, of course. They had different ideas of what Van Halen should be doing. Eddie wanted to do serious, ambitious musicianly things. Roth wanted to make things as colorful and outrageous as possible. The Van Halen songs that have aged the best are the ones where Roth went into full schtick overload: “Hey hey hey! One break! Cooooomin’ up!” But Eddie had enough commercial instincts to understand how a Van Halen song with a big keyboard riff might work, and Roth had to be talked into it.

Eddie finally recorded “Jump” as a demo at his own studio with synth-suspicious producer Ted Templeman, and Templeman convinced Roth to give the song a shot. Roth loves to tell the story of writing the “Jump” lyrics while riding around in the back of a 1951 Mercury while roadie Larry Hostler drove. Roth would blast the instrumentals, getting Hostler’s opinions on the songs while they were in progress, and that would shape the songs.

Roth also likes to say that the “Jump” lyrics were inspired by a news report of a suicidal man standing on the roof of Arco Tower in Los Angeles, deciding whether or not to leap. Roth’s idea was that there would always be someone in the crowd below yelling for the guy to jump. That story is way darker than the song itself, which is really just Roth trying to get some girl to get over her inhibitions and come home with him: “You say you don’t know/ You won’t know until you begin.” If Larry Hostler is the guy who convinced Roth to turn “Jump” into a pickup-line song, then I hope Van Halen paid Hostler well.

Roth has also said that “Jump” was inspired by taking kickboxing classes from the martial arts master Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. Roth, you may have noticed, likes to talk. I don’t believe the Uriquidez story for a second, but it’s still my favorite story about the creation of “Jump” — mostly because it gives me a chance to post the Jackie Chan/Uriquidez fight from 1984’s Wheels On Meals, one of the best one-on-one fight scenes in the history of marital arts cinema. This motherfucker blows out candles with kick speed.

Roth may not have wanted to record “Jump,” but he still gets into it, putting a big and sloppy exclamation point at the end of every phrase: “I get up! And nothing gets meeee down!” Roth pouts and preens and struts to perfection. Because of that big, silly keyboard riff, he never has to carry the melody — which is good, since he really can’t. That keyboard really is the sort of big, goofy, irrepressible cheese that marks so much of the best ’80s pop. I understand why Roth didn’t think a song like this made sense for Van Halen, but I’m glad he made it anyway. Near the end of the song, when Eddie Van Halen is trading off guitar and keyboard solos, “Jump” attains a sort of ridiculous majesty, but it never stops working as a pop song.

As with so many of the hits from this era, the “Jump” video is all tied up with the song, to the point where it’s hard to think of the song without the video. But while so many of the era’s hits have story-driven high-concept videos — or surreal cocaine-freakout fever-dream videos — the “Jump” clip is literally just Van Halen playing in a dark room. It never gets boring, which says a lot about how fun and appealing this band could be. David Lee Roth looks almost impossibly good, and he knows it. Everyone in the band seems to have fun being around each other. They all seem to radiate confidence from their pores. They’re a powerful unit — or, at least, that’s what they appear to be.

After a year, that version of Van Halen would be done. “Jump” was the first single from the band’s album 1984, which went on to sell 10 million copies. Their next three singles weren’t top-10 hits, but they all became rock-radio staples. (“I’ll Wait” and “Panama” both peaked at #13. “Hot For Teacher,” somewhat incredibly, only made it up to #56.) But David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen were so sick of each other that Roth finally left the band in 1985, going solo right away.

Roth’s biggest hit single was also his first: His 1985 cover of the Beach Boys’ 1965 song “California Girls,” which peaked at #3. (Roth’s version of “California Girls” is a 4. The Beach Boys’ original “California Girls,” by coincidence, also peaked at #3. That one is a 6.) After that, Roth only made the top 10 once more. (1988’s “Just Like Paradise” peaked at #6. It’s a 5.)

Van Halen, meanwhile, recruited the solo artist and former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar as their new frontman. (As a solo artist, Hagar’s highest-charting single was 1983’s “Your Love Is Driving Me Crazy,” which peaked at #13.) Just like solo David Lee Roth, the Sammy Hagar version of Van Halen got to #3 with their first single, 1986’s “Why Can’t This Be Love.” (It’s a 6.) And just like solo Roth, the Hagar version of Van Halen only made one more top-10 hit. (1988’s “When It’s Love” peaked at #5. It’s a 5.)

Van Halen went on to a pretty successful run without Roth, but it wasn’t the same. In 1996, Hagar left the band, and Van Halen made a disastrously shitty album with the former Extreme singer Gary Cherone. (Extreme will eventually appear in this column.) Since then, Van Halen have reunited with both Hagar and Roth, and they’ve made one final album, 2012’s better-than-anyone-expected A Different Kind Of Truth, with Roth — though without bassist Michael Anthony. (Instead, they brought in Eddie Van Halen’s teenage son Wolfgang.) These days, it looks like Van Halen are broken up again.

So Van Halen won’t show up in this column again, but their aesthetic descendants sure will.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the smooth new wave “Jump” cover that Aztec Camera released in 1984:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the wistful indie-pop “Jump” cover that Mary Lou Lord released in 1997:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s DJ Felli Fel sampling “Jump” on the 2010 Fat Man Scoop/Lil Jon/Three 6 Mafia collab “I Wanna Get Drunk”:

(DJ Felli Fel’s highest-charting single is the 2007 Diddy/Akon/Ludacris/Lil Jon collab “Get Buck In Here,” which peaked at #41. Fat Man Scoop doesn’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artist, but he appeared on Missy Elliott’s 2005 track “Lose Control,” which peaked at #3. It’s a 9. Lil Jon’s highest-charting single as lead artist — or as lead artist with the East Side Boyz, anyway — is 2003’s “Get Low,” which peaked at #2. It’s a 10. As a guest and a producer, Lil Jon will eventually appear in this column. Three 6 Mafia’s highest-charting single, 2005’s “Stay Fly,” peaked at #13. As a guest, Three 6 Mafia member Juicy J will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bruce Springsteen, at a 2014 live show, covering “Jump” — with Tom Morello doing the shredding — and making it sound a whole hell of a lot like a Bruce Springsteen song:

(Bruce Springsteen’s highest-charting single, 1984’s “Dancing In The Dark,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Dutch EDM DJ Armin Van Buuren debuting his “Jump” remix at the 2019 Ultra Music Festival, while David Lee Roth plays hypeman:

(Armin Van Buuren’s highest-charting single, 2013’s “This Is What It Feels Like,” peaked at #96.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Nena’s apocalyptic German-language synthpop banger “99 Luftballons” peaked at #2 behind “Jump.” It’s a 9.

Cyndi Lauper’s cartoonish sunshine-ray “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” also peaked at #2 behind “Jump.” It’s an 8.

Finally, Rockwell’s synth-funk freakout “Somebody’s Watching Me” peaked at #2 behind “Jump.” It’s another 8.

THE 10S: Shannon’s giddy, sinuous Latin freestyle electro-pop anthem “Let The Music Play” peaked at #8 behind “Jump.” It’s magic from the very start, and it’s a 10.

(Revisit our look back at Van Halen’s worst album, III, twenty years after it was released, and check out our recent interview with Patty Smith where she talks about turning down an offer to front Van Halen.)

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