Synopsis of Pop Music
“Can’t you see me standing here,
I’ve got my back against the record machine…”
With a party-hearty blend of arena rock songwriting, lounge act showmanship and guitar god virtuosity, Van Halen built itself into the biggest hard rock band in the world. Then, after losing one of its star attractions, the band did it again. Through major band shakeups and a changing music scene, Van Halen managed to hold its position at the forefront of crowd-pleasing hard rock, influencing dozens of bands and hundreds of guitarists that followed in its wake.
Dutch-born brothers Alex and Eddie Van Halen became sold on rock and roll not long after the family moved to America. Alex took up the guitar and Eddie the drums, but the two soon switched instruments, hitting the local Pasadena/Los Angeles rock scene as the band Mammoth (with Mark Stone on bass). Former Red Ball Jets singer David Lee Roth soon joined the group, which earned a local cult following thanks to gigs at parties, bar mitzvahs, weddings and anywhere else a band was needed. In 1974, Stone was kicked out, Michael Anthony came in as the new bassist, and the band was officially launched as Van Halen (somebody else had already taken Mammoth).
KISS bassist Gene Simmons spotted Van Halen at an L.A. club in the mid-70’s, but after financing a demo tape, the fire-breathing wonder couldn’t find anyone willing to sign the band. Finally, after years on the club scene and hundreds of gigs, Van Halen was signed to a recording contract by Ted Templeman and Mo Ostin of Warner Bros. records in 1977. After a very short time in the studio (the band had been working on its material for years, after all), the self-titled debut album Van Halen hit an unsuspecting rock world in 1978.
Van Halen was an instant, groundbreaking classic. The band’s high-energy, clubby live sound was there on each of the album’s eleven cuts, but it was Eddie’s solo work on “Eruption” that would drop jaws around the globe. A masterful technician, Eddie had worked out a jam-packed bag of tricks, from two-handed fretboard tapping to the grungy “brown sound” of his jerry-rigged guitar (his patchwork tape job on the guitar’s body would become a band trademark). Garage guitarists scrambled to figure out the new rules of the game, and a new guitar god was born.
But beyond the technical flash, Van Halen proved that it knew how to write a rocking song. “Runnin’ With the Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin’” and VH’s cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” all became rock radio standards, still in heavy rotation on classic rock stations today. David Lee Roth’s Vegas swagger was a perfect match for the hard-charging tunes, and the boys’ live show became legendary. Opening for the likes of Journey and Black Sabbath, Van Halen often stole the thunder from the headliners with its stage acrobatics—both musical and physical (one Anaheim show even featured a quartet of Van Halen look-alikes parachuting into the arena to start the show).
Touring and recording at a furious pace for the next several years, Van Halen released six albums from 1978-1984. Van Halen II, a 1979 release, gave the band its first Top-20 single, “Dance the Night Away,” foreshadowing the lighter pop/rock that would give the band its biggest hits in the coming decade. 1980 brought Women and Children First (containing the concert favorites “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Wants Some!!”), followed the darker-edged Fair Warning (“Mean Street,” “Unchained”) in 1981. The following year’s Diver Down gave the band another Top-20 hit with a hard rock version of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” one of several cover tunes on the album.
Each of these albums was a platinum-selling smash, continuing to sell millions of copies years after their initial release, but the band’s biggest mainstream success was yet to come. Eddie’s guitar solos for Michael Jackson’s 1983 #1 single “Beat It” had shown Van Halen’s pop chart potential, and the guitarist had been wanting to add synthesizers to the VH sound for some time. The rest of the band eventually came around, and the results were all over the next album, 1984. The opening instrumental “1984” was a keyboard-driven “Big Brother”-esque experiment, leading into the next cut, the breakout hit “Jump.” Once more, keyboards dominated, and the new sound gave Van Halen its first (and to date, only) #1 song. Tens of thousands of new fans were turned on to the Van Halen sound, while the band continued to please its hard-core fans with fast-n-sleazy rockers like “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher.”
Van Halen was on top of the rock world after 1984, but not everyone was in agreement on where to go next. David Lee Roth had released a solo EP at the end of 1984, scoring a hit with a cover of the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” (accompanied by a bikini-babe-filled video). Ever the vaudevillian showman, Roth decided to take his act solo, continuing to record classic lounge covers like “Tobacco Road” and “That’s Life” while fronting a band that included another guitar wizard, Steve Vai.
Meanwhile, Van Halen had decided on Roth’s replacement: former Montrose vocalist Sammy Hagar, who had scored solo success with songs like “I Can’t Drive 55.” Refusing to change the band’s name, Van Halen pressed on with a new album, 5150, released in 1986. A Rolling Stone cover asked the fundamental question: “The New Van Halen: Will It Fly?” Short answer: yes. 5150 was the band’s first #1 album (though all previous albums had gone platinum, 1984 had been their highest charter, hitting #2), and pop/synth tunes like “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Dreams” and “Love Walks In” were all Top-40 singles. Hagar’s rock star showboating was nearly as outlandish as Roth’s, and the songs were as arena-friendly as ever.
1988’s OU812 carried on Van Halen’s journey into new pop frontiers, from the #5 hit “When It’s Love” to the bluegrass twang of the #13 tune “Finish What Ya Started.” The band was still one of the biggest concert draws on the planet, and 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge brought the foursome even more international exposure. The album-leading single “Poundcake” showed fans that the band still knew how to rock, while an imaginative video for the song “Right Now” won Van Halen a handful of statues at the MTV Video Music Awards, including Best Video.
1995’s Balance was the fourth straight #1 studio album from the band (1993’s concert album, Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now, had debuted at #5), but once more, the band’s makeup was growing unstable. Stories conflict as to who made the decision, but in the summer of 1996, Sammy Hagar left Van Halen to resume his solo career. Roth reunited with the band for two new songs on The Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 and for a memorable live appearance on the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, but former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone was brought in as the band’s permanent (for the moment) new vocalist.
With Cherone on lead vocals (and Eddie now going by Edward), the band released Van Halen III in 1998. Once more, the album debuted high on the charts, but Van Halen III ended up a commercial disappointment. After a 1998 world tour with the band, Cherone and Van Halen parted company in 1999. Rumors continue to fly in Van Halen circles about the new (or returning) singer, but the band promises to return with a new album soon, ready to remind the world what guitar-driven, bombastic rock and roll is supposed to sound like.
"Standin' on top of the world, for a little while..."
Artist Release History1978 - Van Halen
1979 - Van Halen II
1980 - Women and Children First
1981 - Fair Warning
1982 - Diver Down
1984 - 1984
1986 - 5150
1988 - OU812
1991 - For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge
1993 - Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now
1995 - Balance
1996 - The Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1
1998 - Van Halen III
Pop Sub Categoriesrock
Essential Music AlbumsThe Best of Van Halen, Vol. 1 (Warner Bros.)
Band MembersDavid Lee Roth vocals
Eddie Van Halen guitar
Michael Anthony bass
Alex Van Halen drums
Sammy Hagar vocals
Gary Cherone vocals