Why Van Halen Was Better with Sammy Hagar

Pound for pound, Van Halen was at one time one of the greatest musical groups alive. They helped lead America out of the Disco era and into the eighties, when tremendously talented acts like Journey, U2 and Ozzy Osbourne roamed the arenas with abandon. It was back when Bruce Springsteen was still relevant and at the top of his game.

People often make the mistake of thinking that I dislike the “early years” when David Lee Roth was the lead singer. This is untrue. I’ve loved the music of Van Halen from their self-titled debut album to Balance. Not every effort was perfection, but every one was worth a listen.

David Lee Roth
Really?
For goodness’ sake, 1984 was literally the first album I continually stole from my brother’s record collection. It’s not my fault he couldn’t find a better hiding place. I was a nine year old boy hungry for music more expansive than the Ghostbusters theme. My older brother, whom I idolized (and some might argue I still do), feathered his hair and wore parachute pants. Maybe this music he listened to all the time was the key to understanding why that was cool.

Needless to say, my grubby little hands found Van Halen and suddenly the world was an open, fresh summer day. I would put the tape in the tape deck I stole from his room whenever he went to work, go out to the front yard and play with my Star Wars action figures as Eddie Van Halen screeched his guitar across the scales.

Of course I’d pretend I didn’t steal it and then use Mom and Dad (especially Mom) to defend my innocence. It’s not my fault I was a little douchebag, David Lee Roth had shown me that it was all right to be a douchebag.

Limits of Love

But the love I have for the early Van Halen has its limits. When I listen today to a song like Everybody Wants Some or even Panama, those spoken-word ramblings from Roth often make my skin crawl. The music was plenty fine, there was no need to hear the feather-haired spandex-clad lead singer adamantly proclaim his heterosexuality. Constantly. We get it, dude. You like to go pick up chicks and have sex.

This doesn’t mean I dislike the David Lee Roth ramblings. I just like them in a certain context, the same chord struck as watching an old movie you might have a reason to love despite its limitations (I’m looking at you, Star Trek V.) David Lee Roth’s Van Halen belongs to yesteryear. It doesn’t age like Journey’s rocker ballads or U2’s anthems. Unlike Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love, I won’t play it a little too loudly when the kids are home.

It’s not just because I have daughters. It’s because I’m not a teenager anymore.

Deeper Meanings

When 5150 came out, the first album with Hagar, I was no longer a nine-year-old douchebag, I was a twelve-year-old jackass. But I was a questioning jackass, trying to make sense of the new emotions and experiences I was having. I was, as anyone going through that time is, confused and overwhelmed. I switched schools, an outcast in a very tightly-knit group of kids. My Grampy and Grammy had died, my first experience with all of those confusing feelings. My dad had suffered a heart attack and had heart surgery, and that one’s tough to get through even though he survived.

I needed something hopeful on which to hang my hat.

5150 was that thing. To this day, I can put on that album and every care drifts away. It’s OK to listen to that music loudly, too, as its libidinous drive is couched in questions about love and destiny. Deep, meaningful questions that lifted it out of the simple chasing-for-action sensibilities of the late 1970s and into more relationship-focused thoughts. There were songs about keeping love alive and compromising for the sake of it.

Dreams, of course, remains one of the unassailably perfect rock songs of all time.

Broader Horizons

Even though it doesn’t get as much love as other efforts, OU812 asks questions about life, love and the world. When the songs talk about getting away or resolving problems, it’s about staying with that special someone, not picking up stakes and moving to greener pastures.

It also opens with my favorite song that Van Halen ever released. Mine All Mine, a song about self-reliance and perseverance through the questions you’ll face about faith and life, remains a song that deserves a lot more love than it gets.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (see what they did there?) is one of those rarities in early 1990s rock albums: nearly perfect. Balance might be an acquired taste, but it still has more hidden gems on it than Diver Down and Fair Warning.

The Final Question

Sammy Hagar
To be honest, I have a hard time recalling a picture or a concert where I didn't see this guy smiling like he was just happy as all get-out to be doing what he was doing. I think the only times I saw him unhappy were on the cover of OU812 and when Eddie kicked him out of the band.
The final question for me is personality. Maybe I should be “better” than this, but it matters to me if the singer leading the band seems like someone I’d like to know, or at least go out to get a beer with him. David Lee Roth fails that test. The guy just comes across as a self-obsessed jackass, who’d c-block you every chance he got until he went home and stranded you at closing. Sammy seems like the kind of guy who’d take you out, pick up the check and make sure that everyone had a good time.

Yeah, that matters to me. Sammy seems grateful to the world for his good fortune, whereas Roth seems like someone who thinks it was owed to him. Maybe that’s the key to the personality shift in the band after Hagar joined. Maybe that’s why I’ll always be more likely to be listening to Carnal Knowledge at the gym than Van Halen II.

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13 thoughts on “Why Van Halen Was Better with Sammy Hagar

  1. First and foremost: to each his own.

    Secondly, calling “Dreams” an “unassailably perfect song” is like calling Robert Downey, Jr. an unassailably perfect actor: the balance of the statement may seem to be true, but it completely disregards the unassailable terribleness of the first impressions left by each (in Downey’s case, please see: the SNL experiment, Back to School, Johnny Be Good; for “Dreams”, I will simply refer you to the awful synth intro, seemingly stolen from a lost Loverboy album from 1983.)

    Balance vs. Diver Down is one of those debates in which I’ll never cede an inch, even if I might actually be wrong. Diver Down is a wonderfully fun party record, no matter how much guitar nerds love to hate on it for being “Roth’s album”. The fact is that Van Halen cut their teeth as a cover band playing beer bars, and it’s a wonderfully fun re-visitation to the band’s roots. If you ever get a chance, poke around on the Internet and find those fabulous live bootleg tracks of Gazarri’s-era Van Halen playing covers by Bowie, ZZ Top and the Stones. So much fun, and such a good reminder that VH might have been groundbreaking, their influences were pretty middle-of-the-road.

    (In terms of hidden gems…..dude: Little Guitars. One of only TWO romantic love songs of the entire Roth era. Bonus points if you can name the other).

    I’ll give you Fair Warning, if you want. Never been my favorite of that era….

    As for the “nicer guy” argument, that’s a slippery slope. Lead singers generally aren’t known for being wonderful people to be around. That said, I’ve always kind of suspected that the true a-hole in that band just may have been Eddie.

    1. As always, my friend, I appreciate the comment. I’ll retort:

      1. With Dreams: From the first moment of that song, I think you can’t go wrong. I consider it a perfect blend of the synth and guitar sensibilities that were invading the world of Rock at the time. The experiment that started with Jump (in its own right a ‘perfect’ song) hits another peak with ‘Dreams’ and then appears again with ‘Mine All Mine’. But as you said, to each their own.

      2. It’s hard to defend Balance if it doesn’t appeal to someone. It just speaks to me. As for Diver Down, it never really spoke to me, but if you’ll permit me to geek out a bit on my own: ‘Women and Children First’ holds a special place in my heart (second Van Halen album I ever purchased on my own). Which brings me to: “In A Simple Rhyme”, which I think qualifies as the answer for bonus points. 🙂

      3. Yeah, it is a slippery slope, especially considering the front man of my favorite all-time band is arguably one of the biggest a-hole messes ever to hold a mic. But still…Morrison at least seemed like he’d be a good time in either the very early years before he went all train wreck on everyone, or the very later years when he was a mellower, functional addict.

    2. I agree with every word you have said, tonbabydc. Although it’s all a matter of taste, the synthesizers for “Dreams” were definitely not my cup of tea. And, I was never a huge fan of “Diver Down”, but it definitely beats out “Balance.”

      This is not Van Halen, but it is one of my favorite Roth videos from the 80’s…

  2. I have been a Van Halen Fan since high school, which isn’t really very long considering how long they have been around. It was the summer of 2005 that I became a fan, I was going onto my Junior year in high school. I hadn’t been exposed to to much rock music at the time (that would change fast). I enjoyed some bands like Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Guns n Roses. I picked up Van Halen’s debut album one day and gave it a listion, loved it almost right away. I had to own all of the bands albums. I soon owned the first 6 albums.

    Van Halen was one of my favorite bands (and still is). One day I talked to my uncle about the band and he said that he also liked them. However he Said that when Hagar became lead singer they sucked. I had not known who Sammy Hagar was. That night I looked up Van Halen online and discovered that the band had 2 other singers besides David Lee Roth. I soon picked up a copy of 5150. I was shocked, It instantly became one of my favorite Van Halen albums. I couldn’t believe how much crap people gave Sammy. Soon I owned all of the bands albums from the Debut to Balance. I liked both Roth and Hager equally.

    I still to this day have not changed my opinion. I think that the Roth era was very fun but the Hagar era had depth and meaning. It really depends on my mood when im am picking which one to listin to. I cant say I like one more then the other.

    1. Austin,

      Thanks for the comment! It definitely appears that the Roth/Hagar split between the eras is super contentious for some. Like you, I enjoy both for what they are, it’s just that I enjoy them with Hagar more. I think that the sound was more robust and, like you say, they had some depth and meaning.

    1. I’m not sure. The first album I ever stole from my brother was 1984, and it remains a favorite. One of the first albums I ever bought with my own money was Van Halen II. Well…I talked my dad into buying it for me. But I didn’t take it from my brother. 🙂

      On Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 9:08 AM, kessel korner

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