Written By: Kostya Kennedy

Excerpted from LIFE’s new special issue, Van Halen: The Life. The Music. The Joy. It’s available here.

I wasn’t aware of Van Halen’s debut album when it came out in 1978, but I did become aware of it some years later at a time when the consideration of albums, and CDs, was still made with a sense of the whole. How the songs were ordered, how the experience unfolded from the opening track to the last, was one measure of the music itself. In that time it was part of a collective understanding that there had rarely, or never, been a debut album quite so audacious, cocksure, excellent, and embraceable as Van Halen. Who were these guys? The first three tracks went like this. 1) Here’s the band: “Runnin’ with The Devil.” 2) Here’s our guitar player: “Eruption.” 3) Now here’s a cover of a seminal rock song (in which, while paying all due homage, we proceed to kick the s— out of the original): “You Really Got Me.”

They never looked back.

“Runnin’ with the Devil” encapsulated Van Halen’s brashness and joie de vivre, all under a title so succinctly evocative the band’s manager later took it as the title for his book. The song has story, hoots and hollers, the big steady bass notes, and (one more time) Eddie’s joyously melodic guitar runs. “Eruption”—gorgeous, ecstatic, technically astonishing— reframed the potential of the electric guitar. The rest of the 11-song album follows suit, replete with the vocal harmonies on “Feel Your Love,” Alex’s tom-tom riff on “Jamie’s Cryin’ ” (sampled by Tone Lōc on his megahit “Wild Thing” 10 years later), and a kind of, well, call it a coupe de glace in the playful near-finale, “Ice Cream Man.” The band members couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces, and neither could we.

For rock DJs, 1978 was a fertile year: Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness at the Edge of Town and the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls came out within a week of each other in June. Billy Joel’s 52nd Street and the Police’s Outlandos D’Amour arrived in the fall. None of those records deliver the crucial feeling—how lucky we are to be alive right now—in the way that Van Halen’s lid-lifter does. The feat of yea-saying harkened to the Beats of the ’50s (Is “Runnin’ with the Devil” a three-minute, 36-second interpretation of On the Road?) while also auguring the decade of celebration ahead. February 10, 1978, when Van Halen appeared on record-store shelves, was the day, as Americans would come to find out, that the 1980s began.

The images below are excerpted from LIFE’s new special issue, Van Halen: The Life, the Music, the Joy, which is available here.

Photo by Mark “WEISSGGUY” Weiss

Eddie Van Halen displayed his virtuoso skills at a performance at London’s Rainbow Theatre in 1978.

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen (right) posed backstage at Lewisham Odeon in London in 1978.

Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns

Band members (left to right) Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth, and Michael Anthony in Osaka, 1979,

Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

David Lee Roth, Alex Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony on a joy-skate at Osaka Castle Park in Japan, 1979.

Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

Van Halen performed in Tokyo in 1979.

Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

David Lee Roth heeded his own counsel to “jump” at a 1983 performance in Devore, Calif.

Uncredited/AP/Shutterstock

The band took an encore during the tour for their album Fair Warning in Detroit, 1981.

Photo by Ross Marino/Getty Images

By 1986 David Lee Roth was out of Van Halen and the role of lead singer had been taken over by Sammy Hagar (center).

Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

More Like This

arts & entertainment

Ohio State, 1948: When Football Was a More Formal Affair

arts & entertainment

Baseball: The Greats We Lost in 2020

arts & entertainment

Rebecca: The Long Life of a Haunting Tale

arts & entertainment

Philip Pearlstein: A Life in Art, From Student to Master

arts & entertainment

LIFE Launches First European Auction

arts & entertainment

Let’s Go To A Halloween Party (In 1941!)