Van Halen was on the very edge of super-stardom in the late ‘70s. They had their second album out, they were opening for Ozzy, but not everything was undisturbed.

Illustration for article titled How The Long Beach F1 GP Pissed Off Eddie Van Halen

Everyone was copying his guitar playing style, even his guitar itself (he stopped endorsing Charvel altogether as they were issuing “Eddie Van Halen” guitars with his famous (then) black&white colour-scheme, and a festival wasn’t about to turn out just as he expected. The Long Beach race was drawing too much attention away from their gig. Or so he told to a friend as he was spaying the beloved “Frankenstrat” axe to the now-familiar red colour:

Legend has it that Eddie Van Halen painted his Frankenstrat guitar (also known as The Frankenstein) with the iconic red/black/white color scheme sometime in early 1979. We’ve just figured out that it was almost certainly the last week of March when he painted it. That makes it 35 years ago this week that the famous guitarist transformed his white guitar (with black stripes) into its even more recognized red/white/black colors. Here’s the inside scoop from an old friend…

In digging through interviews that we conducted years ago, we rediscovered an interview with Wally “Cartoon” Olney, a childhood friend of the Van Halens. This guy is legit, and he gives the only recollection we’ve ever heard about when Eddie painted his most iconic guitar red. Here’s what he said in our interview, conducted in 1997:

“I just thought of another interesting tidbit. Van Halen was going to play the Los Angeles Coliseum for an event called the World Music Festival. It was a two-day event, and on the first day there was a shitload of bands. Aerosmith with the headliner, but Van Halen had just begun to become a headliner. Their second album was out by now. They were successful on their first tour [the year before], opening for Sabbath, but were still an opening band at that time. But [in 1979] they were just becoming a major arena-size band. A few days before the gig, I stopped by Ed and Al’s house on an overcast, rainy day. I pulled in the driveway and Ed was in the backyard with his dog, Monty, painting his guitar. It was the black-and-white striped one he used to play. He was painting it red because he was pissed how everyone was copying his guitar.

“He had a real thing about people copying him. I actually helped him paint that guitar. In the midst of our conversation, Ed mentioned that ticket sales for the important show at the Coliseum were very, very slow. As it turned out, it was also the same year as the first Long Beach Grand Prix. Everyone was going to the race.

“The band was really starting to see some success. The money was starting to roll in and Ed was always working very hard. But that day he was so mad, it was like, ‘Fuck this band, fuck this rock concert stuff! Nobody is coming to our show! They’d rather go to a fucking car race!’ His vibe was very strange, like, ‘Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me. I’m painting my fucking guitar because everyone’s copying it. I’m going to be different.’ Basically, he was really down that day about the race affecting the ticket sales for such an important gig, and was frustrated that so many people were copying his white and black guitar.”

The L.A. Coliseum show that Olney mentioned took place on April 8. He recalls that Ed painted the guitar “a few days” before the gig. We have a photo here, from Logan , Utah, taken March 31st, 1979, which shows Ed playing the red guitar after it was painted. Olney also says that on the day Ed painted the guitar, the second album [released March 23rd] had been out by that time. Assuming his memory is correct, Eddie would’ve transformed the guitar into it’s iconic red/white/black paint job during the last week of March, 1979.


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