Thanks to a recent post by Open Culture, I recently listened to the electric guitar part to Van Halen’s 1984 hit, “Panama.” Just to be clear, it’s a recording not of the song with the full band of guitar, bass, drums, and vocals. Just Eddie Van Halen’s guitar in complete isolation, up close and personal.
It’s a virtuosic performance. The groove is relentless and forward-moving, the timbre is weighty with its wonderful distortion, there are nice bits of harmonic work, a brief solo (in this case, a solo within a solo), and a surprising amount of dynamic contrast. The other thing I noticed is how efficient “Panama” is as a pop-metal concoction. It says its thing, sets off some fireworks, and then it’s over.
When I was a kid I must have heard this song hundreds of times as ambient sound. Whether it was on the radio or on TV, this music, this celebration of bombast just seemed to be omnipresent for a time. I wasn’t even a fan of the band, but that didn’t stop the music from finding me. And so as I recently listened to this guitar-only version, I was surprised at how many little details–the quality of the distortion, those harmonics–I was already familiar with, as if they were traces that had been lodged deep in my memory of half-listening to the song all those years ago.
If you are interested in learning more about Van Halen’s cultural and historical moment, a super fine account is John Scanlan’s Van Halen: Exuberant California, Zen Rock ‘n’ Roll (Reaktion Books, 2012). A very fine cultural history of the electric guitar is Steve Waksman’s Instruments Of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Harvard U. Press, 2001) And a probing discussion of the connection between the disorted, overdriven sound of heavy metal and the construction of power can be found in Robert Walser’s classic study, Running With The Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness In Heavy Metal Music (Wesleyan U. Press, 1993).