Reunion tours and anniversary reissues are quite commonplace in the music world, yet this year marks a major anniversary for a very major band in rock history and odds are you had no idea. 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of Van Halen’s landmark self-titled debut album and the beginning of what grew to become one of the industry’s most influential hard rock bands in history. The reason you probably didn’t realize this is because there’s been zero effort or plan on the part of the Van Halen brothers to do anything publically to celebrate the occasion.
Talk to just about any rock fan and you’ll quickly realize a Van Halen conversation is similar to a debate of cats vs. dogs, Coke vs. Pepsi, or Star Wars vs. Star Trek. This of course is because Van Halen had two distinctly different but equally successful periods in their long active history. Focusing solely on their commercially successful years, there was the David Lee Roth era (1978-1985) and the Sammy Hagar era (1986-1995)….Van Halen vs. Van Hagar as many call it.
This is where I guess I’m an odd duck. I’ve shared my house with two cats ever since my wife moved in over a decade ago, and I love those little household lions, so I guess I’m a cat guy. Thing is, I love dogs too. Push comes to shove I suppose I side with Star Trek over Star Wars, but I love me some Star Wars as well. Coke vs. Pepsi? I drink diet, so throw some ice in it and the shit all tastes the same. Point being, because of my great respect for Sammy Hagar, and my love of their first album with him, “5150,” if forced to choose between the two eras I’d have to say I’m a Van Hagar guy. That being said, I love so many songs from the early Roth era as well. Roth wasn’t half the singer or musician Hagar was and is, but in his prime I think it’s absolutely fair to rank him among the likes of Jagger, Mercury, and Tyler as one of rock’s truly great frontmen/showmen. So what to make of this Hall of Fame band as it turns 40 years old?
A fantastic rock album through and through, the debut album was highlighted by “Runnin’ With The Devil,” a blazing cover of “You Really Got Me,” and the unprecedented guitar instrumental, “Eruption.” I read that when the album came out, everybody thought “Eruption” was some sort of studio recording trick. Once they hit the road and Eddie started performing it live, that’s when the world realized a new guitar God was born. The band’s sound was powerful. Their onstage energy was relentless. Their offstage behavior was reckless and infamously legendary. This band was the new standard for rock’s next decade.
Eddie, brother Alex on drums, bassist Michael Anthony, and Diamond Dave would pump out four albums over the next four years. Unheard of by today’s standards, in those days their albums were only 30 minutes long. This was likely a combination of the distributive medium of LPs, coupled with a music industry that pushed for new material early and often in those days.
Each of those albums produced more hits, and the band continued to grow in popularity. But it was their last album (at the time) with David Lee Roth that placed them on top of the Hard Rock mountain:
I was nine years old when this album was released. I vividly remember staring at my brother Jeff’s cassette of it. I’d never seen anything like it. A child-angel smoking cigarettes? Hey I was a good kid in those days. I’d go as far as to say “innocent.” I knew that cover was bad, naughty, whatever. Yet man did it make me wanna open it up, pop in the tape, and listen to what this band was all about! 1984 was my introduction to Van Halen. What an introduction it was! Jump, Panama, Hot For Teacher, I’ll Wait. Some rock critics disagree, but to me this was Van Halen’s best album of the Roth era. Many fans must have felt the same way as me. The album was a smash hit. #2 in the charts overall, plus Jump became the band’s first ever #1 billboard single. They appeared to be on top of the world, then this happened……….
In 1985, at the height of the band’s success, David Lee Roth decided he wanted to be a solo artist. I’m not using this blogspace to rehash the sordid details. If you’re any sort of rock fan, you know the story all too well. Needless to say………we know what happened next!
To each their own, but for me, 5150 will always be my favorite Van Halen album. It’s one of the first cassettes I owned. I played it so often I wore out the tape. Dreams, Summer Nights, Best of Both Worlds, Why Can’t This Be Love, Love Walks In, Good Enough….I didn’t just love this album because of Sammy Hagar. Yes, I already knew Hagar because my older brothers were fans of his solo work and had a couple of his albums. Yes, I Can’t Drive 55 was a huge hit for Sammy just two years prior and we all knew of him. I mainly love this album because I simply think the songs are great. It’s one of those albums where I can pop it in and just let it play. Some tracks are better than others, but I don’t think there’s a weak moment anywhere on 5150. Again, many fans must have felt the same way. It was Van Halen’s first ever #1 album.
Between 1988 and 1994 Van Halen would record and release three more albums with Sammy. OU812 was a not-as-good version of 5150, but it contained some good songs, highlighted by When It’s Love, Cabo Wabo, and Finish What Ya Started. It became VH’s second #1 album. 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge also hit #1. Poundcake, Top of the World, and the award-winning Right Now were album standouts. I applaud this album for its shift in production. Though keyboards started creeping in from 1984 on, Van Halen albums were always about guitars & vocals on 10, bass & drums on 2. If you go back and listen to this album, it’s the first and maybe only time where track for track, the drum and bass sound quality were brought up in power and level almost equal to the guitars. It gave the album a very powerful sound. Not surprising, the album was engineered by a former Led Zeppelin engineer. Remember the way Bonham’s drums sounded alongside Page’s guitar? You get the picture.
The final Hagar album, Balance, was released in 1994. Though it too charted at #1, it’s the only Hagar-era album I don’t own. Perhaps because I was in college when it came out, and my music tastes were changing, or perhaps it just wasn’t very good. For whatever reason, I remember hearing it and feeling like the magic was gone. It just wasn’t there. Well, then this happened………………
1996 MTV Music Awards. Unbeknownst to the world, Van Halen appears on stage with their “new” singer. Thus starts the downward spiral they’ve never really recovered from. Dave didn’t last long enough to make a new album. Eddie claims he was never really back in the band. Sammy says he got fired. Eddie says Sam quit. Blah, blah, blah. Then this happened…………
After firing Sammy and then firing / never-rehiring Dave, Eddie goes out and hires the dude from Extreme. It was a disaster. They recorded one album. It sold less than 100k copies. Thus, the end of the Gary Cherone era. Then this happened…..
Sometime around 2001 or ’02, Eddie brought back Sammy for a tour. I saw them on this tour in Indy. It was the first and only time I ever saw Van Halen live. I had a blast and found the show to be enjoyable. The tour however, wasn’t so enjoyable for the band. Eddie was at the height of his drug and alcohol abuse on this tour. According to Hagar’s autobiography, Eddie wasn’t bathing or wearing teeth most nights on the tour. He was supposedly a train wreck to work with. Following the tour Hagar said screw it and went back to the successful solo career he reestablished after Eddie canned him years earlier. Then of course………this happened………..
Eventually Eddie brought David Lee Roth officially back to the band. Bassist Michael Anthony was fired and replaced by Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. Don’t feel sorry for Mikey. He continues to enjoy an active career performing alongside Sammy in various other projects. Since Dave’s return over ten years ago, the band has released just one studio album. In fairness, I’ve never heard it so I can’t judge it. From what I understand, it’s not terrible, but not particularly good either. I also understand it’s basically comprised of old tracks and cutting-room-floor material Eddie had lying around for decades. They did a few tours and made some good money. Thing is though, and even Roth era fans will agree, Dave has zero voice left. Singing was never Roth’s strong suit, but back in the day he’d get by with decent vocals and huge stage presence. As I said, one of the truly great frontmen. Yet on these tours, not only is there no singing voice, but his onstage schtick doesn’t even connect with audiences anymore. I’ve taken in a few shows on youtube and it’s just sad. The band sounds awesome, but they’re completely hindered by Roth.
So how did things get so far off track and how or when will Eddie fix it? Here’s the thing….though Van Halen is a far cry from what they once were, Eddie Van Halen “the man” is doing better than ever. Remember this guy from the early 2000s?
Well this is the same guy now……….
Eddie is healthy. He is clean and sober. He sounds as good as ever. He looks better than he has in decades. He’s remarried. Maybe there’s a reason he doesn’t make albums anymore. Maybe there’s a reason he isn’t doing anything for the band’s 40th anniversary. Maybe he doesn’t need Van Halen anymore at all. Maybe Eddie Van Halen is doing just fine!