Why Van Halen’s ‘Runnin’ With the Devil’ Was a Game Changer
“Runnin’ With the Devil” simultaneously altered the trajectory of rock and announced Van Halen’s arrival.
A cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” served as their debut, of course, but this was Van Halen’s first original single. “Runnin’ With the Devil” proved the band's own material was ready to disrupt the hierarchy of popular music.
Van Halen had spent years making a name for themselves in the Los Angeles music scene before sessions began for their self-titled first album in the summer of 1977. That meant they were musically airtight, despite being green with regards to recording.
“They’d barely had any studio experience,” engineer Donn Landee confirmed in 2013. “It was obvious that in time that they would become proficient at making records but at that point, we really wanted to get them before they really knew what they were doing – just have them come in and play and then get them out.”
Producer Ted Templeman’s approach helped capture this electric live energy on tape. “We treated the entire first album almost like it was a demo,” Landee added. “They cut 28 songs in about two hours. That’s when we knew we had a band that could play.”
Listen to Van Halen's 'Runnin' With the Devil'
They'd made an earlier pass on this long-circulating original with Gene Simmons in 1976, sharpening lyrics that had been inspired by the similarly named 1974 song “Runnin’ From the Devil” by the Ohio Players. The final version found Van Halen linking their own cars together with batteries in order to get the horn effect that opens the track.
The rest of the song was just as attention grabbing – so much so that Templeman insisted that “Runnin’ With the Devil” was placed first in the track listing for Van Halen.
Released as a single on May 6, 1978, “Runnin’ With the Devil” peaked at only No. 84 on the Billboard Hot 100, paling in comparison to the band’s future chart hits. But its impact was never in doubt: The disco hit "Night Fever" by the Bee Gees was the No. 1 song in America when “Runnin’ With the Devil” arrived. Van Halen – and this stomping single – would help usher in an '80s-era transition to giant guitars and bombastic sounds.
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