Since their national debut in 1978, Van Halen has become one of the most popular American heavy-metal bands. Initially fronted by the flamboyant and ever-quotable David Lee Roth and always featuring the highly original guitar pyrotechnics of Eddie Van Halen, Van Halen garnered a loyal mass following that held fast after Roth’s 1985 departure and beyond.
The Van Halen brothers; father, Jan was a freelance saxophone and clarinet player who performed styles ranging from big band to classical in the Netherlands. The family arrived in Pasadena “with fifteen dollars and a piano”, as Eddie once said, in 1967 and Jan washed dishes, then played in wedding bands to support the family. Beginning around age six both Eddie and Alex received piano lessons and extensive classical music training, but once in America they discovered rock & roll. Eddie learned to play drums and Alex learned to play guitar; eventually they traded instruments and started a band called Mammoth. Roth, the even-then outgoing and outrageous scion of a wealthy family and lead singer of another rival band, Redball Jet, joined them. The bassist and lead singer of another group, Snake, Michael Anthony came aboard shortly thereafter. After learning that there was already another group claiming the name Mammoth, the group considered calling themselves Rat Salade before deciding on Van Halen.
Van Halen played the Pasadena / Santa Barbara bar circuit for more than three years. Its sets initially consisted primarily of cover material ranging from disco to pop, but the band eventually introduced original songs and was soon one of the most popular groups in California, regulars at the Sunset Strip hard-rock club Gazzari’s and an opening act for Santana, Niles Lofgren, UFO and other established acts. In 1977 Kiss’ Gene Simmons spotted Van Halen in L.A.’s Starwood club and financed its demo tape. After seeing the group and upon hearing Simmons’ recommendation, Warner Bros. Records’ Mo Ostin and staff Producer Ted Templeman signed Van Halen. Its self-titled debut album hit #19 and eventually sold more than 6 million copies. The debut single, a pile-driving cover of the Kinks’ 1964 hit “You Really Got Me”, hit #36. The follow-up, “Runnin’ With the Devil”, hit #84.
Roth’s swaggering good looks and extroverted persona, not to mention pithy statements on the rock & roll lifestyle he claimed to espouse, assured press coverage. But while the mainstream media focused on Roth, musicians and fans were riveted by Eddie Van Halen’s guitar mastery and an array of unorthodox techniques that he developed as he taught himself to play: hammer-ons, pull-offs, two-hand tapping and any combination thereof to produce his unique sound. In addition, the guitarist was also known to build and/or meticulously customize his instruments, using everything from sandpaper to chainsaws to alter the timbre of his instrument and achieve a distinct sound. Long before the group ever recorded, Eddie became a legend among local guitarists eager to learn the secret of his sound. Like countless guitarists before him, from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, Eddie began performing with his back to the audience to guard his technique.
“Van Halen II”, released as new wave began coming to the fore, continued in the group’s straight-rock style and featured their first Top 20 single, “Dance the Night Away”, as well as the popular “Beautiful Girls”. “Women and Children First” spun off the single “And the Cradle Will Rock”, a metal showcase that typified the band’s dense, loud, crunching style. In 1979 Van Halen launched its second world tour, its first as headliner. Early on, the band embraced its larger-than-life image’ for example, tour incidents ranged from Roth’s breaking his nose on a lighting rig when jumping onstage to the band trashing its dressing room after a promoter failed to comply with the band’s contractual stipulation that the backstage candy dish contain no brown M&Ms. “Fair Warning”, another multi-platinum effort, followed. “Diver Down”, which included a hit cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” (#2, 1982) and a Top 40 version of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street”, became the group’s highest-charting album to that point, peaking at #3. (In 1981 Eddie married actress Valerie Bertinelli; in 1991 their son, Wolfgang, was born. Three years later, Eddie stopped drinking).
Van Halen’s biggest album with Roth was “1984” (#32, 1984), which contained the #1 hit “Jump” (on which Eddie played synthesizer) as well as “I’ll Wait” (#13, 1984), “Panama” (#13, 1984) and “Hot for Teacher” (#56, 1984), all songs supported by popular videos that showcased both Roth’s alternately wagering and clownish persona and Eddie (and the rest of the group’s) flashy musicianship. Shortly before “1984’s” release, Eddie Van Halen had composed and played the guitar solo on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”, a few bars of heavy metal that many observers believed helped the video land a spot on MTV’s then predominantly white play list. The loquacious Roth and the soft-spoken Eddie had long been considered one of rock’s oddest couples. When in 1985 Roth released his four-song EP, “Crazy From the Heat” and it spun off two hit singles – a cover of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” (#3, 1985) and a medley that paired Al Jolson’s “Just a Gigolo” with Louis Prima’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody” (#12, 1985) – a breakup was widely rumored. The videos for the two songs were hugely popular and for a time Roth had a film in development (the deal fell through). When Roth delayed recording for Van Halen’s seventh album, tensions rose and Roth left the band. That June, established hard-rock singer Sammy Hagar was named Roth’s replacement.
The Hagar era began auspiciously, with the group’s next three multi-platinum albums – “5150”, “OU812”, and “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (or “F.U.C.K.”, as it’s slyly abbreviated) – hitting #1. Among the hit singles from these records were “Why Can’t This Be Love” (#3, 1986), “Dreams” (#22, 1986), “Love Walks In” (#22, 1986), “When It’s Love” (#5, 1988), “Finish What You Started” (#13, 1988) and “Feels So Good” (#35, 1989). Van Halen headlined the Monsters of Rock Tour in 1988 and in 1991 bought the Cabo Wabo Cantina, a Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, restaurant and bar. (Hagar later bought out the other members). The innovative, text-oriented 1992 video for “Right Now” didn’t boost the single beyond #55, but it did win MTV’s Best Video of the Year award and provided the theme for a round of Pepsi commercials shortly thereafter. The year 1993 saw the release of the band’s first live album, “Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now” (#5, 1993). “Balance” debuted at #1 in 1995 and sold double-platinum nearly immediately upon its release. It contained one Top 30 hit, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”.
Throughout his tenure with Van Halen, Hagar continued to release solo albums. While this wasn’t considered a problem by the other members, tempers flared in spring 1996, when the band finished the “Balance” tour. Hagar’s wife was pregnant and he wanted to take time off; the rest of the group wanted to work on a few new tracks for a greatest-hits compilation, an idea that Hagar was against. Some speculated that Hagar objected because a best-of-package would undoubtedly feature songs from the Roth era, songs Hagar had declined to sing in concert. In June of that year, Van Halen claimed that Hagar left the band, while Hagar insisted that he was fired – a difference in opinion that has lasted to this day. The remaining members of Van Halen invited Roth back into the studio with them to record two new tracks for the hits album. That fall, the apparently reunited foursome presented a trophy at the MTV Video Music Awards, and speculation was that Roth was back in the band full-time. Apparently Roth thought so too, because he was miffed when Eddie, the band’s spokesperson, clarified in a press statement that Van Halen’s intentions were to include Roth in a couple of new recordings and nothing more. Again, the difference of opinion regarding the group’s original intention prevails.
With Hagar gone and Roth out of the picture again, Van Halen hired ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone as its new lead vocalist in November 1996. The choice was initially surprising, because Extreme’s biggest hits, “More Than Words” and “Hole Hearted”, were ballads, but the bulk of that band’s catalogue was hard rock and the collaboration seemed to re-invigorate Eddie Van Halen. He and Cherone immediately began writing songs together, with Cherone’s lyrics inspiring Eddie’s music – the first time the group’s music wasn’t written first. This new incarnation recorded “Van Halen III” (#4, 1977), an album that signaled another Van Halen first: Eddie singing lead on one song. The band toured and the single “Without You” rose to #1 on the Mainstream Rock chart, but CD sales fell quickly. The release sold just 500,000 copies, making it the first Van Halen album not to go at least double platinum. In November 1999 Cherone left the band. He recorded a solo album and returned to a Massachusetts stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, which he starred in after Extreme broke up.
Although the remaining three members of Van Halen are still together, the band’s future without a lead singer is uncertain. Meanwhile, Eddie Van Halen, a heavy smoker, participated in what was said to be a clinical trial of preventative treatment for tongue cancer in 2000. In 2001 he revealed that he had been treated for cancer.
Diamond Dave’s solo career yielded three platinum albums, with his third and fourth albums, “Eat ‘Em Smile” and “Skyscraper”, both Top 10, featuring the hits “Yankee Rose” (#16, 1986, from “Eat”) and “Just Like Paradise” (#6, 1988, from “Skyscraper”). The band for “Eat ‘Em” included bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Steve Vai and drummer Greg Bissonette. This lineup remained fairly steady for “Skyscraper”, but Sheehan left and in 1989 Vai began his solo career. “A Little Ain’t Enough” a critical and commercial disappointment despite its Top 20 showing, had no hit singles. In 1991 Roth fired his band and moved to New York City, where in April 1993 he was arrested while purchasing $10’s worth of marijuana in Washington Square Park (he received a year’s probation). His 1994 release, “Your Filthy Little Mouth”, continued the decline and a 1998 album credit to the DLR Band fared no better. Even commenting on his low commercial standing, Roth remained quotable as ever and published a breezy, explicit autobiography entitled, “Crazy From the Heat” (with Paul Scanlon), in 1997.
In addition to being recognized for success, the band is known for the drama surrounding the exits of former members. The (multiple) exits of singers David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar were surrounded in controversy and mass press coverage with various contrasting press statements between them and the band. More recently, founding bassist Michael Anthony was kicked out of the band for controversial reasons. Following their 2004 concert tour the band was on a hiatus from the public until September 2006, when new bassist Wolfgang Van Halen's place was confirmed and Roth-reunion rumors began to re-surface coinciding with the band's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction on March 12, 2007. After years of speculation, Van Halen began a tour with Roth in late 2007 across North America, which has been extended into 2008. An album is proposed to follow. Along with this, a live tour DVD was announced at their May 13, 2008 concert at the Izod Center that would contain recordings from several performances on their current tour.