Why Van Halen Was Never The Same After Covering You Really Got Me

When Eddie Van Halen passed away in 2020 he left behind a guitar-god legacy of virtuosic shredding that has influenced innumerable guitarists since. His unique style of finger-tapping transformed the guitar into something closer to a piano played by two fretboard hands, as demonstrated in this longform YouTube interview which also shows that Eddie could be a pretty chill and humble guy. Of course, this approach to the guitar makes sense for him, because he and his brother Alex, the drummer in Van Halen, grew up as classically trained pianists, per Insider.

It's interesting, then, that the song that launched Van Halen into the public eye was such a simple, power-chorded track as "You Really Got Me," released in 1978. The opening chords are instantly recognizable. The song's danceable, grooveable, and yet, between its very catchy loops, Eddie stuffed all the empty spaces with his trademark fills and solos. Thus, the public could more easily segue to complex brain-bending, pure Van Halen tap-a-thons like the opening for "Eruption."  

And we say "pure Van Halen," because "You Really Got Me" is not a Van Halen original. It's one of those covers that may have inadvertently outshone its predecessor, like Nirvana's cover of David Bowie's "The Man Who Sold the World," or Johnny Cash's cover of Nine Inch Nail's "Hurt." The writers of "You Really Got Me," the Kinks, are among the unsung heroes of Brit Rock, and amazingly enough, they came up with the song's ultra-modern riff in 1964. 

The early punk roots of a rock god's anthem

The Kinks and Van Halen developed quite a strong bond through "You Really Got Me," and the relationship between the two bands is emblematic of rock and roll's entire lineage. The original was the Kinks' trademark track, and the zenith of their success, reaching #7 in the US and #1 in the UK. It was built on the back of some intense distortion that guitarist Dave Davies created by actually cutting the speaker on his amp with a razor blade, per the Van Halen Newsdesk. Now that's a seriously punk thing to do, and that was the vibe that the Kinks, who all came from working class families, carried with them while trying to do their best to build on the success of their world-consuming contemporaries, the Beatles, per 2Loud2OldMusic

Even if Van Halen made the song a full-on stadium rock anthem, they carried the Kinks' boyish, rebellious attitude with them (plus some predictably weirdo vocalizations and sex sounds from David Lee Roth, because, of course). The success of Van Halen's cover strengthened the Kinks' renown, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. (Van Halen was inducted in 2007.) 

Van Halen went on to perform "You Really Got Me" possibly more than any other track in their repertoire, and they returned to the Kinks for a cover of "Where Have the Good Times Gone?" for their 1982 album Diver Down.