There are few bands in rock history that can top Van Halen in terms of creating both worldwide success and headline-making drama. The group sold more than 80 million albums and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — despite in-fighting that caused them to alternate between lead singers David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar for decades.
But before achieving all that acclaim and attention, Van Halen got their start playing parties in Pasadena at which up to 1,000 people would pack into backyards and spill out into the streets. Journalist Greg Renoff recounts those wild nights and the six-year journey through seemingly every dive bar in Los Angeles County en route to their 1978 self-titled debut album, in his book, “Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal.”
Renoff will be discussing that history, along with showing rare photos of the band’s Pasadena days, when he presents “Van Halen’s Beginnings in Our Backyard” Saturday at Pasadena City College. Part of PCC’s ongoing “Hometown Legends” series, the venue is perfectly suited for the topic, as the band’s namesake members — guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex — met singer Roth and bassist Michael Anthony while all four were students there.
“The guys all went to PCC, and though they didn’t graduate from there, they all took music classes and have commented on how it benefitted them,” says Renoff. “But what I want to emphasize is the fact that they came out of the backyards of this suburban environment that doesn’t seem like a place where a rock band would come out of.”
Renoff, 47, counted Van Halen as his favorite band while growing up in New Jersey. After hearing about one of their first gigs, as the backing band for a wet T-shirt contest at the long-defunct Van Nuys club Rock Corporation that was broken up by a vice squad raid, he tracked down club owner Jeff Simons on Facebook in the hopes of writing a magazine article about their early days.
“The club was the first place to bring wet T-shirt contests into a bar as an attraction, which led to a legal case about whether that was obscene,” says Renoff. “The judge ruled that because the women kept their shirts on, it wasn’t, but I thought the fact that there was a full bust with police clearing the place out with bullhorns while Van Halen was onstage playing, would be a fun story to write.”
Soon he found himself “going down the rabbit hole of their history,” and decided that writing the story of the band’s rise amid a combination of hard work and debauchery created an amusing sideline to his academic career. While Roth and the Van Halen brothers declined to be interviewed, Michael Anthony agreed to help and through the magic of Facebook, Renoff kept meeting others — from Pasadena fans to record-industry figures — who played key roles in the band’s ascent.
Eventually, Renoff realized he was collecting enough stories to merit a full book on the band rather than just an article. Since Eddie and Alex had succeeded after moving to the United States from the Netherlands as young children who didn’t speak English, he regarded their story to be an indelible example of the American Dream.
“They worked really hard and played five to six nights a week, not focusing on anything else but trying to make the band succeed,” explains Renoff. “They’d play a place and have 10 people there the first time, but they were just better than anyone else and they grew to pack every club. The combo of Eddie’s unbelievable guitar playing that would revolutionize the rock world in a few years, and Roth having tremendous drive and energy to overcome his initial vocal limitations, really made it work together.”
Renoff eventually flew to Pasadena from his home base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to meet many of those early supporters and pore through the archives of the “Courier,” the PCC newspaper. He found early ads promoting the band’s shows at the legendary Sunset Strip club Gazzarri’s, finding that support both noteworthy and humorous because its owner, Bill Gazzarri, had a reputation as “a notorious tightwad.”
“One of the most surprising things I learned about as a fan who grew up reading music magazines like Hit Parader and Rolling Stone about the early days of Van Halen and all their backyard parties was that it was hard to tell what was exaggerated and what was actually true,” says Renoff. “But I talked to the families who hosted the parties, talked to people who went to the parties and read the police blotter reports.
“I realized that the stories of 1,000 kids jamming in like a mini-Woodstock really happened, and it was crazy to learn the band would print up hundreds of flyers and go to Van Nuys and Norwalk to stuff them in lockers and charge a dollar at the door,” he continues. “Police would have to disperse crowds with bullhorns. To see that the band ruled the rock world a few years after blowing the roof off house parties was a testament to their being the real deal.”
Greg Renoff presents “Van Halen’s Beginnings in Our Backyard” from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Westerbeck Hall Center for the Arts at Pasadena City College, 1570 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Admission is free and light refreshments will be served. RSVP is recommended by calling (626) 585-7039 or write firstname.lastname@example.org.