Mastered from the original analog tapes and housed in a mini-LP gatefold sleeve, Mobile Fidelity's numbered-edition hybrid SACD of Women and Children First explodes with dynamic energy, saturated colors, multi-dimensional textures, and vivid detail. Made with few overdubs and featuring a live-on-the-floor feel, Women and Children First can now be experienced with unparalleled transparency, clarity, balance, and, if you so choose with your volume settings, concert-like solidity, scope, and decibel levels..
Though the intense schedule Van Halen faced when it entered the studio to record Women and Children First —made for what Eddie Van Halen estimated cost under $40,000, a rather paltry sum that coupled with the group's hit-and-run recording methods to wave a giant middle finger at most of their overblown contemporaries — would have crushed most artists, the quartet thrived on it. The closeness and chemistry that resulted from nearly non-stop touring — to say nothing of going from a Southern California group beloved by the locals to a global phenomenon in a few months time — echo throughout the nine songs here. However distinct from Van Halen and Van Halen II, Women and Children First contains many similarities.
From the opening strains of the lead-off "And the Cradle Will Rock…," Van Halen's familiar embrace of adventurousness, flair, humor, and ecstasy hits you between the eyes. What's often lost amid discussions of the band's celebratory reputation is just how much it pushed the limits of rock 'n' roll and invented new vocabularies. Played by Eddie Van Halen on a Wurlitzer electric piano fed through an MXR Flanger and Marshall amplifier, the song features the first appearance of a keyboard on a Van Halen LP. Naturally, it doesn't sound traditional. Nothing about the strange passage of opening notes is usual, either. That effect comes by way of Eddie Van Halen hitting his guitar strings above the nut, producer Ted Templeman playing it backwards, and, in conjunction, EVH scraping the springs on the back of his homemade instrument. (Don't try that at home, kids.)
The inventive vibes continue on "Everybody Wants Some!!," a track that more than earns the two exclamation points in its title. Girded by Alex Van Halen's thumping tribal beats, Roth's Tarzan-inspired yodels, and Eddie Van Halen's inventive feedback and hand-rubbing the guitar strings, the spring-loaded track inhales and exhales akin to an animated skyline-destroying monster — and what's doubtlessly one of the most bizarre albeit memorable opening lyrics in history ("You can't get romantic on a subway line"). Van Halen's innovative spirit also fuels the now-famous drum-vocal interlude, which Roth and company ad-libbed on the spot. The band's warts-and-all approach that favored feeling over perfection — Roth's spoken-word segment initially gets cut off by one of Eddie Van Halen's knifing chords — again proves brilliant.
As does the remainder of a record that endures as one of the group's most varied efforts. Check out the 12-string Rickenbacker electric guitar leading off the record-closing "In a Simple Rhyme," which proceeds in a series of fits and starts and overflows with the group's trademark gang-chorus harmonies. Also of note: The uncredited 20-second vamp following the song. Referred to by Van Halen as "Tank," it was originally intended to be the seed of a new song that would start the group's next LP. Though that plan was abandoned, the instrumental sequence remains one of the countless elements that makes Women and Children First so intriguing and cool.
Ditto the acoustic bottleneck-style slide Eddie Van Halen plays on "Could This Be Magic?," a folksy jaunt that further allows Roth to showcase his front-porch-ready guitar skills (not to mention his cane-and-top-hat vaudeville persona). The breezy skiffle-meets-sea-chantey even features Nicolette Larson on backing vocals — making for another first on a Van Halen record. Open-minded to experimentation and innovation, Van Halen keeps the surprises coming for the one-two blow that is the short instrumental burst "Tora! Tora!" — part of which was recorded to tape backwards by Templeman — and "Loss of Control," an aptly titled caffeined jolt that threatens to break sound barriers as it jockeys to become the most jagged, fastest surf-rock number ever committed to tape.
Indeed, the meaning of the off-the-cuff distress signal Roth issues at the onset of "Loss of Control" – "mayday, mayday, mayday!" — could apply to the entirety of the swift, edgy, magnificently unpredictable Women and Children First. It finds the band embracing go-for-broke freedom, youthful energy, and the knowledge it still hadn't come close to peaking. It's the sound of a group that knows it's on top of the world but isn't at all satisfied with its standing. As the song says, Women and Children First presents Van Halen wanting some — and getting more.