Alex Van Halen on Hagar and Roth, the magic of Eddie, and finding Balance with Bruce Fairbairn


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 babysitter 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:

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Charlie Musselwhite, 2002
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Lenny Kravitz, 1998
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1998
Tinsley Ellis, 1992
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Sue Foley, 1992
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Terry Adams of NRBQ, 1997
Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, 1984
Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 2010
Slash of Guns N’ Roses and Slash’s Snakepit, 1995
Sonny Rhodes, 1999
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Chris Whitley, 1991
Buddy Cage of New Riders of the Purple Sage, 2006
Bill Elm of Friends of Dean Martinez, 1995
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Lee Rocker from the Stray Cats, 2007
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Sean Costello, 2006
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Tommy Stinson from the Replacements, 1993
Brian Blush of the Refreshments, 1997
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Joe Jackson, 2003
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David Lee Roth, 2003
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John Popper of Blues Traveler, 1991
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Joe Perry of Aerosmith, 1993
Ellen McIlwaine, 2001
Derek Trucks of Tedeschi Trucks, 2012
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Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, 1985
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, 2003
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Keith Strickland of the B-52s, 2008
David Johansen of the New York Dolls, 2005
Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon, 2003
Todd Kerns, 2016
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Tommy Shannon of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Trouble, 1998
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Dave Martone, 2020
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Joss Stone, 2012
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Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
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Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
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Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
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Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
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Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Steve Lynch of Autograph, 1985
Don Wilson of the Ventures, 1997
Gordie Johnson of Big Sugar, 1998
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
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Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
David Gilmour from Pink Floyd, 1984
Jeff Healey, 1988
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1996
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
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Bob Rock, 1992
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Billy Idol, 1984
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John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
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Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Doyle Bramhall II, 2001
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Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Randy Bachman, 2001
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Rob Hirst of Midnight Oil, 2001
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Jennifer Batten, 2002
Mike Fraser, 2014
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David Gogo, 1991
Booker T. Jones, 2016
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Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers, 2016
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Lindsay Mitchell of Prism, 1988
Buddy Miles, 2001
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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
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Otis Rush, 1997
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, 1989
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Robert Plant, 1993
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Steve Clark of Def Leppard, 1988
Ronnie Montrose, 1994
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Ann Wilson of Heart, 1985
J.J. Cale, 1990
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Chris Cornell, 2008
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Allan Holdsworth, 1983
Kim Mitchell, 1984
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B.B. King, 1984
Albert Collins, 1985
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Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath, 1984
Dick Dale, 2000
Greg Allman, 1998
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….with hundreds more to come

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