Van Halen was huge when Fair Warning dropped in 1981. Huge. There wasn’t a Pee-Chee folder anywhere in America that didn’t sport a crude ballpoint or pencil version of the winged “VH” logo, not to mention countless similarly adorned study hall desks.
And it’s no wonder. In each of the three previous calendar years the band released a certified classic, albums so good that they remain in many fans’ power rotations forty years later. But back in ’81, Fair Warning caught those same (but much younger) fans off guard. Where was the Guy In Black T-Shirts Who Jam certified rock god album cover? No winged logo, no shirtless Diamond Dave nor wailing Edward, just a few snippets from The Maze, a surreal painting by Canadian painter William Kurelek. That was highbrow stuff for a bunch of mulletheads.
Never mind the cover–how could a band featuring the guitar god release an album featuring (gasp) keyboards? “Sunday Afternoon In the Park” was everything that Van Halen records were not:
That was an anomaly, though. Fans who bought the album–and there were two million of them–were treated to instant Van Halen classics like “Mean Street” and the legendary “Unchained:”
Come on, that’s the mighty VH at their superpowers! It doesn’t get any better than that.
While Fair Warning didn’t sell as well as its predecessors, in retrospect it was the last of the original band’s essential albums. While neither are bad, their next two records, Diver Down and 1984, skewed more into commercial territory. It’s also that lineup’s most adventurous record, which over time has made it the favorite of many fans.
There are literally millions of copies of this album floating around. That plus the mistaken perception that its a weak spot in the Van Halen discography are good news for you: You should be able to find your own copy for 5-10 bucks. Happy hunting.