Earlier this year, The Rock Universe whisked me away to a mysterious time and place to witness a battle of the bands of unparalleled greatness. I documented the experience, and now I'm sharing the battles here on the blog. Today we've got the US finals: Van Halen vs. The Ramones. Here's how it went.
Last week's battle was a lot closer than I thought it would be. The Who made a pretty good case that they were indeed better than the #4 seed they were given, but ultimately Led Zeppelin was just a step above.
This week, however, I really wasn't sure who might win. Both bands impressed in the first round, and the only thing that I wondered about was whether the Ramones would have the necessary energy for another battle after their overtime match against KISS in the first round.
I didn't have to wait long.
Before the house lights went off—before we'd even all gotten to our seats—Joey, Johnny, Marky, and Dee Dee walked out on stage. A low cheer from the floor section gradually expanded to the upper levels as more and more of us realized what was happening. The sound of thousands of people running through the aisles to find their seats filled the arena. Just moments after Marky sat at his drum kit and Dee Dee and Johnny hooked up their guitars, Dee Dee was yelling out ONE TWO THREE FOUR! and the Ramones were off and running with "Commando".
Remarkably, after expending so much energy during the first round, they came out even harder this time.
The Van Halen brothers, David Lee Roth, and Michael Anthony certainly heard what was going on from backstage. Toward the end of "Commando" I took a quick moment to look across at Van Halen's stage. It was still dark, but all four band members could be seen taking their places.
The Ramones finished up their quick-strike song and their stage lights went out to rowdy cheers. And then from the darkness of Van Halen's stage came an ebullient shout from David Lee Roth. He asked us all to start clapping to a certain tempo. Everyone got into it, and before long we heard the unmistakable synthesizer introduction to "Jump", played exactly to the tempo of our clapping hands.
The stage lights came on, and there was Eddie Van Halen at the keys. The crowd went wild. Once the drums and bass joined in and Roth took a huge leap off the stage, the crowd went even more wild.
Eddie's keyboard solo, Roth's vocals and acrobatics, and the crowd yelling out "Jump!" whenever prompted made for a great time. But it was an interesting choice by the band, coming out with such a fun, upbeat song after the Ramones had hammered down so hard with "Commando". I wondered if they were underestimating the Ramones, or if they were just focusing on their own game plan and not worrying about their opponent. Either way, the song ended with a big drum finish and one more acrobatic leap from Roth, followed by a long-lasting cheer of appreciation from the crowd.
The Ramones came right back with "Havana Affair", the fierce pace charging up the crowd with pure rock and roll energy. The point wasn't lost on Van Halen, who decided to pour out a little energy of their own with their second song of the match, "Panama".
The excitement this song generated was undeniable, and the crowd, which might have been leaning toward the Ramones at that point, was clearly reminded of what Van Halen was capable of.
And surprisingly, the band didn't give the Ramones a chance to start their third song, instead jumping right into "Hot For Teacher". Alex Van Halen's drum introduction revved the crowd up even more, and when we reached Eddie's guitar solo, young women began screaming all around the arena.
The Ramones could only watch and weather the storm. They knew a guitar solo like that was untouchable. And as the song continued, it started to feel like Van Halen was running away with this one. And what happened next kept them running.
While Van Halen played, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky had convened around Marky's drum kit to discuss their next song, and as "Hot for Teacher" finally came to a close, they took their places on stage and readied themselves. But Van Halen beat them to the punch yet again. David Lee Roth addressed the crowd.
"Okay, I think we've done enough here."
There was an odd mix of cheers and jeers from the crowd. Roth continued right along.
"But before we say goodnight, I want to bring you all to a place I really love."
A familiar, lighthearted keyboard melody filled the arena as Roth continued.
"It's right on the coast. The West Coast. And oh my lord are there some pretty girls there..."
We knew what was coming now. Roth finished his delivery.
The crowd let out a collection of whistles and applause as Van Halen rolled into the first verse. With the song choice, Van Halen had made a statement. This battle was all wrapped up. No need to amaze the audience with any more skills from the virtuoso Eddie Van Halen, or any more pounding drums and bass of Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. Roth would just finish this battle out with a few more skips, jumps, and roundhouse kicks across the stage, and his band would be off to the next round.
But the Ramones had other ideas.
As "California Girls" wound down and the crowd cheered with good feeling and warmth, Johnny and Dee Dee turned up their dials, and the entire band blasted out an extra-fast and loud version of "I Don't Wanna Walk around with You".
The comeback was just as harsh and stunning as it was deliberate. As he sang out the lyrics, Joey Ramone pointed across to all the women who'd been fawning over Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth.
I don't wanna go out with you.
I don't wanna walk around with you.
I don't wanna walk around with you.
So why you wanna walk around with me?
The crowd loved the rebellious statement. After all that singing and dancing on the other stage about being hot for a teacher and loving girls all over the world, the Ramones had woken us all right up:
Do you think that rock is all about glamour and spandex costumes and hair and lust for women? Think again.
The song was less than two minutes long, but it was enough to make us all well aware of how hard the band rocked. And they still had one more song to go. While the guitars finished "I Don't Wanna Walk around with You", Marky continued with quick quarter notes on his bass drum pedal, and the band went right into "Pinhead".
Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us
Gabba gabba we accept you we accept you one of us
It was another statement toward their faithful fans. And it worked. Even some Van Halen fans, the rockin' guys who lived for Eddie's guitar solos on songs like "Hot for Teacher", appreciated the statement made by the Ramones and headed over to their stage. Some of the women who were swooning for Eddie and "Diamond Dave" were compelled to get closer to the Ramones' stage, too, wanting to know more about what these bad boys in jeans and leather jackets were all about.
It was a phenomenal result. Here were the Ramones—no vocal harmonies, no complex melodies, no guitar solos of any kind to be heard—and they were stealing away Van Halen's thunder.
Roth didn't seem to be fazed by any of this, trotting offstage with a woman on each arm. The rest of the band stuck around to watch the Ramones finish up their final song in front of the majority of the fans in the floor section.
And those fans were energized. We'd also all noticed that a victor hadn't yet been chosen. Joey picked up on it, and made an announcement to the crowd:
"Hey, we haven't played enough yet, and you look like you haven't had enough."
The crowd roared, and then quieted down. Joey continued.
"We know each band has played four songs, but while the decision is being made we're going to keep playing."
A cheer of appreciation went up again, and the Ramones started in with one song after another, maintaining the same energy the whole way through.
As they played, I wondered if it was a mistake for Van Halen to play three songs in a row like that. As effective as it was at the time, it also meant the Ramones had their final two songs to make a statement and pull the audience back without any worry about a counterpunch from Van Halen. And now, even though it didn't count toward the final decision, the Ramones were still out there playing. Earning new fans.
Soon enough the house lights turned on and shook me from my pensive state. The Ramones finished up their extra set and waited. The Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony waited. (Roth must have still been backstage.)
The Rock Universe was ready to announce its decision.
It stated that the fun, '80s Van Halen sound, Eddie's finger tapping, and David Lee Roth's audience engagement and acrobatics placed the band in a class all its own. But it just wasn't enough to cut it against the rebellious punk spirit and pure, endless rock and roll energy of The Ramones.
Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Marky would move on to the tournament finals.
Here are the set lists:
Hot For Teacher