Van Halen or Van Hagar?

Last updated 09:02 17/10/2011

With speculation that Van Halen has a new studio album ready to release, the band's first in well over a decade - and its first with original lead singer David Lee Roth in 27 years - I thought it was time to look at the group's lead singers. First there was Roth then there was Sammy Hagar. Briefly, sadly, there was Gary Cherone (you might remember him, even more sadly, as the poodle-haired singer of More Than Words). Then there was Sammy Hagar again. Then David Lee Roth again.

In the madness that is the Van Halen story, Roth and Hagar - no strangers to bad-mouthing each other in the press - even went out on a co-headlining tour where they performed solo material and sang their respective Van Halen hits without the Van Halen brothers (Alex and Eddie).

David Lee RothNow David Lee Roth is back in the band - has been for a while. But bassist Michael Anthony, long serving/long suffering, was given the boot in favour of Eddie's son, Wolfgang Van Halen. Wolfie took to the stage with the family band when he was just 15 years old. The band is now some twisted grotesque - a near-novelty act; a wax-museum version of its former self. They're probably still fun to see - doing the hits. But they're riding on whatever is left of the name.

Anthony and Hagar are now part of Chickenfoot (with Joe Satriani and Chad Smith). I wrote about the band's new album just the other week.

There are Van Halen fans who enjoy the David Lee Roth material and the Sammy Hagar material - or Van Hagar as it is sometimes called.

There are definitely fans who enjoy the David Lee Roth material only. I presume there are some who prefer the Hagar material or maybe even listen exclusively to Van Hagar rather than the original Van Halen.

Van Halen formed in 1974. The first album was released in 1978. Roth left the band by 1985. So he racked up 11 years (for his first tenure).

Hagar also served for 11 years. He took over from Roth in 1985 and last appeared on a full studio album with the band in 1996.

Roth's material is spread across the band's first six albums. With Hagar there were only four albums.

It is best not to think about the album the band recorded with Cherone. It is, to date, the last full-length studio recording featuring the Van Halen name. It seemed to go straight to the graveyard, via the bargain bins.

David Lee Roth was the wild-man pretty-boy with the hard partying lifestyle - he helped create the Van Halen image and lived up to it every chance he could get, sometimes squeezing several days into one or two nights.

Sammy Hagar was the older, cooler head that came in to revitalise the band, to consolidate. He certainly knows how to party - he now owns his own Tequila franchise and several clubs. Hagar had been in Montrose, he had a solo career. Hagar had done his road-miles, earned his stripes.

David Lee Roth went out on a high - the band having released 1984 with the huge hit Jump.

So when Hagar came in and the band released 5150 they went to number one, surpassing 1984. You could argue that the groundwork was set, the heavy lifting had been handled by Roth but this was the start of a new sound from Van Halen - songs like Why Can't This Be Love and Love Walks In saw Van Hagar going down the pop-ballad path. And succeeding.

It's worth mentioning that the record company sincerely wanted a name-change and was quite happy to go with Van Hagar. The brothers weren't budging and Van Halen, the name, stayed put.

Across OU812 and then For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge the band continued to have huge hits under Hagar.

Sammy HagarThe Carnal Knowledge album saw Van Halen succeed in the era ushering in grunge - a reaction, in part, to bands like Van Halen. The song Right Now is something that David Lee Roth could never have written or sung.

But Sammy Hagar couldn't cope with having to perform a lot of the David Lee Roth material. He hated, in particular, singing Jump - a hard song to sing. He handled Panama a little better but insisted on bringing in songs from his solo albums to bolster the sets when playing live.

The plus side of this was that Hagar is no slouch as a guitarist and this freed Eddie up to perform live keyboard parts.

It seems to be the general feeling that David Lee Roth is the spirit of Van Halen. He certainly didn't achieve anything outside of the group beyond the very early solo fame when still riding on the band's glory. He would have been no threat to Eddie at all - as he did something that Eddie cannot do. He was a singer, a frontman. Hagar is not as good as Eddie as a guitarist but the mere fact that he could compete, that he had a career outside and away from Van Halen, was probably a threat from the very start.

Hagar also struggled after leaving Van Halen (following the underrated Balance album). He made increasingly terrible solo albums - but he's returned to his rock-band strengths with Chickenfoot; a group that blasts back to the 1970s feel and vibe. You could argue that they owe more to Montrose and its influences than to Van Halen. I'd even suggest that, if anything, Chickenfoot sounds, perhaps ironically, more like David Lee Roth-era Van Halen than Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen.

I like plenty of the Van Hagar material but I do love those early Van Halen records. My all-time favourite Van Halen album though is 5150.

I'm happy with the best of both worlds. Two different singers - vastly different in fact; I can take the band with either David Lee Roth at the wheel or with Sammy Hagar at the helm.

That said, I think a new Van Halen album would have sounded better with Hagar involved. I think his Chickenfoot material has shown he's still got it; has given him a new lease of life as a performer and recording artist.

So what do you think? Van Halen or Van Hagar? Do you have very definite ideas about what version of Van Halen works best? Are you looking forward to a new album or is the band dead and gone as far as you're concerned? What's your favourite Van Halen lineup? And what's your favourite VH album? Do you think they can still cut it on record or is it too late for them to the wow the world one more time?

Postscript: if you are looking for a great music biography for your Kindle I'd thoroughly recommend Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga by Ian Christe.

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And follow Off the Tracks to read 'The Vinyl Countdown' - an album-by-album review of my record collection.

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63 comments
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Shane   #1   09:12 am Oct 17 2011

Never like Van Halen as a band and neither of the the frontmen as solo artists.

That said I have just got a copy of the debut Van Halen album and while it won't convert me to being a big fan of the following material, I have enjoyed listening to it.

I have also got both Chickenfoot albums and would have to agree that the could be compared to the early Van Halen feel. But that seems to be more about the fun of the current band, let's see how they sound four of five albums in.

Warwick   #2   09:17 am Oct 17 2011

I agree with you re Van Halen. They were great, they changed and got greater. Then something very weird happened... I prefer Van Hagar, but the early Van Halen is still good. Just some times I get sick of Roths whooping and squealing. The Charone album, can we just pretend it never happened? Please?

EVH is God   #3   09:19 am Oct 17 2011

Personally I think DLR erra songs were better, but Sammy Hagar sure can sing better then DLR could ever dream of.

If Van Halen could write songs from Davids era but get Sammy to sing them then everything would have been perfect :)

my 2 cents

Frank Sinatra   #4   09:24 am Oct 17 2011

The first two 'Van Halen' albums (I & II) were fantastic rockers, but after that the records are forgettable until '1984'. It was an age where a record every year or so was the norm and a lot of each record was filler (even the case with '1984').

With Hagar they reached new heights with both sound and lyrics, though perhaps never had that true 'Van Halen' sound quite again. 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge' and 'Balance' were quite different to '5150' and 'OU812', with 'Balance' being a particularly different sound. As you say, it is definitely underated - 'Baluchitherium' has to be one of the greatest instrumentals of all time.

The strange thing is that the last song of the Hagar era and the two songs recorded by Roth for the 'Best of' (i.e. 'Human's Being', 'Can't Get This Stuff No More', and 'Me Wise Magic') were some of their best. If only one of them had still been around for a year or two more and we could have had some more greats and also been spared the diabolical 'Van Halen III'.

Alas, I fear their best days are well past. From the accounts of Hagar's 'Red', it's probably taken at least 10 years for Eddie to lay down his guitar tracks. Without Michael Anthony too, they are a mere shadow of their former selves.

Kent   #5   09:28 am Oct 17 2011

Van Halen 1st six records is what rock n roll should sound like..Shane does`nt know what he is talking about,Comparing Van Halen to chickenfoot?? You lose all crediblity when you say that.VAN HALEN w/DLR !!!!!!!

Jason   #6   09:28 am Oct 17 2011

Definitely a Lee Roth fan..... could never get into Hagar (not that he's a bad muso/singer) era Van Halen..... made the mistake of going to see them in Welly with Cherone singing..... he just didn't cut it and Eddie looked like he'd been at the bar all day long (or taking drugs all day ha ha ha)....

Rizzo   #7   09:28 am Oct 17 2011

They did some good albums with Hagar (5150, For Unlawful) and some terrible ones (OU812, half of Balance), but only VH1 and 1984 have diamond certification, ten million units sold in the US. The Hagar stuff charted higher but ultimately sold less in the long run. Classic Van Halen all the way.

Bill Sticker   #8   09:38 am Oct 17 2011

Van Halen. Fair Warning - Mean Street. 1984 - Drop Dead Legs, Girl Gone Bad.

egapmada   #9   09:40 am Oct 17 2011

Well, if you ask me, the more i think about it, think real hard, it's not the ongoing Van Halen/Hagar dispute that defines the Van Halen sound for me. Yes, Eddie is a complete guru, and I have learned so much about performing (as a sax player!!) from him. Alex hits those things as he should, with guns powered by Bonham. Diamond Dave, what can I say? Best frontman ever??? Sammy Hagar, really driving the band to new heights with that killing upper range and ability to deliver a song that anyone else would make sound so damn cheesy!... But for me, after years of deep love for the band it's Van Anthony! It's Mike's blistering falsetto backing vocals that really define their sound. Have a listen. He's always there, like a J.D. fueled castrato. Since leaving the band they've lost that magic up there in the B.V. stratosphere. Wolfe just doesn't cut it... he doesn't even try. He just stands there in the shadows of his father and uncle thanking his lucky stars he will never have to finish year 10 maths. I saw Van Halen (unfortunately with Gary Cherone) many years ago. And I was so surprised that even though I was nearer to Eddie, my focus was always on Mike. He was the quiet giant of the band (although I have NEVER heard a fatter live bass sound!!)... the unassuming glue that kept it all together. Let's hope young Wolfgang has had some singing lessons. We'll see. We'll see.

P.S. Nice best of both worlds reference. Timed perfectly!!

James   #10   09:45 am Oct 17 2011

Really? Are there not more important bands to write about?


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