Saturday, April 21, 2012

What If David Lee Roth Had Never Left Van Halen?

Van Halen vs. Van Hagar. An argument as old as time, and just about as boring. Ever since 1985, when David Lee Roth either quit or was fired from Van Halen (depends on who you ask), you’ve had purists claiming the Roth-era is the only true Van Halen, and everything released with Sammy Hagar is watered down, synth-happy pop. Hagar performed on four VH albums over the next ten years, all of them reaching #1 on the Billboard charts, before he also quit and/or was fired (again, it depends on who you ask).

Of course those purists, after years of rumors and false-starts, got their wish when Roth reunited with Van Halen for a monumentally successful tour in 2007. It wasn’t a true reunion of the original band, though. In the ultimate act of rock & roll nepotism, longtime bassist Michael Anthony was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by Eddie Van Halen’s pudgy son, Wolfgang.

Since absolutely no record company was interested in signing the band without Roth or Hagar (the latter of whom ultimately burned those bridges with his amusing tell-all autobiography), this reunion was inevitable.

But where would Van Halen really be today if Roth never left to begin with? To answer this question, it is necessary to go back to what first made Van Halen a household name.

Eddie Van Halen fired the shot heard ‘round the world, at least in rock circles, when his instrumental workout, “Eruption,” was included on the band’s debut album in 1978. Usually coupled on radio with their cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” “Eruption” introduced an unsuspecting audience to an innovative and flashy guitarist who was different from traditional guitar heroes like Clapton, Page, Hendrix and Blackmore. First of all, he was really fucking fast, though much of his ‘speed’ stemmed from a finger-tapping technique which, while not actually fast, prompted many budding guitarists to say, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The point is that Eddie Van Halen, like Hendrix, was an innovator, a master of his instrument, and most listeners were exposed to that through “Eruption,” arguably the first-ever guitar solo that did not require prior knowledge of guitar technique to appreciate. With that one-and-a-half minute track, Eddie Van Halen inspired countless kids to pick up a guitar, and scared the shit out of others still trying to make it in the music business.

But with all due respect to Mr. Van Halen’s musical abilities (easily the MVP on their debut album), it was ultimately David Lee Roth who truly propelled the band to superstardom. No, the man couldn’t really sing very well, his so-called ability to scream paling in comparison to Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant or Ian Gillan (all of whom could sing). But what Roth had that the aforementioned didn’t was a sense of uninhibited, cocky showmanship, as well as enough self-depreciating humor to understand that rock wasn’t supposed to be art…it was supposed to be fun. How the lyrics sounded was a lot more important than the words themselves. He was the member of the band with all the good looks, the one who acted like a rock star, the one invited on all the talk shows, the one who hammed it up in VH's music videos, the one supplying an infinite number of quotable sound-bites for the press. By the time the band released their sixth album, the uberselling 1984, chutzpah and arrogance went a lot further than true talent and, for better or worse, Roth had both. If Eddie was the cake for success, but Roth was the frosting, most people’s favorite part.

Think about it, if pure instrumental virtuosity was the only prerequisite for success, then Yngwie Malmsteen would be the biggest rock star of the 80s. If you don’t know who Yngwie Malmsteen is, then you’ve just confirmed my argument.

So when Roth left (in a very acrimonious break-up), many understandably assumed that was the end of the band. Historically, the simple fact is that many rock bands are most identified by the general public through their lead singers, not who writes all the songs or plays the guitar. And the bigger the band, the more daunting the task of replacing the singer. Very few mega-selling bands in rock history have been able to replace their high-profile lead singers in mid-career and continue the same level of success. One could argue that AC/DC, who were forced to replace the recently deceased Bon Scott with Brian Johnson, are one of the few exceptions. But even they weren't a household name at the time.

Van Halen already was, coming off of the biggest album of their career. Roth’s presence in the band (and the media) was so huge at the time it seemed inconceivable anyone could adequately take his place.

But that’s not how things turned out.

Roth went on to a solo career that, like a shooting star, shined ever-so-brightly before quickly flaming out. At the same time, the remaining members of Van Halen made the single smartest move of their career…they hooked up with Sammy Hagar, essentially turning Van Halen into an 80s version of the supergroup.

At the time, Hagar himself already enjoyed a lucrative solo career, having released several successful solo albums, some of which went platinum. Most rock fans already knew who he was, so this key line-up change was not nearly as big of a risk as replacing Roth with an unknown. Hagar may not have been as goofy or good-looking as Roth, but he could write music, play guitar and was a far-more accomplished vocalist, not to mention he brought along a respectable fan base of his own. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Hagar-era Van Halen albums, hiring Hagar was a great move. At the very least, 5150, the first album to feature Hagar, would sell a lot of copies based solely on the curiosity factor.

In the ensuing decade, longtime Roth fans continued to bitch ad-nauseum that the music of ‘Van Hagar’ was softer, more serious, more keyboard-driven, and it’s hard to argue with such a claim. But really, those same changes in the band’s sound are largely responsible for Van Halen’s continued chart success, long after many other 80s-era metal bands were dropping like flies due to the shifts in musical tastes. And even die-hard Roth zealots have to admit the band, as fronted by Roth, represented the same type of flashy, image-driven, hedonistic and over-the-top ideal that people began to turn away from in the early 90s. Not that Hagar was some sort of down-to-Earth dude who wrote deep introspective lyrics, but unlike Roth, he did often attempt to write about subjects other than sex, cars and getting shit-faced. During his time in VH, Roth was adamantly against adding keyboards to the mix; it has been well-documented he did not want “Jump” (their biggest single) to be included on 1984. Whether or not his stance was a catalyst for his eventual departure (or the surprise success of his EP of cover tunes, Crazy from the Heat) doesn‘t really matter. Simply put, Roth didn’t want VH to change from the tried and true, and Hagar was willing to adapt.

So, the argument here isn’t which version Van Halen is the better one. The argument is that if Roth had remained, Van Halen would probably have a few more platinum selling albums in the 80s before their fan base began to dwindle along with the Poisons, Motley Crues and Ratts. David Lee Roth was excess personified, both on and off-record, and was quite content to remain so, as evidenced by his solo records, which mostly continued the party he started in Van Halen. His first two records (Eat ‘Em and Smile & Skyscraper which sounded a lot like old school Van Halen albums) sold in big numbers. By the time the 90s rolled around, however, most of his fans had grown up and moved on, but he was still unwilling to let-go of his arrogant rock star persona and grow up along with them. Subsequent albums flopped. This provides a strong argument that, while Roth may have been the key to VH's initial superstardom, had he remained in the group, he would have been the catalyst to their downfall.

And what would have become of Sammy Hagar if Roth had remained in the band? Before joining Van Halen, he had a fairly consistent solo career with a reputation as a pretty entertaining live performer. His albums were mostly successful, often going gold and sometimes platinum, but never approaching VH’s numbers. He had a minor hit here and there, the most enduring being his ode to speed, “I Can’t Drive 55.” But when public taste in hard rock began to change, only the biggest of the big (most notably, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Ozzy Osbourne, Guns ’N Roses, and Hagar-era Van Halen) roared into the 90s as though grunge never happened. Hagar’s pre-VH solo music is definitely a product of its time. He himself didn’t become more musically adventurous until he joined VH, which later helped his latter day solo career after he left, when he refashioned himself as a heavy metal Jimmy Buffet. It stands to reason that Hagar, having not hooked up with VH, would continue to be a fairly popular concert draw, but music-wise, he would have experienced a sizeable drop in record sales and popularity. In fact, while he continues to release solo albums on a regular basis, none of them have come close to equaling the sales of his VH albums, or even his 80s solo records.

David Lee Roth’s inevitable 2007 reunion with Van Halen suddenly put the band back in the spotlight after nearly a decade away (VH’s ill-fated attempt to carry-on with Extreme’s Gary Cherone replacing Hagar). The reunion tour, in which the band played nothing but songs from the first six albums, was one of the most successful of the decade, which would never have been the case if Roth hadn’t split back in 1985. Long-time die-hards could look at this as sort of a vindication, an argument that the Roth-era Van Halen is untouchable, and the band simply picked up where they left off in 1984.

There’s the age-old cliché, absence makes the heart grow fonder, especially in the first dozen years of the new century. Legends from the 60s (Cream), 70s (Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath), 80s (Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, The Cars, The Police) and 90s (Stone Temple Pilots, Faith No More, Soundgarden) have regrouped (either permanently or for one-off shows/tours). For the most part, they've been welcomed back with open arms, mostly by those nostalgic for an era when rock music dominated the sales charts, concert halls and airwaves.

Van Halen are currently huge once again, having released the first Roth-era album in 28 years, A Different Kind of Truth, which literally does pick up where they left off in 1984. Many of the 'new' songs sprouted from demos dating as far back as 1978. But rather than being written off as dinosaurs, Van Halen have enjoyed some of the greatest praise of their entire career by returning to the sound which made them famous to begin with. But this doesn't necessarily make them musically relevant again. This is an album that, while debuting at #2 on the Billboard charts, is more a testament to the dedication of its 40-50-something fans than anything else. Hard rock isn't currently doing too well in the music business, so it'll be very interesting to see what happens with Van Halen once the novelty of Roth's return has worn off.

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