How Van Halen’s ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’ Led to Rushed ‘Diver Down’
Van Halen thought they were buying themselves time and pulling a fast one on their label when they released a cover of Roy Orbison's "(Oh) Pretty Woman." Instead, they made their schedules even more hellish.
After finishing their massive Fair Warning tour in October 1981, the band members had hoped for a little R&R and a break from the rigorous album/tour cycle they’d been following for years. David Lee Roth suggested recording and releasing a single in the interim to keep the band in the public eye. Roth wanted to cover Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' '60s Motown classic "Dancing in the Street," but Eddie Van Halen shot down the idea in lieu of Orbison's chart-topping hit.
The guitarist ultimately prevailed, but in typical Van Halen fashion, even the rehearsals for a fairly straightforward cover had their share of drama. Eddie pressed Roth about whether he'd learned all the lyrics, while the singer badgered the guitarist about learning all the music. Amid their sniping, both failed to realize they'd left out part of the original song. Once they discovered the omission after recording, they decided to keep it that way.
The band was also determined to record an elaborate music video to accompany the single, much to the chagrin of producer Ted Templeman. "In some ways, it sounded to me like the video was the driving force behind their idea for a single," Templeman wrote in his 2020 autobiography Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer's Life in Music. "Obviously, promotion is critical, but in my view, it wasn't more important than the music itself. To think otherwise is to put the cart in front of the horse."
With the cart already in motion, the band members — particularly Roth and drummer Alex Van Halen — began storyboarding a video that represented the garish excess and off-color humor for which Van Halen had become known by 1982. The clip opens with a pair of dwarves tying up and fondling a woman (who later reveals themself to be a drag queen), as a hunchbacked onlooker watches in horror. The onlooker then recruits the band members, who are dressed in costume — Michael Anthony as a samurai, Alex as Tarzan, Eddie as a cowboy and Roth as Napoleon — to rescue the drag queen from the clutches of the lascivious dwarves. (MTV banned the video upon its release, though it later aired on its sister network, VH1/MTV Classic.)
Watch Van Halen's '(Oh) Pretty Woman' Music Video
The absurd "(Oh) Pretty Woman" video required more than the song's three-minute runtime to execute, so the band wrote a droning instrumental intro titled "Intruder" (featuring Roth on the Minimoog analog synthesizer) to flesh it out. Again, Templeman's disapproval was no secret.
"The sessions went well enough, but the fact that the band members prioritized the video over the songs gave me fits," he wrote. "Al and Dave were obsessed with the video being right. They wanted 'Intruder' so the video would work, so we were doing all this crazy stuff for that instrumental in the studio. I just wanted to work on the song side of things, you know? All of this meant that the whole 'Pretty Woman' video project was a big nightmare for me."
It didn't help that Templeman thought the song was ill-suited for the band. "I never wanted them to do that song. I didn't like it, even when Roy Orbison did it," he confessed. "If they wanted to redo an oldie, I could've thought of 10 better song ideas. So at the time I thought it was totally wrong for Dave as a vocalist and Van Halen as a band. It still sounds wrong for them to me, but they'd settled on it."
Van Halen released "(Oh) Pretty Woman" on Feb. 6, 1982. It became a hit, peaking at No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 — a pleasant surprise, but one with adverse effects for the band. Once Warner Bros. caught wind of the song's success, they demanded an immediate follow-up album to capitalize on the momentum, thus torpedoing Van Halen's plans to take some time off.
"When you put out a hit single, you better have an album to go behind it, because nobody — the company, the act — makes any real money on a single," Templeman wrote. "I'm sure those guys thought that by releasing a single and video, they could temporarily pause the annual album/tour cycle that they'd been on since 1977. But instead, the word came down to me from Mo [Ostin] and Lenny [Waronker] that Warner Bros. wanted a new Van Halen album within weeks. Van Halen's management agreed. So the message to the band and me was 'Okay guys, you've got a hit. Let's get moving. Go into the studio.'"
With the clock ticking, Templeman marshaled Van Halen into the studio in March 1982 to record Diver Down, released just six weeks later on April 14, 1982. The band had no time to go through its typical album-making procedure of woodshedding songs in Roth's basement and picking the winners with Templeman. Instead, they raced through the songs, patching over rough spots with easier parts and padding the LP with five covers (including "Dancing in the Street," which became another Top 40 hit).
Despite the rush job, Diver Down was another smash for Van Halen, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard 200 — their highest chart position to date — and selling 4 million copies in the U.S. "(Oh) Pretty Woman" stayed in heavy rotation in the band's set lists from 1982 through 1984, and it reared its head again during their 2007 and 2012 tours with Roth. Although Eddie would later lament the popularity of a song with no proper guitar solo, the cover was an outright victory, and its sonic experimentation presaged Van Halen's keyboard-heavy, chart-topping 1984.