40 Years Ago: How Van Halen’s ‘Unchained’ Used Two Secret Weapons
"Unchained" has many of the elements that make Van Halen songs memorable: ear-grabbing riff, killer guitar solo, fist-pumping energy, rich vocal harmonies. The song's secret weapon, however, comes during its breakdown, with a flippant, tongue-in-cheek exchange between singer David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman.
The song, which was recorded during the spring of 1981 and released as a single on July 22 that year is one of the most straightforward tracks from Van Halen's boundary-pushing fourth album, Fair Warning. The attack pulls back about mid-song, with Roth telling Templeman "That suit is you!" with the producer firing back, "Come on, Dave, gimme a break!"
Templeman, who produced seven Van Halen albums, as well as solo releases by Roth and his replacement, Sammy Hagar, wrote in his memoir, Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer's Life in Music, that he really was wearing "a nice suit" in the studio that day because he was attending "an important meeting" after the session. "In the control room, Dave and I tossed ideas around for the post-solo breakdown," Templeman recalled. "During that conversation, Dave started busing my balls about how sharp I looked in my suit."
Roth's line, according to Templeman, came from the Coasters' 1960 single "Shoppin' for Clothes," although he recalled that Roth "blew his line" the first time through.
"We had a back-and-forth through the talkback as we prepared to recut the part," Templeman remembers. "Then one of the guys, maybe Alex [Van Halen] or Dave, suggested we add an exchange, one between Dave and me to the song. After we recorded it, we all busted out laughing when we heard the playback.
"Those tongue-in-cheek lyrics —coupled with that monolithic guitar riff — makes 'Unchained' the best example of what I mean when I say that Van Halen was a heavy metal band with a sense of humor."
Watch Van Halen' 'Unchained' Video
"Unchained" also showcases one of the most prominent uses of the MXR M-117 flanger pedal, whose swirling sonic effects helped to define Eddie Van Halen's guitar sound. (The company created an EVH Signature Series, with models introduced during 2004 and 2007 — including an EVH117 flanger pedal that replicated the sounds captured on Van Halen's records.) He told Guitar World in 2015 that the flanger effect on "Unchained" was "totally by accident."
"For some reason I just thought that the flanger sounded good there," Eddie Van Halen said. "The way it goes from the sweep up to the sweep down wasn't planned. My normal setting just happened to fit the tempo of the song. I kicked it in and out, and when I heard the way the flanger swept up and then down, I thought it sounded cool. Nothing I've ever done is really all that thought out. I'd just wing stuff, and if it sounded cool I would do it again."
Though the "Unchained" single did not chart, it became a rock-radio fixture for Van Halen during the Fair Warning campaign. The band also made a live performance video for "Unchained," directed by Bruce Gowers. "Unchained" is a particular favorite of Eddie Van Halen's son Wolfgang — who proclaimed it "pretty fucking awesome" during an interview with Songfacts — and it appears on both Van Halen compilations, 1996's Best of - Volume I and 2004's The Best of Both Worlds.