The Atomic Punks!

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One of the big insights that I gained while writing Van Halen Rising was how out of step Van Halen, a heavy metal band, appeared to be with the broader trends in pop music in 1977. Despite the fact that Van Halen had just been signed by Warner Bros. Records, a look at the Billboard charts reveals that America loved soft rock bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles in the late 70s. Disco, too, dominated the top of the top of the charts.  (The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack sold 20 million copies worldwide in 1978 alone.) In contrast, heavy rock acts like Ted Nugent and Aerosmith now appeared as once-powerful dinosaurs destined for extinction.
Back in L.A., the local Hollywood music scene had gone punk, another sign that Van Halen’s musical style seemed anachronistic. When Van Halen played the Whisky alongside the new wave of local punk bands in the summer of 1977, it only reaffirmed that the Pasadena quartet appeared to be the last of a dying breed of “heavy metal” bands like Zeppelin and Sabbath. The future of aggressive and adrenalized music seemed to belong to punk.
While the punks sneered, Van Halen smiled. Here’s one fun little episode that shows that even when punk rock seemed destined to take over L.A., the members of Van Halen never lost their sense of humor.

One night in early June 1977, punk rock fans at the legendary Whisky a Go-Go got a surprise. A trio of punk musicians, wearing ragged clothing and gag glasses, climbed onto the stage right after another punk act had finished playing. One raced behind the drums while another strapped on a guitar. The singer, sporting fingerless gloves and a destroyed pair of saddle shoes, grabbed the mic and announced in an affected brogue that they were a brand-new band, “The Enemas,” straight from Scotland. After he screamed a few insults at those gathered around the stage, the three lashed the audience with a couple of breakneck-paced punk songs. A few minutes later, though, their power was cut and Whisky staffers chased them from the stage.

While most in the Sunset Strip crowd either cheered or stood dumbfounded at what had just transpired, Joe Berman and a few other patrons wore knowing smiles. Berman says, “I just gotten into the punk rock scene. There was a hardcore punk rock show, and I remember these guys were being really obnoxious, like hassling the waitresses and messing with people. It was Ed Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, and David Lee Roth totally undercover. They went onstage and said they were some punk band. They were just mocking the whole punk rock scene and nobody knew who they were. But I knew who they were. I knew what they were doing because I either saw them outside or in the dressing room getting all made up and just doing this. It was just a joke, and nobody even figured it out.”
This caper, however absurd, highlights the way in which the members of Van Halen had found themselves thrust into the middle of Hollywood’s burgeoning punk rock scene in the summer of 1977.  To be sure, when Van Halen played suburban spots like Pasadena and Van Nuys, they typically gigged alongside fellow L.A. hard rock bands like Stormer and Quiet Riot. But in Tinseltown, punk’s fashion, music, and cast of characters surrounded them. Punk bands opened for them. Punk fans snarled at them. Punk music blared out their radios when they tuned into DJ Rodney Bingenheimer’s show on KROQ. In effect, the Pasadena quartet had become cultural outliers on the Strip.
Even though Van Halen’s musicianship was superior, punk musicians saw little to admire in their approach. Says Weirdos drummer Nickey ‘Beat’ Alexander, “The punk and new wave groups didn’t think much of bands like Van Halen. Van Halen were like old fucking dinosaurs. The punks didn’t want nothing to do with them. They were like, ‘Van Halen? We might as well be hanging out with Aerosmith or someone like that.’”
Van Halen made it clear that the feeling was mutual. In a 1977 interview, Roth dismissed punk bands by saying “the reason people say ‘you guys sound and look like pros’ is because we don’t dress or act like punks.” Edward would declare to Guitar Player, “We’re not punk, we don’t dress weird. We play good music . . . I’m not saying that the all the things I come up with are genius brand riffs, but neither is punk. Punk’s like what I used to do in the garage.”
Clearly, there was no love lost between the two camps. So after one too many punk rockers looked down at them, the members of Van Halen decided to take the piss out of punks at the Whisky in a big way.
Duly inspired, one night Alex, Edward, and Dave decided to form their own punk group and hit the Hollywood scene in style. In a later interview, Roth recalled that 1977 was the year that punk exploded in LA, “and started coming up with the safety pins and all that sort of thing. [So] we greased our hair back and went down” to Hollywood's Sunset Strip.   
After the disguised trio departed the stage, they bulldozed past some angry Whisky staffers who’d been trying to eject them from the club. They then ducked into the men's room. Photographer Mary Garson, who shot many of their early promo pictures, watched as they posed for pictures for a clueless punk photographer while plunging a toilet. “I remember Ed, Al, and Dave camping it up,” Garson laughs.
While some onlookers, like Joe Berman, recognized the three members of Van Halen and knew it was a prank, the punk photographer thought these newcomers to the scene would be perfect subjects for an upcoming issue of a L.A. punk fanzine. He then led them to a filthy corner inside the Whisky and snapped more photos of Dave, Alex, Edward. A gleeful Roth later recalled that trio's act was so convincing that one of the photos ended up on the back cover of the fanzine.
And so here’s that shot, which appeared in the August 1977 issue of Slash. Note the plunger in EVH's hand, and that DLR's got his Acme Siren Whistle, which would be heard on their LP on 'Runnin' with the Devil,' around his neck.
When Van Halen was released a few months later, David Lee Roth would have one final thing to say to L.A.’s punk rockers: Nobody rules these streets at night but me/the Atomic Punk!
With more than ten million copies of their debut sold to date, Roth sounds like more of a prophet than Johnny Rotten ever was. 

(Thanks to Steve Herold for the photo tip!
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