Alex Van Halen dishes “a little dirt” on who the original VH vocalist could have been

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, SEPT. 7, 1995

By Steve Newton

Sometimes it seems as if there are two kinds of people in the world: David Lee Roth folks and Sammy Hagar folks. Dave folks are kind of a wild bunch—they prefer their music with a raw edge, full of primitive, howling vocals and finger-numbing guitar solos. Sammy folks are a little less rowdy—they go for more streamlined, melodic rock numbers, maybe the odd keyboard-laced love ballad here and there.

Dave folks tend to be stuck in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They’re apt to get in your face at the mere mention of “the H word”, hollering “Van Halen II rules!” and “Hagar’s a wuss!” Sammy folks might counter with the description of Roth as a macho, Jack Daniels–guzzling jerk with the vocal stylings of a goat in heat.

About the only thing Dave folks and Sammy folks can agree on is that Van Halen is—or at least was—one of the best rock ’n’ roll bands on the planet.

The Roth/Hagar question is one that will no doubt be bandied about by opinionated rock fans for years to come. The weird thing is, according to VH drummer Alex Van Halen, there almost never was a Dave-versus-Sammy saga in the first place.

“It’s funny,” says Van Halen, calling from Boston on the world tour that visits the Pacific Coliseum on Wednesday (September 13). “Before we went in the studio to record our first record, the powers that be—the people behind the scenes—really wanted to have Sammy come in and sing with the band. It didn’t work out, because Sammy was already established, and since there is a business side to record companies, I guess they felt, ‘Ah, let’s not take a shot on this thing, because this Van Halen band hasn’t been proven.’ So I’m givin’ ya a little dirt here.”

It’s hard to picture Van Halen circa 1978 without the swaggering presence of Diamond Dave. Could Sammy Hagar’s vocals have injected the same raspy bluster that made Van Halen’s first hit, its cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”, such a massive hit? Judging by his performance on his monumental Montrose debut—from which Van Halen lifted tunes during its early club gigs—you’d sure think so.

Then again, seeing as how guitarist Eddie Van Halen has always been the musical centre of the group, maybe the front-man position hasn’t been all that crucial to the band’s success. Since its formative days as L.A. club fave Mammoth, the group has always shown the drive to make it big any way possible.

“We played seven nights a week,” says Van Halen, “all over the L.A. club scene. We would go within about a 100-mile radius of L.A. and cover a lot of ground, and we just found that no matter where we went, there were people who liked what we did. So we got to the point where we decided we should just promote our own shows. We’d rent a building that would fit about 5,000 people and out of our pocket we’d get some PAs and lighting and we’d pack the place. This was in lieu of trying to approach record companies and forcing a tape down their throats, ’cause rarely does that work. I’ve seen how many tapes these people receive, and you’re better off tryin’ to win the lottery.

“And also at that time punk rock was huge, and record companies didn’t want anything to do with the kind of music that we were making, so we figured, ‘Well, we’ll just raise a stink our own way, and they can’t help but notice.’ ”

And notice they did. One night producer Ted Templeman and record-company executive Mo Ostin witnessed Van Halen in full flight during a 99-cent-beer night at Hollywood’s Starwood Club, and the rest is history—to the tune of more than 60 million albums sold worldwide. The release earlier this year of Balance marks the fourth Van Halen studio album with Hagar at the mike; the band made six records with Roth singing, including 1982’s cover-oriented Diver Down.

“The least favourite [album recorded with Roth] was Diver Down,” says Van Halen, “and that’s only because there started to be a lot of conflict within the band. Roth had one idea—he wanted to do cover songs because he wanted a hit single—and we wanted to play our music. I mean, Ed had so many songs that were incredible, but I guess out of what you would call mutual respect we decided, ‘Well, if that’s really what you want to do, then we’ll do that.’

“But you can’t undo the past. I don’t dissect it into the Roth era and then the Sammy era, I really don’t, because the essence and the core and the heart of this band is still the same. Ed has always written the music, so it doesn’t really matter. And I think when Sammy joined, it finally became complete, as opposed to being Roth and a band—that’s how Roth saw it, anyway.”

Since leaving the Van Halen fold, Roth has had his ups and downs. Early solo hits like “Just a Gigolo” and “Yankee Rose” showed promise for the lion-maned crooner, but his latest CD, Your Filthy Little Mouth, went nowhere. Somewhere in between he recorded A Little Ain’t Enough in Vancouver with Bob Rock, who coincidentally was one of the producers Van Halen approached to work on Balance. The band ended up having another well-known Vancouverite, Bruce Fairbairn, man the controls at its own studio in L.A.

“We didn’t want to make For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Part II,” says Van Halen of the move to Fairbairn from previous producer Andy Johns. “We were concerned that if Andy was involved we would have that again. And we didn’t want to produce ourselves: you really need a fifth member of the band to make decisions in certain areas.

“It’s important to keep in mind that the term producer is kind of vague,” he adds. “It could mean anything from a baby-sitter to a cowriter to a guy who plays almost all the instruments to a psychiatrist. But with Bruce, when he first walked in the room, one of the first things he asked was, ‘Well, let’s hear the music.’ You know, all these other people that came in had given us a list of their credits, and what they thought of the old records, but if you keep hammering on the old stuff, all you’re gonna do is repeat it. We don’t want to repeat it! At least not consciously. So after Bruce said that, we thought, ‘Shit, what a novel approach. Let’s go!’ ”

With Balance already approaching the three-million mark in sales, it appears Van Halen has found a producer to help keep its string of successes intact. There appears to be no stopping the brotherly core that first acquired its love of music some 30 years ago in Holland.

“I think music is one of those things that’s in your blood,” says Van Halen. “Even before we played instruments we were drawn to the marches that my dad, who was in the air force band, would bring home on records. Ed and I would march around the table for hours on end. You kinda realize that music can be hypnotic; it can change your perspective on time.”

Strangely enough, after the brothers had studied classical piano for 10 years at their mom’s urging, it was Alex Van Halen who first picked up the guitar, while Eddie handled the drum kit.

“After about a week or two we decided to change, because I didn’t care for the guitar and Ed didn’t care for drums. I had taken flamenco lessons and all that, and I could read, but there was no connection between me and the instrument. To me it was just a piece of wood with metal strings. But when Ed picked it up, he just connected with it instantly; it was as if it was meant to be there all along.”

 

To hear the full audio of my 21-minute interview with Alex Van Halen subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can also eavesdrop on my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Edgar Winter, 2005
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Randy Hansen, 2001
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1982
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
Zakk Wylde of Pride & Glory, 1995
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
Rob Baker of the Tragically Hip, 1997
Tommy Emmanuel, 1994
John Petrucci of Dream Theater, 2010
Eric Johnson, 2001
Stu Hamm, 1991
Gene Simmons of Kiss, 1992
Ace Frehley from Kiss, 2008
David Lee Roth, 1994
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
John Mayall of the Bluesbreakers, 1988
Steve Vai, 1990
Tony Iommi of Heaven and Hell, 2007
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 1996
Geoff Tate of Queensryche, 1991
James Hetfield of Metallica, 1986
Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1990
Rick Richards of the Georgia Satellites, 1988
Andy McCoy and Sam Yaffa of Hanoi Rocks, 1984
Steve Morse, 1991
Slash of Guns N’ Roses, 1994
Brian May from Queen, 1993
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1991
Jake E. Lee of Badlands, 1992
Rickey Medlocke of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1997
John Fogerty, 1997
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1987
Rick Derringer, 1999
Robin Trower, 1990
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, 1994
Mick Ronson, 1988
Geddy Lee of Rush, 2002
Buck Dharma of Blue Oyster Cult, 1997
Michael Schenker, 1992
Vince Neil of Motley Crue, 1991
Vinnie Paul of Pantera, 1992
Joan Jett, 1992
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden, 1988
Sebastian Bach of Skid Row, 1989
Rob Halford of Judas Priest, 1984
Bill Henderson of Chilliwack, 1999
Paul Rodgers, 1997
R.L. Burnside, 1999
Guthrie Govan of the Aristocrats, 2015
Mick Mars of Mötley Crüe, 1985
Carlos Santana, 2011
Walter Trout, 2003
Rudy Sarzo of Quiet Riot, 1983
Tommy Aldridge, 2001
Donald “Duck” Dunn, 1985
Mark Farner of Grand Funk, 1991
Chris Robinson of Black Crowes, 1990
Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
Leo Kottke, 2002
Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, 2002
David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
Link Wray, 1997
James Reyne from Australian Crawl, 1988
Mike Rutherford of Genesis, 1983
Buddy Guy, 1991
Country Dick Montana of the Beat Farmers, 1990
Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
Gary Rossington of Lynyrd Skynyrd, 1986
Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
Eddie Money, 1988
Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith, 1983
Gaye Delorme, 1990
Dave Murray of Iron Maiden, 1984
Graham Bonnet of Alcatrazz, 1984
Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac, 2016
Doc Neeson of Angel City, 1985
Rik Emmett of Triumph, 1985
Sonny Landreth, 2016
Tosin Abasi of Animals as Leaders, 2016
Jeff Beck, 2001
Albert King, 1990
Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, 1992
Peter Frampton, 1987
Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
Leslie West of Mountain, 2002
Steve Howe of Yes, 2017
Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden, 1983
Uli Jon Roth, 2016
Poison Ivy of the Cramps, 1990
Greg Lake of ELP, 1992
Robert Plant, 1993
Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson of AC/DC, 1983
Warren Zevon, 1992
Tal Wilkenfeld, 2016
Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Roy Buchanan, 1986
Gary Moore, 1984
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
Danny Gatton, 1993
Alex Lifeson of Rush, 1992
Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
Yngwie Malmsteen, 2014
Chris Cornell, 2008
Long John Baldry, 1985
Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
Warren Haynes of Allman Brothers, 1994
Derek Trucks, 1998
Susan Tedeschi, 1998
Joe Satriani, 2018
B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
Ronnie James Dio, 1985
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
Dickey Betts, 2001
…with hundreds more to com

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