In a Perfect World: Van Hagar Would’ve Operated Under Its Own Name
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on March 27, 2008
Only time will tell if we stand the test of time
One of the many classic scenes in the super-underrated 1994 radio station hostage comedy Airheads involves The Lone Rangers (Adam Sandler, Brendan Fraser and Steve Buscemi) fending off attempts by the cops to infiltrate their stronghold with an undercover posing as a record exec. To test his music mettle, they ask him a series of loaded rock opinion questions, one of which is “Whose side do you take in the David Lee Roth / Van Halen split?” The exec, of course, answers “Van Halen,” at which point the trio instantly deduces that he’s bacon incarnate. “Hey, they sold a lot of records after Dave left!” he (approximately) defends.
This, in summation, is the consensus opinion about Van Halen, Mk. II–appreciated by clueless listeners who wouldn’t know real rock if they got stuck inside a Marshall amp, dispised by everyone else. Consensus opinion is even understating the case, since I’ve never met ANYONE brave enough to defend Van Hagar, at least not to the point where they say they were a phase of VH’s discography worthy of being equated with the Roth-era albums. That’s not to say that these people don’t exist–considering that VH were nearly as popular with LV #2, someone must’ve been buying all these records–but unless you’re tailgating classic rock concerts with 45-year-olds or drinking with tequila afficianados, I don’t imagine you’re likely to find too many of ’em these days.
And there is an exceedingly simple explanation for this–Van Halen were a much, much better band with David Lee Roth. They played with far more energy and far more instrumental bravado, which in this semi-rare case is an unequivocal positive, and were led by a frontman with far more charisma, originality, and physical agility. But really, things like technical skill and innovation don’t even need to come into it. “Hot for Teacher,” “I’m the One,” “Unchained,” “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Panama”–there are no Hagar-era songs to equal these, period. There’s no way these two bands should be held in the same distinction.
But then there’s the thing–these are two completely different bands. This isn’t Journey replacing Steve Perry with Steve Augeri (or replacing Steve Augeri with Jeff Soto, or Soto with Arnel Pineda…), a simple substitution meant to minimize as much as possible the cognitive dissonance the switch would cause with fans, this was a band completely re-inventing its identity. Aside from the occasional Eddie solo (which, of course, became far more occasional as Van Hagar progressed) there was almost nothing to identify that this band, now the creator of overdramatic love songs and overwrought message sogns, was the same “band” that created “Ice Cream Man” or “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”.
But then there’s the other thing–Van Hagar as a band didn’t suck nearly as much as everyone remembers. OK, they weren’t going to win any critical hosannas, or hold much in the way of metal or underground cred, but the hate they receive is only as extreme as it is because no one can ignore the fact that these people are supposedly the same guys who cranked out some of the most fun, invigorating and hilarious (three things no one could ever accuse Mk. 2 of being) songs in the classic rock canon. But if you stop comparing them to the peers that the original Van Halen would keep in company with (Hall of Fame Rock Gods like Kiss, AC/DC and Cheap Trick, or first-wave hair metallers like Def Leppard and Motley Crue) and start mentally grouping them with other super-popular but retroactively fetishized 80s cheese-rock standbys (like Loverboy, Survivor and The Outfield), they’ve got a pretty formidable catalogue.
Take “Feels So Good,” one of their less-remembered hits, but probably my personal favorite post-Diamond D single of theirs. An undulating keyboard hook (stolen from the same faux-organ sound used on Pete Tonwshend’s “Let My Love Open the Door,” presumably) anchors a chugging beat that complements one of Sammy’s least cringe-worthy love lyrics, with lots of gorgeous backing harmonies from Eddie and Michael. By the time the song finally gets to the titular chorus yelp–which, by the way, they brilliantly hold off until two and a half minutes in, making it all the more rewarding–I challenge you not to smile (or at least not to chime in with E&M’s “SO GOOD!” confirmation).
That’s the key to me–there’s almost always one part in each Hagar-led Van Halen hit that puts that big goofy smile on my face with its almost-unbearable earnestness, infectious overenthusiasm and total lack of self-consciousness. The “Higher and higher!” chants in “Dreams,” that introductory first synth squelch in “Why Can’t This Be Love?,” pretty much every motherfucking note of “Right Now”–they don’t provide any of the adrenaline rush of early VH, but they do end up triggering a lot of the same types of endorphins just the same. They’re not a band that deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as the original Van Halen, or any of the great 80s bands, but among the second-tiers, they could be considered top dog.
Which is why it’s so frustrating that they didn’t decide to change the band’s name when Sammy joined. If they had done that, sure, there’d still always be comparisons to the original lineup, and there’d still be a lot of assholes that held the split against Hagar for the band’s duration, but I don’t think it could be seen as nearly the level of travesty that most people attribute to Hagar’s replacing Roth. If they had been called something else, at the very least it wouldn’t seem like they were claiming to be just as worthy of the Van Halen name.
A good analogy to illustrate this point is the case of Guns n Roses & Velvet Revolver. It’s not exactly perfect, of course–a couple other, non-Axl members of GnR weren’t in VR, and actually Axl still held the GnR name for his own, meaning Slash, Duff & Co. couldn’t have used it even if they wanted it. But basically it’s the same deal–an enormously successful and well-loved band replaces their unreliable lead singer with an already established star, and goes on to formidable success themselves. But despite the fact that the transformation from what they used to be (going from one of the most pissed off, emotionally fucked up and overambitious frontmen in rock history to a guy content to sing basic-sounding metal songs about nothing much) was arguably just as drastic, VR don’t attract nearly the hate that Van Hagar do, because it seems like a totally separate entity from GnR. They’re not GnR, and they don’t claim to be. Consequently, not many hold the fact that they sound nothing like GnR against them. If VH had been smart and done the same thing, results could’ve been similar–not as much love, maybe, but not nearly as much hate. I think they deserved a little better.
Might be time for me to revisit the Gary Cherone years, too. “Without You” was pretty OK, right?