*Image of happier times taken from the internet and likely copyrighted (*not pictured, the hideous Alex Van Halen, for reasons that are obvious)
Early in our marriage, my wife and I got into the habit of going down to the basement, cranking up tunes and having what we called a drunken, rock and roll, dance party. Well she danced, I more lurched. She would usually DJ, but I always got some input. It was during one of those festive evenings, after I’d just dropped the needle on a Van Halen tune, sung by Sammy Hagar, that the Rock Chick put her hand up in the universal “stop” gesture. It was then that she unburdened herself of a deep, dark secret she’d been keeping since we’d met… something I had never suspected. “I hate Van Hagar,” was all she said as she shook her head “no” to the tune I’d selected. We’d been randomly listening to Van Halen, both the Roth version and the Hagar version for years. I’d never suspected she didn’t like the Sammy incarnation of the band. I mean, no one likes the Gary Cherone version, but Sammy? It seems she liked Van Halen, she liked Sammy Hagar, just not together.
I’m not naive, I realize there is a divide between the Roth camp and the Hagar camp. It’s just that there was never any question for me when it came to Van Halen, the Roth albums are the best, period. I think when Roth left and Hagar came into the fold, the band fundamentally changed. It’s not fair to compare the early VH albums to the latter, Van Hagar (if you will) albums – they were, in my mind, different bands like Rage Against the Machine versus Audioslave. Same musicians, different singer, completely different bands. I was always disappointed that Eddie didn’t change the name of the band once Roth took off (or was fired, depending on who you listen to) but Ed’s name is on the side of the truck, I get it. It was Eddie’s world we all just lived in it.
People tend to view music in chronological decades. The sixties brought us the Beatles and the Stones, the seventies brought us Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen etc. I’ve never looked it at it that way. The music of the early 70s was a lot different than the music of the latter half of that decade. I came of age, musically anyway, in the late-70s. Van Halen was one of the foremost rock bands that came out of that era. It’s hard to understate how huge they were as an influence. Before VH most of us in the late 70s were listening to what our older siblings listened to. VH was ours! When they appeared with their seminal first album, (Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40) it was like nothing we’d ever heard. Eddie’s guitar sound, the way he played up the neck, hammering strings with his finger tips was all revolutionary stuff. But as important as all that was, David Lee Roth was equally as critical to the success. Roth had a swagger and menace combined with a crazy sense of humor, a mix I haven’t seen since. Roth was, to put it simply, just fucking cool. He was in his 20s but his lyrics were like that of a high school kid, “have you seen junior’s grades?” Roth was the guy we all wanted to be.
I suppose such a lightning-hot band couldn’t hold together for long. The personalities were bound to implode the group. After the success of Fair Warning they were supposed to take a much needed break, but somehow ended up recording Diver Down and immediately touring. I’m sure nerves were frayed and everybody was tired. After that there was a lot of conflict about Eddie wanting to play keyboards. Roth kept saying, “you’re a guitar god, nobody wants to hear you play keyboards.” I blame Michael Jackson for a lot of that. Once Eddie showed up on a purely pop song, “Beat It” and his guitar solo fueled it to number 1, globally, I think Eddie thought that it didn’t matter who was singing or what type of song it was, as long as that magic guitar solo played. I think that is what ultimately made Eddie decide he could live without Roth. And of course Roth had to go out and do an EP, Crazy From the Heat. I’m sure that didn’t help.
In retrospect, it was going to be impossible for anybody to fill the shoes of David Lee Roth. Hell, even in 2012, Roth couldn’t fill his own shoes when he got back together with the rest of Van Halen for the reunion album, A Different Kind of Truth. As my buddy, the accountant said years ago, “Roth did jujitsu on stage, Hagar does calisthenics.” They certainly lost that great sense of humor when Roth left as well. Roth was the party, Sammy was the guy who brings the tequila to the party. While Roth was no Steve Perry, Sammy was a shouter. And Roth’s lyrics, while not Elvis Costello or Tom Waits-like, are preferred to Hagar’s lyrics which are, and I’ll be the first to admit it, borderline stupid. For example, a line I’ve never gotten over, “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.” Think about that line for a while. It’s like saying “only Fred will tell us if we stand the test of Fred.” Well, it’s Fred’s fucking test, of course he’s going to be the one who tells us if we “stand the test.” But I digress… I mention all this just to say, again, Hagar fundamentally changed the DNA of the band. No one was going to live up to the original VH so to compare them is unfair.
I will say Hagar brought a camaraderie to the band they hadn’t seen since the early days. At least through 5150 and OU812 it seemed like everybody in the band was enjoying making music again. I remember a friend of mine telling me that OU812 was the new Fair Warning… well, it was certainly a grim record (without the menace), but you can’t compare the two. However, if you put the original band aside, these guys made some solid, if not really good harder rock. I think the whole Monster’s of Rock tour thing was Sammy’s idea. Sammy always pushed Eddie to think outside the box like Zeppelin did (Sammy loved Zeppelin and wanted to push in that bluesy direction). The results really never materialized other than “Finish What You Started,” which started as an acoustic/Zeppelin III thing Sammy wanted to do.
I went back and listened to the four albums Sammy and the brothers Van Halen did – with Michael Anthony on bass and harmony vocals, let’s not forget him, he’s a key ingredient – and those records aren’t bad. In fact, those records are pretty damn good. There may not be a Fair Warning or Women And Children First but there’s some fine rock and roll. They even put out a few decent tracks on greatest hits records. I went ahead and put together a play list of Van Halen tracks, but only from the Van Hagar albums. I feel these are the “best of Van Hagar” if you will… I’ll let the music do the talking. The Rock Chick has a blistering VH playlist but the Sammy tunes are missing… she also has an AC/DC tunes with virtually no Bon Scott. What can I say, she likes what she likes. Purists… what are you gonna do? I think this playlist will show you, this was not a bad band, it was just different from the original. Listen with fresh ears!
- “Best of Both Worlds” – My favorite track from 5150.
- “Don’t Tell Me What Love Can Do” – Yes, Hagar shouts random stuff about shooting, heroin, and shooting heroin but this song RAWKS. They were clearly in a bad place on Balance.
- “Top of the World” – From F.U.C.K.
- “Poundcake” – Love the riff on this one.
- “Up For Breakfast” – Great riff with Sammy’s kinda ridiculous lyrics about having sex when you wake up.
- “Judgement Day” – A great deep track from F.U.C.K.
- “Dreams” – I mostly avoided the keyboard stuff, but I loved the video with the Blue Angels flying around.
- “Feels So Good” – The most positive song VH ever did.
- “Right Now” – You couldn’t escape this song.
- “Black and Blue” – The first single and my favorite track from OU812.
- “Can’t Stop Loving You” – A bit poppy for my taste, but catchy as hell.
- “5150” – The title track… It’s police code for “insane or unstable persons who might be a danger to themselves or others.” Great riff and Sammy’s lyrics rise to the occasion.
- “Humans Being” – A track from the movie, ‘Twister.’ It’s mostly Sammy shouting about something I can’t understand but man, this rocks.
- “Mine All Mine” – One of Hagar’s finest lyrics… For once he’s not singing about chicks and getting loaded.
- “Summer Nights” – The first track Sammy wrote with VH.
- “Why Can’t This Be Love” – “Only time will tell if we…” oh, fuck it.
- “Man On A Mission” – Another hard rocker.
- “Finish What Ya Started” – Began as an acoustic number…
- “Runaround” – Another hit from F.U.C.K.
- “A Apolitical Blues” – A Little Feat blues cover? On a VH album? This was a bonus track but I love it and it’s a perfect way to end the list… they’d never have done this without Hagar.
Happy Labor Day Weekend Folks… I’ll be making the annual transition from vodka to bourbon over the weekend. Stay safe and don’t drink and drive. I don’t want any of you to end up “face down in Cabo…”