Van Halen - “Dirty Movies”
“You’ll meet them all again on their long journey to the middle”
- Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs in Almost Famous
Van Halen’s fourth album, Fair Warning, was where they took the dark directions suggested by Van Halen II’s “D.O.A.” and Women and Children First’s “And The Cradle Will Rock…” - two songs where youth are tossed from their homes by parents - and stretched them out over an entire album. As somebody once wrote in a parallel universe story embraced by Matt Groening: The lyrics were about Relationships On The Rocks or America In Decline. In a country where the haves were rapidly separating themselves from the have-nots, Van Halen looked at it all from the street. The opening track, “Mean Streets” riffs on Martin Scorsese and urban decay. It’s dense, dark hard rock played off brilliantly vs. those trademark Van Halen harmonies.
But the next track, “Dirty Movies”, takes a big step in solidifying Fair Warning as arguably Van Halen’s best album. Its dry funk beat and Edward Van Halen’s cat-calling guitar lead up into another riffing monster track. With vocals and lyrics from David Lee Roth - always underrated as a wordsmith - “who’s that babe with the fabulous shadow?” and “her movies get down like you don’t see in my hometown” (the narrator, like Roth, isn’t originally from Los Angeles) - the song tells of a good girl who turns to a porn career and the hammer drops with a spoken Roth-as-tale-teller aside: “You remember when that girl was prom queen? Oh wow…”* So the girl in the dirty movie is FROM THE NARRATOR’S HOMETOWN**. He later tells us: “Now they believe it, now that they’ve seen it”, which explains why there was cheering and yells of “Take it off! Take it all off!”: The narrator had his hometown buddies over to see the prom queen get naked. And since this was 1981, we are left to wonder … was the flick on film or on videotape?
The rest of Fair Warning rarely gets brighter, but damn is it incredible. Twenty-five years later, Edward scored a soundtrack for a porn movie.
*The Roth asides were always a favorite in those Van Halen records. Couldn’t sing or play guitar worth a damn? You could always recreate parts of VH songs by walking around saying “I lost a lot of friends there baby, I got no time to mess around” or “I’ve always liked those kind of high heels” or “Hey man that suit is you!”.
** Which makes “Dirty Movies” an early entry in the eighties rock ‘n’ roll subject of Hometown Girl Gone Bad, followed shortly by the J. Geils Band’s “Centerfold” and later in the decade with Poison’s “Fallen Angel.” Um yeah … welcome to the jungle.