VAN HALEN (1977–PRESENT). David Lee Roth (vocals, 1977–84, 2007– present), Eddie Van Halen (guitar), Alex Van Halen (drums), Michael Anthony (1977–2005), Sammy Hagar (vocals, 1985–?), Gary Cherone (vocals), Wolfgang Van Halen (bass, 2007–present).
Van Halen changed everything. The release of Van Halen’s self-titled album in 1978—was it really in 1978?!—almost overnight changed the dominant paradigm in rock music. It’s amazing to realize that before Van Halen was an eighties rock band, they were an eighties rock band, which is merely to say that heavy rock music in the eighties probably wouldn’t have developed in quite the way that it did if Van Halen hadn’t led the way out of the 1970s. As a whip-cracking guitarist, Eddie Van Halen cracked the loudest whip anyone had ever experienced, singlehandedly (well, actually he used both hands) changing the way a whole generation of guitarists conceived of their instrument, what it should do, how it should look, and how it should sound. His highly developed two-handed tapping technique and innovative use of the whammy (tremolo) bar expanded the vocabulary of rock guitar in one fell swoop.
And frontman David Lee Roth drew as much inspiration from lounge singers and vaudeville performers as from Robert Plant. And as a band (whose sound was very much shaped by the sound of that guitar), Van Halen effortlessly fused pop sensibilities into the sturm and drang power of heavy metal in such a way that most who followed could only offer what can at best be described as “pop metal” in the band’s wake. Ultimately, the genius of the original VH lineup was in their charismatic approach to changing the rules, which helped them to become one of the most popular bands of the late seventies and early eighties.
Van Halen began when Van Halen brothers guitarist Eddie and drummer Alex, who had been playing in the Pasadena-based trio Mammoth, joined forces with vocalist David Lee Roth. After Roth suggested adopting the brothers’ surname for
the band, they hired bassist Michael Anthony to fill out their ranks. The band soon became a fixture on the Hollywood rock scene playing their high-energy original music. One early admirer was Kiss bassist Gene Simmons, who flew the band to New York to record a series of demos. Eddie, having to use rented gear, had trouble getting the unique signature guitar tones that he had been developing back home, and the band was not enthused with the results.
Back in L.A., the band was spotted at a gig at the Starwood Lounge by Warner Record exec Mo Ostin and producer Ted Templeman who, in a moment out of a Hollywood fairy tale, offered the band a record contract. Recorded largely live by Templeman, the band’s first self-titled album was released in 1978. The album soon became a hit, selling a million copies within the first six months of its release. The album was a powerhouse of modern rock without an ounce of filler on it, and the energy level was sustained on the whole album. It soon became the album to put on at a party. In fact, in addition to the band’s serious musicianship, Roth’s particular style of fronting the band, along with the band’s general good-time vibe,
led to their shows feeling like a party where everyone was invited. The album’s one-two punch was found in the tracks “Eruption,” which led into the band’s cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me.”
“Eruption” was the track, more than any other, that established Eddie Van Halen’s reputation. The blistering, unaccompanied solo (save for its bombastic full band intro) was the sonic equivalent of “the world of guitar, according to Eddie.” Achieving the fullest, richest tone of a cranked Marshall amp (later to be dubbe the “brown sound” by fans), Ed proceeded to rip into a series of improvised riffing that seamlessly led into the beautiful, baroque-sounding two-handed tapping flourishes that led more than one guitarist at the time to ask: “How is he doing that?!” As the solo climaxes and the last descending notes begin to fade, the track segues into the blistering power chords that start “You Really Got Me,” and the band kicks in all their power. Not surprisingly, the band quickly became a powerful live attraction and toured heavily behind the album.
The band followed up their debut with Van Halen II, released in 1979. Again produced by Templeman, VH II contained the band’s first hit single, “Dance the Night Away,” which showed a much more melodic, pop side to the band. They also covered Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good,” which received a good amount of airplay.
Women and Children First followed in 1980 and continued the band’s winning formula, with the track “And the Cradle Will Rock” receiving significant airplay. For the first time, the band headlined on their supporting tour. Fair Warning in 1981 was a darker record for the band, with a dangerous air about it, perhaps best captured on the opening track “Mean Street.” More popular was the band’s Diver Down, which had a decidedly more upbeat feel, and featured a number of cover tunes, most notably Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” and the Martha and the Vandellas classic “Dancin’ in the Streets.”
1984 saw, well, 1984, the album that would take the band to a whole new level of success. Released on New Year’s Day, the album contained the synthesizer-driven hit “Jump,” which brought a new sound to the band’s repertoire. The song was a number one smash and helped to take the album to the number two spot, the highest charting position a Van Halen album had gone to that point. The album continued three more hits in “I’ll Wait,” “Panama,” and “Hot for Teacher.”
Just as 1984 would remain a high-water mark for the band, it would also mark the end of an era, as tensions within the band, between Roth and the Van Halen brothers, came to a head. Roth had disapproved of Ed’s playing on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” while Ed and Alex had grown tired of Roth’s’ comedic hijinks. Roth had experienced a good deal of success with his solo EP Crazy from the Heat, which had produced the hits “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody.” And when Roth’s activities delayed the band’s recording schedule, he was fired.
The band’s choice of former Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar was on the surface an unlikely choice, given that the “Red rocker” was just the sort of serious rocker that Roth liked to parody. But given that the VH brothers were sick of Roth’s humor, the choice made more sense. At the same time, as serious musicians, Ed and Alex’s choice also made sense, in that Hagar was a skilled singer with a range and vocal technique that Roth hadn’t possessed.
While the change upset many fans, the first album with Hagar did well. 5150, released in 1986, ended up being a massive hit, fueled by the hit singles “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Dreams,” and “Love Walks In.” Hagar’s vocal style was much different from Roth’s and actually fit the band’s evolving sound, which, following the experiment of “Jump,” involved a greater integration of keyboards. The next album with Hagar, 1988s OU812, was similarly successful, producing the hits “When It’s Love” and “Finish What You Started.” For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge continued the string of hit albums of the “Van Hagar” version of the band, and produced the hit “Right Now.” 1993 saw the release of the band’s first live album, Right Here, Right Now.
While the Hagar/Van Halen union had been commercially and creatively successful, tensions had grown, especially between the singer and the guitarist. Eddie had undergone rehab for alcoholism while Hagar remained a friend of the party. After the release of Balance in 1995, the band wanted to schedule a greatest hits collection, an idea that Hagar was not in favor of. After another difference of opinion over a song being recorded for the Twister soundtrack, the band began recording some new music (to be included in the greatest hits collection) without telling Hagar. When the singer heard about the collaboration with Roth he hit the roof.
Accounts differ regarding Hagar’s exit from the group, with Eddie claiming he quit, and Hagar claiming he was fired. At any rate, Roth ended up recording two new tracks for the Best of … collection and assumed he was back in the band. Unbeknownst to Roth, the position had allegedly been secretly offered to singer Mitch Malloy. But when the four original members of the band made a joint appearance on the MTV Music Awards, Malloy bowed out. After the awards show Roth was out again and cried foul, saying that he had been tricked into recording the tracks under the false pretense of a reunion.
The best-of collection, entitled Best of, Vol. 1, was a hit, and ex-Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone was brought on board as the new frontman for the band. The resulting studio album, Van Halen III, while entering the charts at number 3, performed poorly, becoming the least successful album in the band’s catalog. After a single tour, the band and Cherone parted ways.
More rumors of a reunion with Roth began to circulate, with the singer alleging on his website that he had been recording with the band. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Eddie, a longtime smoker, was suffering from oral cancer, but that the prognosis for a full recovery was good. A short time later came the surprising announcement that Van Halen was parting ways with longtime labelWarner Brothers. No new recording contract with any other labels was mentioned at the time.
After Eddie’s treatment and recovery, the band reunited in 2004 for a tour that saw Sammy Hagar fronting the band again. After the tour, sessions were held with Hagar for a few new songs for the upcoming second volume of the band’s greatest hits collection. Bassist Michael Anthony was conspicuous in his absence, with Eddie playing bass on the sessions.
In 2006, the band announced that Anthony had been fired from the band, with Eddie explaining to Rolling Stone magazine that since Anthony had been playing with Hagar, he couldn’t be in two bands at the same time. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Roth would indeed finally be returning to the band for an extended tour that would also feature Eddie’s son Wolfgang taking Anthony’s place on bass. While the tour was initially postponed while Eddie entered rehab again (Christie, 2008), and was mysteriously interrupted in early 2008, after a successful start in the fall of 2007; by June 2008, it was announced that the tour had thus far grossed over $93 million, making it the most successful Van Halen tour ever.
Discography: Van Halen (Warner Bros., 1978); Van Halen II (Warner Bros., 1979); Women and Children First (Warner Bros., 1980); Fair Warning (Warner Bros., 1981); Diver Down (Warner Bros., 1982); 1984 (Warner Bros., 1984); 5150 (Warner Bros., 1986); OU812 (Warner Bros., 1988); For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Bros., 1991); Live: Right Here, Right Now (Warner Bros., 1993); Balance (Warner Bros., 1995); Van Halen III (Warner Bros., 1998); Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 (Warner Bros., 1996); Live in Pittsburgh ’98 (Import, 1998); Van Halen Box: 1986–1993 (WEA, 1999); Van Halen Box: 1978–1984 (WEA International, 2000); The Best of Both Worlds (Warner Bros., 2004); The Very Best of Van Halen (WEA International, 2004); Best of Van Halen: The Early Years (Rhino, 2007); Best of Van Halen 1978–1984 (Warner Bros., 2007).