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Van Halen career retrospective
Van Halen career retrospective
by: Red Rocker

Music Home / Entertainment Channel / Bullz-Eye Home

Nobody can really blame the Van Halen brothers for trying in vain these past few years to get the old mates back together and give it one more go. It’s been 20 long years now since those glory days of releasing one incredible classic rock album after the next, year after year. When the 50-year-old Eddie and little brother Alex hit the road in June for a full-blown 40-plus city tour of America, with VH Mach II singer Sammy Hagar in tow, it was for the express purpose of disproving not only their critics but fans alike. That, and piles upon piles of money. 

Not even the most devout fan could say with a straight face that this burying of the proverbial hatchet, nearly five years in the making, didn’t happen without Eddie and Alex swallowing a lot of pride. After all, how many times over the past few years did Eddie publicly take issue with Sammy, then with David Lee Roth, then with Sammy some more? Only Guns n’ Roses can rival them in terms of melodrama. 

Ultimately, the soap opera that is Van Halen hit a landmark new high (or low, depending on your point of view) a couple years ago when Sammy and Dave hit the road together for a reunion tour of their own. All those great Van Halen songs from the back catalog, performed by the lead singers who made them great. The only thing missing was the rest of the band. No Eddie. No Alex. Not even Michael Anthony.

And so the saga continued….

Another year and a half came and went with bickering between agents, empty promises of what might be, and reported new songs tucked away in an enchanted vault in Eddie’s 5150 studio. Then the calendar flipped to 2004 and the rock gods intervened to assemble the long-awaited reunion tour, complete with all the dazzling pomp and circumstance of a Hollywood film premiere. But could this epic event -- you know, the two hours each night when they actually take the stage -- possibly live up to the magnificent hype? I, for one, don’t see how it can. Then again, so few artists do anymore that it might not even matter. Sound cynical enough? Well, I’m not completely pessimistic; I bought a ticket.

Let’s take a step back long enough to examine exactly what brought these four mere mortals to this point in time. As ancient rock lore would tell it, KISS’s Gene Simmons spotted the brothers in the Starwood Club in L.A. sometime about 1976. They were gigging with a young, extravagant vocalist named David Lee Roth, who had drifted in from Bloomington, Indiana (which would explain the bib overalls in the “California Girls” video). A bassist named Michael Anthony had also recently joined ranks with the band, currently running the Hollywood club scene under the lackluster moniker of Mammoth. Simmons would produce a makeshift demo for them (reportedly an early configuration of “Runnin’ with the Devil”) but all the major studios snubbed it in quick fashion. One full year later, an eternity at this tenuous point in a career, a producer from Warner Brothers Records named Ted Templeman eyed them at the same Starwood Club and convinced a partner of his to sign them immediately.

Within months, the band released their eponymous debut in 1978, penning a monumental chapter in the annals of rock n’ roll history. Can you even imagine life in the early 1980s without Camero tape decks cranking up “Eruption/You Really Got Me”? Once a label ogre like Warner Brothers put their marketing muscle behind these wayward kids, the next several years of celebrated hit making began to take shape. That 1978 debut, as fine as it was with the unmistakable treasures "I'm the One" and "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," did not command the spotlight for long: Van Halen II dropped the very next year. On the spot, radio nuggets like “Beautiful Girls” and “Dance the Night Away” touted the songwriting and arena rock fury that the Van Halen camp had to offer. And they were just getting started.

By the dawn of 1980, when Women and Children First hit shelves, Eddie and Alex were in their mid-20s and yet already staking a claim alongside titans of the period like Aerosmith, Ted Nugent and KISS. Eddie’s vibrant guitar work across new tracks such as “And the Cradle Will Rock” and “Everybody Wants Some” was garnering industry cred and getting his name tossed onto lists with Hendrix and Clapton. (Alex was no slouch on the drums, either.) The studio recordings kept pouring out in 1981 with the renowned Fair Warning. Many feel this record was and is their crowning achievement. “Mean Street,” “Unchained” and “Sinner’s Swing” are among the best songs they’ve ever written, but the album is top-to-bottom as solid a hard rock album as there was in that decade. 

Then, when you thought the Van Halen machine couldn’t possibly turn out another masterpiece, an unfathomable fifth in as many years, they delivered the goods with 1982’s Diver Down. It instantly shot up the charts, spawning Top-40 hits like “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Dancing in the Streets,” both covers but very worthy. An unheard of six months away from the studio followed in early 1983, though the touring regiment was extreme for Diver Down. They were simply on a pace that no human being(s) could expect to maintain. 

But fear not, break-up rumors and understandable tension was quickly calmed by year’s end as the larger-than-life 1984 project took form. It is nearly impossible to imagine nowadays, but Van Halen’s sixth studio album in less than seven years instantly became their biggest seller to date. Radio and MTV had a field day with the feisty “Jump,” a controversial step for the band at the time with its inclusion of that overriding synthesizer part. Any hullabaloo over the direction of this colossal band was soon forgotten when “Panama,” “Hot for Teacher” and “I’ll Wait” owned the radio and video waves for the months to come.

Like the brightest stars in the galaxy, however, even the most searing fires must die eventually. As 1984 wore on, it was more and more apparent that tension between the brothers and DLR was reaching the inevitable boiling point. When Eddie left the 1984 tour exhausted but still dove right into side production work on some of ex-Montrose lead man Sammy Hagar’s solo records, the writing was, as they say, on the wall. Couple this with Roth’s own solo exploits (Crazy from the Heat would come out in 1985), and the giant ball of yarn that was Van Halen had all but completely unwound itself.

Those studio sessions with Eddie and Sammy produced far more than a couple of decent Hagar solo records. In early 1986 it was announced that a new Van Halen (not Van Hagar, as was previously reported) album would find stores by the summer, with Hagar singing lead. Anticipation abounded as 5150 was ushered out, chalk full of vintage summertime hits like “Dreams” and “Summer Nights.” With the new episode in VH history, fans began taking sides, almost like the floor of the Capitol in Washington DC. Were you with the new Sammy base or did you stay loyal to Dave? Simultaneously, DLR’s solo career was taking flight with his Eat ‘Em and Smile effort the same year, and all seemed well for both sides.

The ‘80s trudged on and Van “Hagar” continued to bask in success following the much-disputed lead singer transition. OU812 (1988) and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) were each retail hits and generated equally accomplished world tours. In fact, there was no bigger band in the world by 1991. VH was selling out the hugest arenas and stadiums domestically and overseas. The freight train was about to derail, however, in the immediate years to come. Live: Right Here, Right Now (a two-disc concert package) pacified the consuming public temporarily in 1993, but the harsh reality was merely being prolonged. The well-documented turmoil within the band strangled any creativity for 1995’s Balance, an outing that even Bruce Fairbairn’s slick production work couldn’t salvage. Sammy’s continued interest in his solo career, Eddie’s mounting (if unpublicized) health issues, and a broad overhauling in the FM rock landscape at the hands of Nirvana and Pearl Jam had the Van Halen ship taking on more water than ever.

Ultimately, Sammy was ousted (or walked, depending on who’s talking) toward the end of 1996, and the long-time trio of consummate musicians was once again without a voice. The routine rumor mill turned regarding a front man, even DLR’s name resurfaced after a dishonorable group showing at the MTV Video Music Awards. Alas, a dark horse emerged in Gary Cherone (formerly of Extreme) resulting in the ill-advised Van Halen III in 1998, clearly the band’s lowest point. Although Eddie would never admit a misstep, the plug was pulled on this latest adaptation of Van Halen almost before it began. And more time passed. 

Fast forward to our current decade, where Eddie is still battling throat cancer and the future of the band is in ominous shape. David Lee was busy touring the seedy clubs of America throughout 2000 on a ticket that boasts “an evening of Van Halen songs,” while Sammy is also tasked churning out mediocre Waboritas albums full of songs about tequila. The heavyweight battle of champions peaked two years ago in 2002 when Sammy and Dave paired up for a summer amphitheater jaunt across the country, sharing a stage and performing all the old VH songs. This shocking tour no doubt had to contribute to Eddie’s underlying illness. He had sworn them both off as potential reunion tour mates with Van Halen, yet was chomping at the bit to hit the road in an attempt to recoup Van Halen’s dwindling fan base. Instead, Eddie was laid up in a hospital bed surviving cancer while Diamond Dave and Sammy were out making big bank with his songs. You just can’t make this stuff up. 

But time does apparently heal all wounds, at least if that time is applied generously with enough soothing dollar bills. When the ’04 edition of Van Halen rolls across the U.S. this summer, it will once again be with buoyant lead singer Sammy Hagar in tow. Keep in mind that, unlike the brothers and Michael, Sammy is now closer to 60 than he is 50. If not now for him, when? For their part, the other three members have been yearning for the chance to take the stage once more, if only to erase Gary Cherone from our collective memory once and for all. Whether with Sam or Dave, this deal was going to get done. 

In the end, the brothers Van Halen were not meant to ride off into the Hollywood sunset so quietly, or so soon, without shaking one final middle finger at those who said it’d never happen. So like The Who, KISS and Robert Plant before them, these icons of ‘80s adolescence will take the road more traveled and provide a final chapter to their 25-year career. So friends, fill your Bic lighters, tear another hole in the leg of those skin-tight Levi’s, and “just give into what this place has got to offer because we may never be here again!” 

~Red Rocker

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