Reconsidering the Van Hagar Era
When lead singer David Lee Roth left Van Halen in 1985, it fractured one of rock's most rabid fan bases. While some VH fans continued to pledge their allegiance to the band, an equal amount picked up their flags and took them over to Camp DLR. At the time of the split, I was part of that latter group. When Van Halen announced that their new vocalist would be Sammy Hagar, the former Montrose singer and a successful solo artist in his own right, my fifteen-year-old self's reaction was something along the lines of:
They hired who? The 'I Can't Drive 55' guy? I hate that f**kin' song! F*** that guy! That band is dead to me now!"— Me, circa 1986
...and with that, I walked away from Van Halen fandom for more than a quarter century.
This should give you an idea of how ridiculously deep my loyalty to DLR era Van Halen ran: In the summer of 1988, I attended the semi-legendary "Van Halen's Monsters of Rock" concert package (which featured Van Hagar atop a dream team of '80s heavy-rock hitters that included Metallica, Dokken, and Scorpions) ... and I left before VH even came on! My friends and I were mainly there to see Metallica anyway (who stole the show), but it was a point of heavy metal pride for me to tell people afterwards that I was part of the sizable crowd that marched out of the stadium between the Scorpions and VH sets, chanting, "Hagar's not metal! Hagar's not metal!" all the way back to the car. Soooo...yeah, I robbed myself of what turned out to be my only chance to see Van Halen live, at what was arguably the peak of their late '80s power. (I know, I know...I was an idiot!)
Though I wouldn't cop to it back then, I will confess now that over the years, I occasionally heard "new" VH songs on the radio or MTV and thought, "Hey, that's not bad," but for some reason I still stubbornly refused to acknowledge the validity of Van Hagar. I'm not entirely sure why when I look back, because David Lee Roth certainly wasn't doing much to reward my fandom. Diamond Dave started off strong with his Eat'Em and Smile and Skyscraper solo albums, but by the end of the '80s he was rapidly slipping off the radar. Meanwhile, Van Halen continued to gather strength (and platinum records) with Hagar at the helm. Had I been betting on the wrong horse all this time?
Oddly enough, I owe my newfound appreciation of Hagar-era VH to David Lee Roth. My interest in the band was re-ignited when they welcomed Dave back into the fold and released 2012's (not terrible, but not great) A Different Kind of Truth reunion album. One day I was scrounging through used CDs in a Goodwill store when I found the last few Dave-era albums I needed to upgrade from cassette. There also happened to be a copy of 5150, Sammy's VH debut, on the rack. It was cheap, so I shrugged, thought, "Aww, what the hell," and added it to my pile.
5150 was 30 years old by this time, but the bulk of the tracks (aside from the singles "Dreams" and "Why Can't This Be Love") were "new" to me due to my long standing self-imposed Van Hagar boycott... and I liked that album WAY more than I expected to. (ala Keanu Reeves in "Bill & Ted") Whoa, dude... mind blown!
After taking a chance on 5150, I went on to collect the rest of the Van Hagar catalog -- OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991), LIVE...Right Here, Right Now (1993) and Balance (1995) -- over the next year or so.
"When It's Love"
5150 was a statement of intent, letting fans know that all was well in Van Halen land. It's an even split between the kind of high energy party-rock that VH was famous for ("Good Enough" and "Get Up") and the band's rapidly-developing melodic side ("Dreams" and "Love Walks In"). Hagar's voice easily handles both sides of the new, streamlined VH sound.
OU812 has its fair share of cool tracks like the opener "Mine All Mine" and the to-die-for hit single "When It's Love," but it's let down slightly by its flat production sound. Don't get me wrong, it's still a decent listen but OU812 is the least essential of the Van Hagar albums in my book.
The boys rebounded nicely with For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the hardest hitting of the four Sammy-fronted discs (and my favorite). They come close to all out metal on the delightfully sleazy "Poundcake" and the heavy "Judgment Day," while their the catchy "Runaround" and "Top of the World" satisfied their pop-rock audience. The heartfelt piano ballad "Right Now" is probably best remembered as the commercial theme song for the ill fated soft drink Crystal Pepsi. Van Halen were likely the only people who made a profit from that debacle!
If Sammy's autobiography is to be believed, very little of what we hear on the LIVE: Right Here, Right Now double-disc set was legitimately "live," as the tapes were subjected to considerable touching up in post-production. Still, the album serves as a decent "greatest hits" collection, and it's weird/cool to hear Sammy tackle a couple of Roth-era nuggets like "Jump" (which he reportedly was never crazy about) and "Panama."
Sammy's relationship with the Van Halen brothers was on the rocks by the time they released Balance in 1995, but the behind-the-scenes tensions didn't affect the music. It may not be the most popular pick, but Balance is my second favorite Hagar-era VH, thanks to strong tracks like "The Seventh Seal," "Big Fat Money" and "Aftershock." Sammy must have known the end was near for him with VH and he wanted to go out on a high note.
The final "Van Hagar" release was the single "Humans Being," from the soundtrack to the film Twister. Shortly after appearing with the rest of the band at the film's premiere in May of '96, Sammy announced that he had exited the Van Halen fold.
Sammy's successor was former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone, who appeared on only one studio album, 1998's ill fated Van Halen III. I wish I could be as charitable to that album as I have been to Sammy's era in recent years, but Van Halen III was a dull, directionless dud. Fans seemed to blame Cherone for the album's failure at the time, but given that the late '90s was not the most welcoming era for "legacy" rock artists, I have a feeling that III would have been a flop no matter who the lead singer was.
Summing It Up
I doubt there's anything I can add that would sway the "No Dave, no Van Halen" diehards (and I know there are still some out there!), but thanks to my belated discovery of the Sammy era, I'm listening to more Van Halen nowadays than I did when I as a teenager. I guess three decades is more than long enough to hold a silly teenage grudge. Sorry, Sam!
© 2019 Keith Abt