30 Years Ago: Van Halen Cook Up a Hit With ‘Poundcake’
Van Halen took a year off after the tour in support of OU812 and then needed another year away to put together a follow-up album. And even though the band had gotten a bit keyboard heavy on its recent records, Van Halen's first music of the '90s found them getting back to basics, with Eddie Van Halen showing he still had some distinct six-string tricks up his sleeve on the lead single from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, “Poundcake,” which was released on June 1, 1991.
The track - which opens the album - kicks off with the guitarist using a Makita 6012HD power drill he’d picked up in the studio and discovered was in the same key as the song. He scraped the tool over his guitar strings to start “Poundcake” and then sprinkled its sound throughout the song. (The drill was later painted red, white and black to match his guitar for the subsequent tour.)
But this wasn’t another Eddie Van Halen innovation. Much like the tapping technique he popularized earlier, the drill sound that kicks off "Poundcake" wasn't the first song to include it. It wasn't even the first song in 1991 to feature the tool: "Daddy, Brother, Lover, Little Boy (The Electric Drill Song)," the opening track on Mr. Big’s Lean into It, which came out in March, included guitarist Paul Gilbert and bassist Billy Sheehan dueling one another using electric drills on their instruments.
And there was more than just a drill on "Poundcake." At the suggestion of producer Andy Johns, Eddie Van Halen embraced overdubs and even picked up a wah-wah pedal to round out the track's thickness - an element he said helped the song come together.
“I came up with a riff that didn’t really excite anyone until Andy suggested I use some electric 12-strings to flesh out the rhythm tracks,” Eddie told Guitar World. “It turned out to be just the thing the song needed. All of a sudden, the lyrics, the title and everything came into sharp focus. What you hear are two electric 12-strings doubled beneath my usual dirty guitar. It’s an odd sound. It wasn’t really planned.”
Unlike the group’s first two albums with Sammy Hagar, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was not quite a group affair; getting all four members in the studio at the same time even became a challenge. The singer's wife was having mental-health issues that required his attention, pulling him in different directions between his personal and professional lives. It got to the point where “Poundcake” almost didn’t make the final track listing because Hagar had gotten so behind schedule.
Watch Van Halen's 'Poundcake' Video
“The songwriting was drawn out, I would get behind on the lyrics, because I wouldn’t have time to focus on it,” Hagar said in a 2015 video. “When I did the vocal on ['Poundcake'], I remember in the end screaming, ‘Wow … that’s my woman, uh-huh uh-huh-huh,’ and Andy got the goose bumps. He’s looking behind the counter and he’s looking at me when I’m singing, he’s pointin’ to his arm and he’s got the furs all up. Just moments in the studio when you remember doing that to someone, it’s something that I judge everything off of; a vocal, a mix, a song – if it gives me the goose bumps, it’s done.”
“It really is kind of definitive of what the whole record is about,” drummer Alex Van Halen told MTV about the song. Hagar noted in an interview that came with the CD single that the lyrical inspiration came from an actual pound cake recipe, which requires a pound of four different ingredients. He equated the simplicity of the formula to the band. “It is sort of a love song, just kind of a twisted love song with a sense of humor, but there’s a lot of honesty involved,” Hagar later told the Album Network in a special to promote the LP. “I happen to like a ‘down home’ woman, and I do love my baby’s pound cake.”
“Poundcake” reestablished Van Halen as one of the biggest hard-rock bands of the new decade, just as they had been throughout the '80s. The song rocketed to No. 1 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock chart, and the Andy Morahan-directed video became one of the most popular on MTV in 1991. “We spent around $400,000 on that video, which had a ton of hot babes in it,” Hagar said in his memoir Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. "That was the peak of MTV and the music-video form and people spending money on them.”
In September, Van Halen opened the MTV Video Music Awards by performing “Poundcake” in their first-ever live performance on U.S. television. Show host Arsenio Hall introduced the group by enthusiastically calling them “the greatest American rock 'n' roll band ever.”
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