Van Halen or Van Hagar?

20:02, Oct 16 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).

Now 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.

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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.

The 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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