Is this the most avant garde, experimental and downright dangerous thing ever to have happened on a popular music recording?
Yes. Without a doubt, it is.
The whammy bar glissando introduction is almost half arsed, like Mr Van Halen can't really be bothered, but launches into the most mind-blowing assault on tonality and common sense, good old fashioned guitar playing ever recorded. People have played faster and louder on many other records, this quite tame to many of Van Halen's other recorded guitar solos, but there is something about the fact that this is on a record by the King of Pop himself that trumps all other examples of widdly woo virtuosity.
Musicologists could - and almost certainly already have - write entire theses on this solo. Obviously, it is technically very difficult to play. However, most bedroom guitar nerds don't worry about that sort of thing. Check this note perfect rendition for example:
Not a problem. Note perfect, even down to the knock on the body of the guitar, although the forced harmonics don't quite have the same ferocity as the original. You have to admire this man's - and it is almost certainly a man, isn't it? - dedication to learning things really carefully, to the detriment of his sleep patterns, personal hygiene and social skills. I have known many bedroom based guitar geniuses, some of whom rank among the most accomplished musicians I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. All totally blow me away when it comes to technical knowledge of how Western music works, from classical tradition to death metal. However, get them in a band and it all goes wrong, probably for the disregard show to the fundamental life skills listed above; live music is a team sport and not really the preserve of the genuine geek.
(As an aside, I didn't realise that knock at the start was a guitar; knocking on the body of a guitar is something lots of players do to check they're on and live in a less obtrusive manner than playing a note or chord. If Van Halen did that on purpose, that's an outrageous approach to a recording session and therefore true genius. If it was accidental and the producer (the great Quincy Jones) just thought he'd leave it in, well that's just as maverick and just as innovative; these big money recordings are high stake affairs and little touches like this are gold dust.)
What interests me more than the geeky widdlery and note frequency is the unfettered abandon of the performance, the cavalier approach to musical theory and convention. I don't have the necessary education to explain it, but some of Mr Van Halen's note choices and musical phrases are challenging to say the least. This is no solo by numbers that one would normally expect from a session player on a pop record. No sir. This is a tirade, an outpouring of raw, visceral virtuosity and expression that can only come from a player that a) has done a lot of practising, b) is unbelievably self-assured, possibly almost psychotically so and c) is almost certainly drunk.
I really enjoy and admire technical excellence. I have huge respect for players that have dedicated their lives to playing just so. But more than anything, I love players that have done that work, have painstakingly built up a vast chandelier of skills, muscle memory and cerebral knowledge, and then choose to smash the whole lot up in an instinctive, emotional and gutteral mess.
And, to really cement the claim for the most avant garde exhibition of musicianship in the history of pop music, he did the session for free. As Eddie Van Halen himself said to Rolling Stone magazine in 1984: "I did it as a favour ... I was a complete fool, according to the rest of the band, our manager and everyone else. I was not used. I knew what I was doing - I don't do something unless I want to do it."