Van Halen

Van Halen

“Can’t you see me standing here,
I’ve got my back against the record machine…”

The world has its fair share of talented rock musicians, but very few achieve the heights attained by Van Halen. With slick songwriting, a dose of lounge act humor, and one the finest guitarists of the genre, Van Halen has filled arenas for decades. Even when they replaced their iconic and flamboyant frontman, a move that would spell the demise of most bands, Van Halen continued forward undaunted, thrilling audiences around the world with incendiary performances that few have equaled.

The soul of the band has always been two Dutch brothers, Edward and Alex Van Halen. Moving to America in their youth, they caught the rock and roll bug at an early age, with Eddie picking up the drums and Alex trying his hand at guitar. The world might never have taken notice of their talents, had they not made the fateful decision to switch instruments.

After bringing in an extroverted screamer with a fondness for the lounge lizard sounds of yesteryear named David Lee Roth, the group began searching for any gig they could find to pay the bills, from weddings and bar mitzvahs to dive bars and house parties under the name Mammoth. Eventually they replaced bassist Mark Stone with a guy named Michael Anthony and changed their name to Van Halen, putting the spotlight on their formidable guitarist.

While playing a local club in the mid-70s, KISS frontman Gene Simmons caught their show and agreed to finance a demo tape, only to find that the record companies weren’t interested. The band continued honing their skills on the LA club scene, playing literally hundreds of gigs, before Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers finally took notice. He signed the band and paired them with legendary producer Ted Templeton and the result was their first self-titled debut album in 1978.

The record created a shockwave in the industry, showcasing eleven amazing tracks from a highly polished hard rock band. One in particular, called “Eruption” stopped guitarists in their tracks, wondering not only who was playing it, but how the heck he was pulling it off. As a kid who had taken plenty of piano lessons, Eddie had devised a two-handed approach to attacking the guitar fretboard, creating complex arpeggios at blistering speed. He had also created a thick and dirty guitar sound, thanks to his own electronic innovations that would leave fellow players scratching their heads and spending countless hours trying to duplicate the one of a kind sound.

Guitar wizardry wasn’t the only reason Van Halen albums were flying off of store shelves; they also had a knack for writing catchy energetic songs that soon became the soundtrack of every teenage party in America. From the opening thump of “Running With the Devil” to the grinding pulse of “Ain’t Talking about Love” to the slamming remake of the Kink’s classic “You Really Got Me,” all featuring the bloodcurdling screams and confident swagger of Roth, Van Halen was a force to be reckoned with.

The band gained instant notoriety while opening for such acts as Journey and Black Sabbath. The problem was, Van Halen was literally decimating the headlining acts with their showmanship and polished performances and it soon became evident that they needed to be in the headline spot.

Thus began a prolific period for the band, recording half a dozen albums over the next six years. They followed up their smash debut in 1979 with Van Halen II, featuring their first top-20 entry on the charts, the pop-oriented “Dance the Night Away” as well as the driving rocker, “Beautiful Girls.”

Their next vinyl offering, Women and Children First, was pure unadulterated rock and roll, with arena anthems such as “Everybody Wants Some” plus “And the Cradle Will Rock” followed by the release of the much darker and serious Fair Warning in 1981. While not exactly the commercial success of its predecessors, it included some of the hardest material to date, from the opening in-your-face riff of “Mean Streets” to the head bashing drive of “Unchained.”

The band’s 1982 release, Diver Down, returned the band to more of a pop sound, with the inclusion of two well-received cover songs – the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas Motown masterpiece, “Dancing in the Streets” and the classic Roy Orbison tune, “Pretty Woman.” Oh, and just for good measure, Diamond Dave and the gang matched harmonies for a playful rendition of the Dale Evan’s trademark, “Happy Trails.”

Two years later, Eddie contributed a masterful guitar solo to Michael Jackson smash hit, “Beat It” from the iconic Thriller album, further cementing his status as rock guitar god. Following up that feat, Van Halen would release their most successful album to date, 1984, which promptly went to #1. Eddie showed off some synthesized keyboard skills on the band’s first number one single, “Jump” which quickly became on of the most played radio songs of the era. Other memorable tracks were “Panama” and “Hot For Teacher” a hard driving shuffle featuring Alex’s impressive display of pyrotechnical drumming.

Surprisingly, even with their biggest album to date getting regular rotation on both radio and MTV, there was discontent behind the scenes, primarily from Roth, who had just finished his first solo album and had scored a hit with a cover of the Beach Boys’ classic “California Girls.” He decided to venture out on his own, grabbing his own guitar wizard for the trip, Steve Vai.

Van Halen quickly made a move to replace Roth, bringing in veteran rocker Sammy Hagar, who recently had scored a solo hit with “Can’t Drive 55.” Refusing the change the band’s name, the group forged ahead, releasing 5150 in 1986. Fears as to whether the new Van Halen would be accepted were quickly allayed as the album shot up to the #1 position on the charts, thanks to such radio-friendly hits as “Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Dreams.” Sammy, already a familiar face to hard rock fans was a seasoned showman in his own right, and for the most part, all but the most die hard fans welcomed him into the Van Halen family.

Van Halen refused to slow down in the coming years, first releasing OU812 in 1988, which featured the #5 hit, “When It’s Love” and a folksy rocker called “Finish What You Started. They continued to tour to sold out crowds around the world, and in 1992, released For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. Thanks to a particularly creative video for the song “Right Now,” which earned the band numerous awards, Van Halen remained one of the biggest concert drawing acts of the industry.

In 1995, they released their astounding fourth #1 record in a row, Balance, but cracks were starting to form again in regard to the band’s lineup and fans were shocked when Sammy Hagar announced that he was quitting Van Halen.

Without a frontman, the band released a very special greatest hits package, The Best of Van Halen Vol. 1, with a brand new track featuring none other than David Lee Roth on vocals. After one appearance with the band at the MTV music awards, however, it was clear that Dave and Eddie weren’t quite ready to mend their past differences just yet and the reunion was short lived.

Soon after, the band announced their new frontman, Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone, who sang on their next release, Van Halen III. It would be his first and last album with the band. Even though the album had a promising debut, fans didn’t warm to the new singer and after one tour, he called it quits. The future of Van Halen was made more unstable by Eddie’s well-publicized bouts with alcoholism, cancer, and a divorce from TV star wife, Valerie Bertinelli (of One Day at a Time fame.) The band went on an extended hiatus that lasted until 2003, and then the reunion era began.

First, in 2003, the band released its second greatest hits compilation, which featured three new tunes with Sammy Hagar once again taking the microphone. The band embarked on an ambitious and highly lucrative world tour, raking in $55 million for their efforts. Late in the tour, Eddie started introducing audiences to his son Wolfgang, and father and son would play a little guitar together for delighted fans. At the end of the tour, two years later, Michael Anthony and Hagar would both depart, leaving fans to wonder if there was a future for Van Halen.

Toward the end of 2006, countless rumors began circulating about a Roth reunion and subsequent world tour but nothing would be confirmed until the following year, when “The Other Half” tour was announced. Yes, David was invited to rejoin the band, and yes he had accepted. Furthermore, while Anthony would not be handling the low end, fans were shocked to hear that the bass duties would go to a 15-year old kid named Wolfgang, Eddie’s son. Soon after, the band received a well-deserved induction into the rock and roll hall of fame and embarked upon a very warmly received 2008 tour that proved to be their most successful to date, raking in an astounding $93 million.

(Warning: video contains strong language)

Fans would have to wait until 2012 for the next release, A Different Kind of Truth. It would mark the first studio album from the band featuring David Lee Roth on all tracks since 1984. The album debuted at #2 on the charts, garnered critical acclaim, and led to another very successful tour with sold-out shows around the world. And for fans still yearning for more, the first ever Van Halen live album to feature David Lee Roth is scheduled for release in 2015.

Future tours and more studio albums are all speculation at this point, but if history is any indication, the final chapter remains to be written on Van Halen, a band whose legacy is simply undeniable. With numerous #1 albums, chart-topping singles, sold-out world tours and musicianship that changed the face of rock and roll forever, they are perhaps the most successful American rock band of all time.

If you are no stranger to playing a little air guitar to a Van Halen song, or spent your youth following this iconic band, we’d love to hear all of your thoughts and memories in our comments section below.

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