Simply put, Van Halen is one of the greatest American rock group
s of all time. Built on Eddie Van Halen
's powerhouse guitar abilities, Alex Van Halen
's show-stopping drumming, Michael Anthony
's expert bass
lines, and the vocal talents of David Lee Roth
and later, Sammy Hagar
, Van Halen raised the bar for every hard rock band that followed. From the early 1980's to the late 90's, it was understood that nobody
rocked harder than Van Halen.
Dutch-born brothers Edward and Alex Van Halen immigrated to Pasadena, California in 1967. The sons of a bandleader, Eddie showed phenomenal talent with the guitar, while Alex's instrument of choice was the drums. The duo formed Mammoth, a hard rock group, in the early 1970's. Mammoth's lineup solidified with the addition of vocalist David Lee Roth, then singing for the local band Redball Jet, and bassist Michael Anthony, who was a member of the metal group Snake. In 1974, while playing West Coast clubs and searching for a record deal, the band learned that another music group already owned the rights to the name Mammoth. The artists formerly known as Mammoth scrambled for a new name, and finally settled on Van Halen at Roth's insistence.
In 1977, Van Halen attracted the attention of KISS front man Gene Simmons. Simmons bought studio time for the recording of a 25-song Van Halen demo tape, the strength of which eventually got the group signed to Warner Brothers. While several of the songs on the demo later came to light on Van Halen albums, many others faded into obscurity. These demos have never been released to the public, although an alleged track listing has made the rounds on the internet.
The group's aptly titled debut, Van Halen, was released in 1978 to rave reviews. Word was out about the group and their fun, pop-tinged brand of hard rock, and the album's sales soared. The follow-up, 1979's Van Halen II, gave the band its first Top 20 radio hit with "Dance the Night Away" and eventually went platinum several times over. With two multi-platinum albums and a dedicated following under its belt, Van Halen closed out the decade as headliners on a massive world tour.
The 1980's were a great time for Van Halen. Women and Children First was released in 1980 and was another huge hit, despite having no charting singles. Fair Warning, featuring the concert staple "Unchained", was issued the following year. Fair Warning received a more tepid critical reaction than any previous Van Halen effort, but still sold in high numbers. 1982's Diver Down, while often considered the original group's weakest release, still sold millions of copies and produced a radio hit with an excellent cover of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman". In addition to brisk record sales, Van Halen made a name for themselves with a frantic live show that drew tremendous crowds at every stop. By 1983, Van Halen was one of the top rock acts in the world, but superstardom still evaded the quartet. All that changed with one year and one record: 1984.
Debuting on December 31st, 1983, 1984 was Van Halen's most experimental album to date. Although the basic style of catchy, guitar-based rock hadn't changed, the album broke new ground with Eddie's heavy use of synthesizers. 1984 was a runaway success for the group, giving them a number one radio hit with "Jump", while the singles "Hot for Teacher" and "Panama" broke into the Top 15. The record sold 4 million copies within a year of its release and the videos accompanying the album made Van Halen the darlings of MTV. It was now official: Van Halen was the band of the 1980's.
Despite their continued good fortune, tension began building between "Diamond" David Lee Roth and the other members of the band. During the supporting tour for 1984, the band members were physically separated on stage, hinting at the problems below the surface. Roth was unhappy with the band's increased reliance on synthesizers and was upset when Eddie played guitar on Michael Jackson's "Beat It". Eddie, on the other hand, was sick of Roth's antics, both on and offstage. In 1985, Roth recorded a successful solo record, giving strength to rumors that the vocalist had parted ways with his band mates. Although the rumors proved to be false, Diamond Dave was finally ousted from the group after he hesitated to record the follow-up to 1984.
When it was released, Van Halen's debut album drew comparisons to Montrose, a 1970's rock group fronted by a young Sammy Hagar. Fittingly enough, the band announced in 1985 that Hagar had been selected to replace Roth.
5150, the first album from the new lineup, was released in 1986 and outperformed 1984 in some respects. 5150 was the band's first album to debut at number 1, and featured the hits "Dreams", "Why Can't This Be Love", and "Love Walks In". The album was almost universally applauded by fans and critics alike, proving that the new "Van Hagar" could go on without Roth's showmanship. 1987's Live: Without a Net, a typically festive live set filmed in New Haven, Connecticut, was Van Halen's first video release. Also in 1987, Eddie (sans the rest of the group) was the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live", playing instrumental pieces alongside G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band. OU812 came out in 1988 to an even warmer reception than its predecessor, with "When It's Love" and "Finish What Ya Started" becoming the album's trademark tunes. Winding up the 1980's on a high note, Van Halen carried their reputation and high sales into the next decade.
The 1990's showed promise for the hottest band of the 1980's. Despite raising a few eyebrows with the mischievous acronym that its title made, 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was another strong showing and gave Van Halen their third consecutive number 1 album. The album also scored the group their first Grammy. Live: Right Here, Right Now was released as a video in 1992; the double-length soundtrack album followed in 1993. This double album was another triumph and was the group's first live record. The popularity of 1995's Balance restored Van Halen to the top of the sales charts and proved that they, unlike most of their '80's colleagues, had not been outmoded by the rise of grunge and indie rock.
In 1996, The Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 debuted atop the Billboard chart, a rarity for a greatest hits album. Despite the success of the latest album, the relationship between Hagar and Eddie began to decay. Hagar was unhappy with the release of the greatest hits compilation, and was further enraged when two new tracks recorded for it featured vocals from David Lee Roth. The tensions between Hagar and the rest of the group came to a head in late 1996 when Hagar parted ways with his band mates of 10 years. (According to Eddie, Hagar was fired, while Hagar maintains that he left under his own volition.) For the second time in its life, the Van Halen juggernaut was without a lead singer.
Soon after Hagar's messy departure, the band announced that Gary Cherone, lead singer of 80's Van Halen clone Extreme, would take over the vocal duties on the group's next album. Fans and critics were kept waiting for two years before the third incarnation of Van Halen made its recording debut.
1998's Van Halen III was a critical and (relative) commercial failure. Despite entering the charts at number 4, sales of the album quickly plummeted and Van Halen III remains the band's only album that has failed to go platinum. The album's poor sales, coupled with the paltry attendance on the accompanying world tour, were caused in part by the public's rejection of Gary Cherone as Van Halen's lead singer. Despite having a voice that was very similar to Sammy Hagar's, Cherone simply failed to connect with the band's fans. Realizing this, Van Halen gave Cherone the boot in 1999.
The first years of the 21st century were not kind to the three remaining members of Van Halen or their loyal fan base. In the summer of 2000, the three core members of Van Halen briefly rejoined David Lee Roth in the studio. The reunion resulted in several new songs, the nature and titles of which are still unknown. Despite the fact that Roth went public with this information in early 2001, Eddie himself said that the songs were never intended for release. Shortly thereafter, Eddie reported that he had been diagnosed with a highly-treatable form of tongue cancer. Despite being a life-long smoker, Eddie's recovery was remarkably fast. With the search for a new vocalist going nowhere and no new album on the horizon, Warner Brothers dumped Van Halen in 2002.
Aside from being released from their contract, things were mostly quiet in the Van Halen camp from the end of 2001 to 2004. During the band's hiatus, Eddie insisted that the labeless Van Halen had not stopped searching for a lead singer, and rumors persisted that either Roth or Hagar would front a reunion tour. Michael Anthony lent his talent to successful tours of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, both of whom included Van Halen songs in their repertoire. If Eddie's claims were to be believed, the three remaining members of Van Halen wrote several albums worth of new material during this time. Although unsubstantiated, this claim gave many fans renewed hope that the band would somehow rise from the ashes.
In March of 2004, Van Halen shocked the world by coming out of retirement and announcing that Sammy Hagar had returned to the fold. The group's summer reunion tour coincided with the release of The Best of Both Worlds, a 2-disc greatest hits collection that sold over a million copies within three months of its release. In addition to compiling the best songs of Van Halen's career, the record featured three new songs recorded with Sammy Hagar. Van Halen's 2004 North American tour sold out major venues all over the country and testified to the group's enduring popularity. Van Halen was back in a big way, although the band remained mostly quiet about the prospect of a new album.
To say that Van Halen reshaped the face of modern rock is an understatement. The standards for any type of guitar-oriented rock were raised single-handedly by Eddie Van Halen, and every act that followed in the band's wake placed emphasis on lengthy and technically challenging guitar solos. In many ways, Van Halen's debut instigated a rebirth of the rock genre; over 25 years later, many music critics still see the success of Van Halen as one of the final nails in the disco era's coffin. The band's back catalog remains a treasure trove of hard rock gems, and a devoted fan base promises that any new output will sell well. As they pass their 30th anniversary of existence, only time will tell what the future holds for one of the greatest rock bands the world has ever known.
The Complete Van Halen Discography and Videography, with year of release and certified sales to date
Van Halen...1978...10 million
Van Halen II...1979...5 million
Women and Children First...1980...3 million
Fair Warning...1981...2 million
Diver Down...1982...4 million
Live: Without a Net...1987
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge...1991...3 million
Live: Right Here, Right Now (video)...1992
Live: Right Here, Right Now (album)...1993...2 million
The Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1...1996....3 million
Video Hits, Vol. 1...1996
Van Halen III...1998...500,000
The Best of Both Worlds...2004...1 million
Album sales info: www.van-halen.com/newsite/music.html
Various info: www.allmusic.com, www.music.lycos.com
Special thanks to my best friend Matthew for insisting that I listen to "Eruption" one day in the summer of 1998. I was never the same.