Thursday, December 4, 2014

Classic Music Video: Van Halen "Panama"

My heart is heavy today and I can't think of anything original to say about the manifest injustice in the Eric Garner case.  I'd prefer to distract myself with a perennial topic on this blog that gives me amusement: 1980s music videos.

This week The Onion put out a hilarious article entitled "CIA Admits Role in 1985 Coup to Overthrow David Lee Roth."  It works both as a parody of the CIA's chicanery and half-hearted attempts to explain it away, as well as a funny commentary on the sorry nature of Van Halen's music after Roth left.  After reading it I popped on "Panama" on my iPhone, and suddenly images from the video started jumping through my mind's eye.  Obviously it had made an impact on me.

In a lot of ways, the song and video are Van Halen's apotheosis.  It came after "Jump," their big #1 smash, but did not contain that song's synthesizered bows to the Top 40.  In "Jump" Diamond Dave showed a little vulnerability, "standing next to the record machine" not sure if he could get the girl.  On the other hand, "Panama" is just flat out rock action, with some absolutely kickin' Eddie Van Halen guitar driving the whole thing along.  If I had to choose just one song to define DLR-era Van Halen, this would be it.

The video is just one big goofy-faced victory lap.  It starts with a biplane soaring in the sky, then suddenly we see Roth flying across the stage on wires, making swimming motions with a boom box on his shoulders, like some kind of 1980s archangel.  The band jumps off of stage risers, mugs for the camera, and does high kicks in slow motion.  There are some surreal shots interspersed, like Eddie blowing smoke rings in a white tux and Alex lip syncing beneath a leg clothed with some seriously ornate 80s black nylons.  The most memorable, and most inexplicable, is Diamond Dave sliding down a pole wearing some kind of rhinestone-encrusted stripper overcoat, then proceeding to shake his butt and show off his prodigious chest hair.  Later on he waves around one of those long ribbons used by rhythmic gymnasts, something that confused my childhood notions of masculinity.  So as not to confuse the band's fans too much, there's soon a shot of Alex chugging a beer while flying on wires across the stage.  The message of the whole thing seems to be "Damn, it's fun to be in Van Halen."

The video's silly and stupid but at least Roth never took himself too seriously, the bane of so many 80s rock stars.  Under Sammy Hagar Van Halen things got so out of hand that they put out the world's most self-serious video of all time, for "Right Now" in the early 90s.  Forget that sentimental crap, give me a fey Diamond Dave doing his transcendant clown schtick behind a monstrous riff any day of the week instead.

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