February , 1992
By Cheryl Harris
Still Cookin' With That Long Lost Recipe
As one of the most notorious rock bands of the last decade, Van Halen has had no trouble continuing to chart success.
The birth of the band, however modest, began in the mid-seventies when brothers Edward and Alex Van Halen started out jamming on guitar and drums, respectively, in their garage, calling themselves Mammoth. They met up with trumpeter-turned-bassist Michael Anthony and singer David Lee Roth, whose passion for choreography combined with a love of cartoons and show tunes —helped establish the band as one of the most popular cover bands on the West Coast. After discarding the name Mammoth (which was already being used by another area band) Van Halen came into being, and they soon became an institution as the 'house band' at the legendary Gazzarri's on Sunset Strip.
Van Halen was — in the early years — the typical bar band. They played covers of Cream, The Stones, and Led Zeppelin, in return for minimal pay, adequate attention from women, and maximum free beer. Theirs was the perfect party music, the type where you simply turn up the volume and have a good time. And with a little help from Gene Simmons (who financed their first demo) Van Halen soon drew record label interest.
The rest, as they say, is history. After countless albums, culminated by the mega success of their album titled 1984 , Ego Lee Roth departed, and not a moment too soon. Gone was the cocky, showy (do you get the feeling I don't particularly care for Diamond Dave?) vocalist — who was, above everything else — funny.
But looks aren't everything, Dave.
Enter Sammy Hagar. Former Montrose frontman. Often referred to as The Red Rocker' because of his penchant for both guitar and clothing color. Hagar was alread y successful in his own right with solo albums such as Three Lock Box and VOA, in addition to his hit single "I Can't Drive 55."
Hagar soon became the power source for Van Haien. His aggressive entrance has kept the band firmly entrenched on the charts beginning with 5150, the first Van Halen release on which Hagar provided vocals. 1988's OU812 was also a success spawning hits such as "Finish What Ya Started" and "When It's Love." And with the release of (check out this acronym) For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in mid-1991, the guys have now joined the ranks of but a sparse number of artists whose new releases have entered the Billboard charts at #1.
"Our Dallas show will be a bit longer than what we normally play on tour," Hagar said of their Jan. 28 sold-out Reunion Arena gig. "We've all had like six weeks off for the holidays, so we're rearin' to go! We all take a solo break during the show — and who knows — I'll probably stand up there and talk the whole time. But one song I'm looking forward to playing is an acoustic number I've only done a couple of times before. Hope I don't totally blow the guitar part!"
"We're also playing some old covers," Hagar continued, "a song by both Credence Clearwater Revival and an Animals classic."
On tour since September in support of the new album, they performed "Poundcake" that same month on the MTV Music Video Awards, marking the first time Van Halen has ever performed on live TV. And they made a quick stop-over in Dallas' West End Market Place in early December, providing Dallas with a short set, free to the public, to satisfy a promise Hagar had made to 60,000 fans attending 1988's Texxas Jam. Too ill to complete the show, Hagar promised to return and perform a free show, and Van Halen did just that.
Sammy's opinion of the free show?
"I thought it was fantastic! It was so real and so honest. We didn't use a set list, we were just gonna play until they asked us to stop. We actually didn't even know, right up to the last minute, if we were gonna get to play, because of all the permits and everything required by the City of Dallas. But there was no pressure on stage, it was really great. Everything went off on time. And we kept our promise!"
During another interview prior to the free concert, there was a lot of kidding which Hagar had to endure from the other band members regarding who was picking up the tab for the show! He took it in stride, as he has for the past three years, and remained a good sport about it.
'There's gonna be all kinds of repercussions as to why we did the show. We did the show because I felt guilty .. . no, we felt guilty on stage when I couldn't sing (at 1988's Texxas Jam) and I laid it out on everybody. Whatever else comes from it is immaterial. I'll make a joke to the audience in Dallas that 'We're even now!' But I really feel that we came to terms with the situation. The only thing I wish we'd done is make an event T-shirt. We don't endorse anything —but in hindsight —I wish we'd have endorsed someone who would have given away a T-shirt. But as it is, everyone who was there will just have to remember that moment for what it was."
Obviously, that promise from a few years back had given many—the press in particular — something to joke about every time a comment was made about Van Halen.
"I met a guy who was a Texan once," Hager commented, "an old-timer, and when I was introduced to him, I went to put my hand out to shake hands, as if to say 'Hi, glad to meet you' and he looked at me and looked at my hand and said 'I don't know you that well.' And to me that's kind of a Texas attitude. You give somebody your word, you're gonna have to live with it. And you shake hands on it, done deal! "
'Playing for free makes more of the artist come forward, because there are no expectations we feel we have to meet," Hagar continued.
And now? Competition with up-and-coming younger (albeit less talented) prettier acts doesn't seem to have shattered Van Halen's confidence level at all. With the youngest band member just turning 36, their newest sound is heavier — the keyboards are still there — but the songs have a definite crunch to them. Edward is still the king of the guitar technique known loosely as 'two-handed tapping.' Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen provide a near-perfect rhythm section, and screamin' Sammy Hagar is the uncontested Van Halen frontman.
And the lyrics? Well, they still refer to women as so many pieces of meat. "Poundcake" is the culprit here, and only Van Halen could perform that song and turn right around and play "When It's Love" to their adoring fans.
Through a plethora of albums, many achieving multi-platinum success, Van Halen has been down, but never out. They've weathered the storm of personnel changes, substance abuse, and have in the meantime observed the field of rock music come full circle.
Still one of the most dominant forces in the field today, Van Halen will undoubtedly continue their command of the charts. And who knows, maybe in future songwriting they'll even learn to extoll the praises of women in their naturally magnificent state!
And the saga continues.