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.”