Van Halen - Biography

By Tony Goldmark


            It is possible, if you’re in an uncharitable mood, to sum up the career of this great band thus: Van Halen, who towered over the ’70s and ’80s like the Colossus of Rhodes, became a punchline in the ’90s for its revolving-door roster of frontmen before seeming to implode entirely.  But to focus on the colorful capering of Van Halen’s original lead singer, David Lee Roth, or to marvel at the decision to replace him with a muscularly bland but radio-friendly belter like Sammy Hagar, or even to deride the ill-considered stint of blink-and-you’ll-miss-him former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, is to miss the string-shredding essence of this band.  It was not drug- and drink-addled Spinal Tappery to think that vocal duties in Van Halen could be handed off to anyone with a pair of lungs – what makes Van Halen’s records essential listening for anyone seeking to explore the magnificent possibilities of rock music as it developed during the late ’70s and early ’80s – and indeed, for anyone who loves the sound of an electric guitar – is Eddie Van Halen’s technical and melodic gift for making his distinctively-colored axes sound unlike anything that came before.


            Eddie Van Halen and his brother Alex arrived in Pasadena, CA in the late ’60s, when they were in their very early teens, their family emigrating from the Netherlands.  The Van Halens’ father was a musician as well, and it seemed natural that the boys would take up instruments and be trained in classical piano, but Eddie was far more interested in rock records which were, in those heady post-Pet Sounds days, coming into something of a classical period of their own.  With Alex on drums, he formed a hard rock band called Mammoth, eventually recruiting members of other local bands – hotshot lead singer Roth and vocalist-who-proved-far-better-as-a-bassist Michael Anthony – and, on being told that another SoCal group had long-established squatters’ rights on the name Mammoth, rechristening his new band with his own last name.  A full three years of playing what must have been stunning sets to tiny crowds in bars made Van Halen into a hard-hitting party machine: Roth had taken the theatrics of a whole world of lavishly-coiffed, bare-chested rock frontmen and turned them into a thrilling brand of self-celebrating parody, while Eddie Van Halen had more or less reinvented guitar technique, splattering his solos with his trademark finger-tapping and bringing six-string players their first major step forward since rock first started lifting from old Chess sides.  The band’s get-the-crowd-moving aesthetic was evident in its repertoire, and applause-bait like their cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” not only made it onto their debut record, but remained in live sets for several decades.


            That first album, Van Halen, was released in 1978 after record executives, famously prodded into action by fan Gene Simmons of Kiss, finally signed the darlings of the Sunset Strip.  It seems possible they didn’t quite know what they had on their hands, because the record didn’t slot into the typical categories of rock-oriented releases of the era.  It was marketed as something of a punk disc, though in hindsight, it’s much better described as the template for hard rock as it came to be practiced in the years following: “Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love,” for instance, hits you like a hammer, while “Jamie’s Cryin’” seems tailor-made for cranking your car stereo to maximum volume.  By no means was this music allied with the concurrently-developing genre of heavy metal – Eddie Van Halen’s spindly, fleet-fingered guitar is often better described as weightless, while Roth’s vocals are as much comic as hell-raising.  From the instant the needle scratch gave way to Anthony’s menacing bass line on Van Halen’s opening track, the thunderous “Runnin’ With the Devil,” the band announced that something new was coming your way, and high school kids the world over suddenly had new heroes.  Guitar fans who’d been yearning for someone to split the difference between the dancing-into-the-sky etherealness of prog and the rumbling-down-to-hell heft of Zeppelin-esque blues had found a standard-bearer in Eddie, and everyone who’d ever found himself with a nagging sense that Robert Plant, in some alternate universe, was as laughable as he was magnificent could visit that universe at a Van Halen show, since Roth was easily as magnificent as he was laughable.  The band toured the bejeezus out of the thing, radio played the singles like they were daring listeners to get sick of them, and the album sold some six million platters.


            The following year saw the band issuing a follow-up, titled Van Halen II, the roman numeral in the title indicating less that this was a sophomore release than that it was the second salvo in a juggernaut.  You want anthems?  How’s “Dance the Night Away,” perhaps the closest the band ever got to a Buzzcocks-ian marriage of hard rock and pop?  You want more party-hearty covers?  “You’re No Good” is a shot of adrenaline to the heart of the even the deadest social gathering.  Yearning for more show-off guitar work?  “Spanish Fly” has Eddie going acoustic this time.  And what?  On top of all that you want something that’ll get you laid?  A couple decades down the line it seems astonishing that cheesy moves like shooting at your lady a come-hither look midway through “Beautiful Girls” yielded any success at all, but contemporary reports indicate they did.  For the band, continuing a punishing touring schedule for the umpteenth year in a row, the latter song seems to have been something of a statement of purpose: after-show hotel-room romps from this period are legendary, if possibly exaggerated in the retelling.


            But 1980’s third outing, Women and Children First, suggested Van Halen was tinkering with the formula somewhat.  For the first time, Roth’s theatrics feel backburnered for much of the record – “Romeo Delight” may have become a concert staple, but it feels more like something Hagar would later sing than one of Roth’s brazen showpieces, while the only truly successful balancing act between Roth’s longtime love of goofiness and Eddie’s burgeoning love of serious, some might say over-serious, rock musicianship was “Everybody Wants Some!!”  And even that track might not quite sound so fun-loving if those two terminal exclamation points were removed from its title.  Roth’s influence rears its head as the disc draws to a close – “Could This Be Magic?” is light as a feather – but on the whole the band seemed to be making a move toward something darker than it had revealed before, and that came to a head on 1981’s Fair Warning.  Lead singles “Mean Street” and “Unchained” kept Van Halen comfortably ensconced on radio playlists, but even these were songs that seemed to take Roth’s trademark mugging out at the knees.  Talk among fans suggested that Eddie Van Halen had grown tired of Roth getting all the attention and of the band being seen as some sort of lightweight entry in the heavy metal sweepstakes –already the derisive term “candy metal” had begun to be applied to Van Halen’s hammer-ons and tappings, as if these were the sugary, substanceless equivalents of what bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden and Diamond Head were doing with much less humor.  As a bid for respectability, the disc was as awesome as it was unnecessary, and for every odd experiment like the dance beats behind “Push Comes to Shove” there’s a real step forward like the synthesizers coloring “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” obviously an embryonic precursor to massive hits like “Jump” three years later.  In the end the record works, but it represents a wild oscillation in the group’s sound.


            The pendulum swung back the other way with Diver Down, which saw Van Halen in 1982 sounding more than ever like Van Halen in 1978.  If Roth’s later solo records had boasted a band as fine as Van Halen in its heyday, they would have sounded like this: the selection of covers reach back to the band’s early days in bars along the 101, with “Oh Pretty Woman” leering at the ladies and “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” stripping the Kinks classic of its world-weariness and replacing it with Roth’s patented good-time vibe.  But the tension between Roth and Van Halen hadn’t disappeared, and Eddie came out swinging with another experiment, the poppy “Little Guitars,” as well as a fierce rock tune in “Hang ’Em High.”  Perhaps the perfect mix of the sounds of Fair Warning and Diver Down was achieved on 1984, a massive hit record riding the huge success of singles “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot For Teacher.”  A new level of success for the band, both artistically and commercially, the record sold like hotcakes even to people who hadn’t paid Van Halen much attention, thanks to MTV exposure and yet more relentless touring.  It was almost unquestionably the apex of this great band, with every member – even Anthony and Alex Van Halen, whose solid base had formed an underappreciated foundation for all the Eddie and Dave infighting over the years – showcased perfectly.  Yet the MTV videos naturally focused a bit more on Roth, one of the most video-able frontmen in rock history, and there were plenty of new fans who thought of Van Halen, unfairly, as the band that was playing behind him while Roth rode that surfboard over the heads of the crowd in the “Panama” video.  Never anything less than a legend in his own mind, Roth fanned such thinking in interviews – he had an odd dislike for Eddie’s guest appearance on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” which he never failed to dis in print – and even put out a solo EP the following year.  Eddie had had enough of his nonsense, and committed what many thought was career suicide by firing him from the band in 1986.


            And so we enter a strange period for Van Halen.  A barrel-chested powerhouse with a couple of oddball solo hits under his belt, Sammy Hagar seemed a deeply strange and oddly humorless replacement for the one-of-a-kind Roth, and even just listing the names of the albums Van Halen produced with him on the mic is kind of embarrassing: after ’86’s 5150 the band cranked out OU812 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, whose sophomoric titles feel like lame attempts to pull one over on fans who loved the Roth-era band as a good-time goof.  But though there’s an ickiness to putting something that abbreviates to F.U.C.K. on your turntable, and though the music has a decidedly late-’80s/early-’90s frat-rock datedness to it, these records are full of outstanding playing by Anthony and the two Van Halens, and whatever your feelings about Hagar, the guy knows how to push the sound out of his lungs.


            5150 was enormous, propelled up the charts by the exquisite caress of Eddie’s lead guitar line and the genuinely moving sincerity of Hagar’s vocal on “Why Can’t This Be Love?”  It seemed astonishing, but everything from the great opening track “Good Enough” on – and that opening title couldn’t possibly be anything but a riposte to those who were wondering whether or not this new version of the band would be just that – sounded unmistakably like the Van Halen everyone knew and loved, and if a new sense of purpose was discernible in red-hot singles like “Dreams” and “Best of Both Worlds,” well, the ’70s were over and the band was settling comfortably into elder-statesmen status.  Unfortunately, the follow-up two years later, OU812, was far less likable.  The big singles were still there – “Finish What You Started” made a splash, and “When It’s Love” was another Hagar-ian power ballad extraordinaire – but on the whole the sense that the good-time air was out of the balloon was hard to ignore.  Like so many great bands, Van Halen seemed a little tired by the dawn of the ’90s, and 1991’s F.U.C.K. was as uninspired as its title.  “Right Now” made the rounds on MTV, but it seemed incredibly uninteresting in those early days of “120 Minutes,” while the rest of the record felt like a vindication of all those who’d warned that Hagar would drag the band down into dullness.  Not that this didn’t have its appeal to Van Halen’s fanbase – the record still hit #1 – but this was no longer a band you turned to for freshness and excitement.


            Never was that more apparent than on 1995’s Balance, when Van Halen themselves seemed to discover just how little spark was left in their formula.  Efforts to enliven matters by giving Hagar more lyrical leeway resulted in duds like “Amsterdam,” while Eddie’s clever playing feels overwhelmed by the same-old-same-old from Sammy’s vocals – it was hard not to see these two much like the Siamese twins depicted on the record’s cover, struggling to get free of each other but literally joined at the hip.  Press reports suggest the two had had a falling-out over drugs and drink: Eddie had undergone treatment for alcoholism while Sammy was writing songs about how much he loved Dutch hash bars.  Arguments between Van Halen and Hagar over the direction the band would take next – Hagar disapproved of plans to release a greatest-hits record, and out-and-out balked at Eddie’s decision to record a new song for the Twister soundtrack – led to the second ousting of a lead singer in a dozen years.  Hagar was given the boot, and that song from Twister, “Humans Being,” was aired regularly on the next large-scale tour in 1998, like a nightly flipping-of-the-bird to Hagar from Eddie.


            But before that tour, there was a brief and risible flirtation with Roth’s returning to the fold.  That best-of record still needed the two new tunes that Hagar had refused to record, and who better to call than the band’s old pal David Lee?  Fan reaction was ecstatic – perhaps a little too much so – and Roth’s hogging the spotlight in a band appearance at the MTV Music Awards in ’96 pissed Eddie off.  Later claims that the reunion was always intended as a one-off may actually have been true, given that most of the press about Roth’s return seems to have come from wishful thinking by rock journalists and interviews with Roth himself, but Roth claims to have been deeply offended when it was announced that Van Halen was moving forward without him.  It can be argued that Eddie was cutting off his nose to spite his face, but the band wound up recruiting Cherone for 1998’s Van Halen III, a move that was greeted with bafflement or even mockery by all but the hardest of the hardcore.  In hindsight, he wasn’t the terrible choice he might have seemed: few records in rock history have a worse reputation, but while III’s rap is probably slightly undeserved – it’s a decent, if completely unrewarding effort – the sour reaction to this third incarnation of Van Halen seems downright unjust when you spin the handful of bootlegs that have survived to document the accompanying tour.  Though underattended, the shows were enlivened considerably by Cherone’s having agreed to sing his predecessors’ signature songs as well as his own, in contrast with Hagar’s refusing to belt out anything that smacked of Roth, and to finally hear this band play “Romeo Delight” and “Why Can’t This Be Love” in succession was long overdue.  The shows were also musically thrilling – Alex and Anthony sounded tighter than ever, while Eddie’s guitar work was perhaps more creative and scintillating than it had been in a decade.  It’s hard to argue that the band wasn’t taking this new lineup seriously, but when the fans aren’t with you, it’s also hard to keep going.  Cherone and Van Halen parted ways amicably shortly after the tour ended, leaving the band in a bit of a limbo state for almost ten years.


            The early 2000’s saw Eddie fighting mouth cancer, bouncing in and out of rehab, and seeing his marriage fall apart.  An abortive reunion with Hagar, backing a greatest-hits compilation, temporarily quashed Roth’s near-constant insinuations that a Roth-fronted Van Halen would be back in the spotlight any day now, but that 2004 “Best of Both Worlds” tour was not wildly well-received.  It is today best remembered for the regular guest spot by Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen on “316,” a song named after Wolfgang’s March 16th birthday.  Wolfgang would prove to be the engine for the band’s eventual rebirth in 2006-7, when Michael Anthony was kicked out and Wolfgang named his official replacement, a move that ironically preceded Van Halen’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by a matter of weeks.  Sadly, substance abuse issues as well as personality conflicts kept the band from making a proper appearance at that induction ceremony – the only ones present were Anthony and Hagar, neither of whom could claim to be proper members of Van Halen anymore.  You might think all this would have boded poorly for the massive Roth-fronted tour that was announced for 2007-8, and contemporary reports indicate that fans were taking bets on how long the tour would last before somebody up and quit, but aside from a brief hiccup midway through, the spectacularly successful tour played through to its closing date in June 2008 in Michigan.  Where the band goes from here is anybody’s guess.

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