Following the group's 1982 album, Diver Down, Eddie Van Halen was dissatisfied by the concessions he had made to Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth and producer Ted Templeman. Both discouraged Eddie from making keyboards a prominent instrument in the band's music. In 1983, Eddie built his own studio in his backyard, naming it 5150 (after the Los Angeles police code for "escaped mental patient"). At 5150, Eddie composed Van Halen's follow-up to Diver Down—without as much perceived "interference" from Roth or Templeman. The result was a compromise between the two creative factions in the band—a mixture of keyboard-heavy songs, and the intense rock for which the band had become known.
In Rolling Stone's retrospective review of 1984 in its 100 Best Albums of the Eighties list, producer Ted Templeman said, "It's real obvious to me [why 1984 won Van Halen a broader and larger audience.] Eddie Van Halen discovered the synthesizer."
"At the time, Eddie was in the process of building his own studio with Donn Landee, the band's longtime engineer (and later producer on 5150 and OU812). While boards and tape machines were being installed, the guitarist began fiddling around on synthesizers to pass the time. 'There were no presets,' says Templeman. 'He would just twist off until it sounded right.'"
The album's original release credits all songs to Edward Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth. The labeling on the UK single release for "I'll Wait" (catalog #W9213) credited Michael McDonald as a co-writer, but he was not credited on the US version of the single (catalog #7-29307).
The ASCAP entry for "I'll Wait" lists Michael McDonald as co-writer with Roth and the Van Halens. Like many bands starting out on their career, Van Halen shared songwriting credit equally between all members (including guitar instrumentals, which were clearly composed only by Eddie), but subsequent claims would lend credibility to the view that all songs were entirely or predominantly written by Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, with little input from Van Halen's rhythm section.
After the release of Best Of – Volume I (1996), Van Halen renegotiated their royalties with their label Warner Bros.. In 2004, Roth discovered that the rest of the band had renegotiated a more preferential royalty rate with Warner Bros. for all releases made during his time as lead singer, giving them a royalty rate five times greater than his. This was later rectified.
Songs from 1984 that appear on compilations after the royalty renegotiation and Roth's lawsuit were credited to Edward Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and David Lee Roth, with Michael Anthony's name removed from the credits, as evident in the end song credits of the 2007 film Superbad. Anthony stated in 2012 he has no plans to dispute the songwriting credits removal.
The iconic cover was created by graphic artist Margo Nahas. It was not specifically commissioned; Nahas had been asked to create a cover that featured four chrome women dancing, but declined due to the creative difficulties. Her husband brought her portfolio to the band anyway, and from that material they chose the painting of a putto stealing cigarettes that was ultimately used. The model was Carter Helm, who was the child of one of Nahas' best friends, whom she photographed holding a candy cigarette.
The cover was censored in the UK at the time of the album's release. It featured a sticker that obscured the cigarette in the putto's hand and the pack of cigarettes.
The back cover features all four band members individually with 1984 in a green futuristic font.
The album's first two hit singles "Jump" and "I'll Wait", features prominent use of synthesizers, as well as the album's intro track, 1984, a one-minute instrumental.
The summer of 1984 saw the release of the album's third single "Panama", which featured a heavy guitar riff reminiscent of Van Halen's earlier work (the engine noise was from Eddie revving up his Lamborghini, with microphones being used near the tailpipes). Later, a video of "Hot for Teacher" was released and played regularly on MTV, giving the band a fourth hit which further sustained sales of the album. Other songs on 1984 included "Girl Gone Bad", parts of which previously had been played during the 1982 Tour amidst performances of "Somebody Get Me a Doctor" (most famously at the US Festival show), the hard rock "Drop Dead Legs" and "Top Jimmy", a tribute to James Paul Koncek of the band Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs. The album concludes with "House of Pain", a fiery, heavy metal song that dates back to the band's early club days of the mid-1970s.
Eddie told an interviewer, "Girl Gone Bad" was written in a hotel room that he and his wife at the time Valerie Bertinelli had rented. Valerie was asleep, and Eddie woke up during the night with an idea, he had to put on tape. Not wanting to wake Valerie, Eddie grabbed a small cassette recorder and recorded himself playing guitar while in the closet.
Eddie Van Halen has stated he wrote the arrangement for "Jump" several years before 1984 was recorded. In a 1995 cover story in Rolling Stone, the guitarist said Roth had rejected the now-famous synth riff for "Jump" for at least two years before agreeing to write lyrics to it. In his memoir Crazy From The Heat, Roth confirms Eddie's account, admitting a preference for Van Halen's guitar work; however, he says he now enjoys the song. Additionally in his memoir, Roth writes that he wrote the lyrics to "Jump" after watching a man waffle as to whether to commit suicide by jumping off of a skyscraper.
1984 peaked at number 2 on the Billboard album charts, (behind Michael Jackson's Thriller, which featured an Eddie Van Halen guitar solo on "Beat It",) and remained there for 5 straight weeks. As previously noted, it contained the anthems "Jump", "Panama", "I'll Wait" and "Hot for Teacher". "Jump" reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. 1984 is the second of two Van Halen albums to have achieved RIAA Diamond status, selling over ten million copies in the United States. Their debut Van Halen was the first. "Jump" went on to be certified Gold in April 1984, months after the album's release.
The album's follow-up singles – the synth-driven "I'll Wait," and "Panama", each peaked at Billboard number 13 on the Pop charts, respectively, in March and June. "Hot for Teacher", was a moderate Billboard Hot 100 success, reaching number 56; the MTV video for "Hot For Teacher" became even more popular. The "Hot For Teacher" video, which was directed by Roth, stars preteen lookalikes of the four Van Halen band members; a stereotypical nerd named "Waldo;" David Lee Roth as Waldo's bus driver; and numerous teachers stripping.
To promote the album, the band ran a contest on MTV. The contest was called, "Lost Weekend" with Van Halen. Fans mailed over 1 million postcards to MTV in hopes of winning the contest. In the promo for MTV, David Lee Roth said, "You won't know where you are, you won't know what's going to happen, and when you come back, you're not gonna have any memory of it."
Kurt Jeffries won the contest and was flown to Detroit to join the band. Jeffries was allowed to bring along his best friend. He was given a Lost Weekend T-shirt and a hat. He was also brought on stage and had a large sheet cake smashed in his face which was followed by about a dozen people pouring champagne on him.
In the band's licensed game, Guitar Hero: Van Halen, three of the nine tracks of this album are available for play; "Jump," "Panama," and "Hot for Teacher."
Reviews for 1984 were generally favorable. Robert Christgau rated the album a B+. He explained that "Side one is pure up, and not only that, it sticks to the ears" and that "Van Halen's pop move avoids fluff because they're heavy and schlock because they're built for speed, finally creating an all-purpose mise-en-scene for Brother Eddie's hair-raising, stomach-churning chops." He also called side two "consolation for their loyal fans—a little sexism, a lot of pyrotechnics, and a standard HM bass attack on something called 'House of Pain'." J.D. Considine, a reviewer for Rolling Stone, rated 1984 four out of five stars. He called it "the album that brings all of Van Halen's talent into focus." He stated that ""Jump" is not exactly the kind of song you'd expect from Van Halen", but that "once Alex Van Halen's drums kick in and singer David Lee Roth starts to unravel a typically convoluted story line, things start sounding a little more familiar". Although he mentioned "Jump" as having "suspended chords and a pedalpoint bass in a manner more suited to Asia", he went on to state that "Eddie Van Halen manages to expand his repertoire of hot licks, growls, screams and seemingly impossible runs to wilder frontiers than you could have imagined." He concluded that "what really makes this record work is the fact that Van Halen uses all this flash as a means to an end—driving the melody home—rather than as an end in itself" and that "despite all the bluster, Van Halen is one of the smartest, toughest bands in rock & roll. Believe me, that's no newspeak."
In a 1984 review, Billboard states the album is "funnier and more versatile than most of their metal brethren", calling the production "typically strong". A retrospective review by AllMusic's Stephen Thomas Erlewine was extremely positive. He noted that the album caused "a hoopla that was a bit of a red herring since the band had been layering in synths since their third album, Women and Children First". He further stated that "Jump"'s "synths played a circular riff that wouldn't have sounded as overpowering on guitar", but that "the band didn't dispense with their signature monolithic, pulsating rock." He also stated that "where [previous] albums placed an emphasis on the band's attack, this places an emphasis on the songs, and they're uniformly terrific, the best set of original tunes Van Halen ever had." He concluded that "it's the best showcase of Van Halen's instrumental prowess as a band, the best showcase for Diamond Dave's glorious shtick, the best showcase for their songwriting, just their flat-out best album overall. [...] [T]here's no way Van Halen could have bettered this album with Dave around (and they didn't better it once Sammy [Hagar] joined, either)."
Guitar Player magazine writer Matt Blackett praises the "deeper cuts" of the album, "Drop Dead Legs", "House of Pain", and "Girl Gone Bad", calling the guitar work "fresh and vital", noting Eddie's "dark, complex sense of harmony and melody". Len Comaratta from Consequence of Sound felt Van Halen reached the pinnacle of its commercial and critical success. At the end of the 1980s, Rolling Stone, which had previously been critical of Van Halen, ranked 1984 at number 81 on its list of the 100 Greatest Albums of the 1980s.
After its release, the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League played "Jump" on the arena PA system as the team came onto the ice. They used the song until the team's departure for Phoenix after the 1995–96 season. On the team's return in 2011, public outcry for use of the song initially was ignored, as the team's management company True North Sports and Entertainment wished to create a break with the past, considering the previous Jets a different organization from the new Jets (the former Atlanta Thrashers). However, in 2016 True North resumed the use of "Jump", this time as the team's goal song whenever the Jets scored a goal at the MTS Centre.
All tracks written by Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, and David Lee Roth, except where noted.David Lee Roth – vocals
Eddie Van Halen – guitars, keyboards, background vocals
Alex Van Halen – drums, background vocals
Michael Anthony – bass, background vocals
Ted Templeman – production
Ken Deane – engineering
Donn Landee – engineering
Chris Bellman – mastering
Gregg Geller – mastering
Jo Motta – project coordination
Joan Parker – production coordination
Pete Angelus – art direction
Richard Seireeni – art direction
Margo Nahas – cover art
Pete Angelus – lighting