CHICAGO — OK, Van Halen fans, be honest: Nobody really laments the end of the “Van Hagar” era, do they?
Sammy Hagar was the veteran rocker who took the place of David Lee Roth in Van Halen during the mid-’80s and basically kept the job warm for the next decade while the quartet continued to churn out big, blustery arena-rock albums that sold by the millions.
But Hagar, though a capable guitarist and singer, had a serious personality deficit. A less flamboyant Van Halen is really no Van Halen at all, and Hagar’s dire skills as a lyricist — he specialized in weak double entendres and knee-deep thoughts such as “Only time will tell / If we stand the test of time” — didn’t help. Not that lyrics ever really mattered in this band. It was all about the show and the showmanship.
Think about it: “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” (Roth era) vs. “Why Can’t This Be Love” (Hagar)? “Runnin’ with the Devil” (Roth) vs. “Poundcake” (Hagar)? “Jump” (Roth) vs. “When It’s Love” (Hagar)? It’s no contest, really.
Which is why Roth was the only mouthpiece this band ever needed or deserved. Now that Roth is back with the band, all is almost in order; original bassist Michael Anthony is no longer in the lineup, replaced by guitarist Eddie Van Halen’s 20-year-old son, Wolfgang. On “A Different Kind of Truth” (Interscope), the band’s first album of new music this century, Roth’s shout-and-jive vocals tag-team with the still-astonishing guitar inventions of a rejuvenated Eddie Van Halen.
Here’s a quick overview of Van Halen’s career, in which they’ve sold more than 56 million albums in America alone, making them one of the most successful rock bands of the last three decades:
1967: Eddie (born 1955) and Alex Van Halen (1953) arrive in Pasadena, Calif., with their family from their birthplace in the Netherlands. Eddie, a diehard Dave Clark 5 fan, takes up the drums, then gives them to his older brother Alex. Eddie picks up the guitar instead. Eddie and Alex jam.
1974-77: Eddie and Alex join forces with two members of rival Southern California bands, singer David Lee Roth and bassist Michael Anthony, and play the regional bar circuit. Several name changes ensue, and they toggle between covers and originals. Kiss’ Gene Simmons produces a demo that makes the record-company rounds and becomes legend in Van Halen circles.
1978: The debut “Van Halen” arrives with a cover of the Kinks’ proto-metal “You Really Got Me” as the first single. But the real story is Eddie Van Halen’s full-throttle guitar mastery, popularizing a whole new array of terminology for aspiring six-string nerds (two-handed tapping, hammer-ons, pull-offs).
1979-84: Van Halen becomes one of the biggest bands in the world, the mix of Roth’s bad-boy personality and Van Halen’s boy-genius prowess making them a huge attraction in concert as well. “1984” caps the Roth era with Eddie Van Halen continuing to experiment with synthesizers to tremendous commercial response on the band’s first No. 1 single, “Jump.”
1985-86: Ego wars prompt Roth’s exit and Hagar debuts as vocalist on “5150,” continuing the band’s string of multimillion-selling albums.
1991: In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Eddie Van Halen sings Hagar’s praises: “I think Sammy and I see things the same way because we’re both musicians. Sammy’s also a guitarist, not just a singer, not just a front guy” — a pointed reference to Roth, who did not play an instrument — “and I think that makes a big difference. … We’re buddies.” Hagar returns the compliment from the stage on tour as he introduces Eddie as “my next-door neighbor, my best friend in the whole world, my hero, my idol.”
1996-98: The love-fest is over and the era of the revolving-door singers begins. Hagar is ousted, Roth is briefly brought back in and then he’s booted, and finally Gary Cherone takes over for one forgettable album. Hagar’s reaction: “Devastated ... disappointed ... I was conned.” Roth: “Eddie did it. I was an unwitting participant in this deception.” Eddie Van Halen counter-attacks in the Tribune, saying the Roth-era band “sucked” with “grunting vocals” and that “12 years of smoking dope and living in his own bubble didn’t improve his (Roth’s) abilities as a singer.” He calls Hagar “a ‘B’ act, but he thinks that without him we would’ve gone down the toilet. When I got sober, I listened to some of the lyrics he wrote like ‘Wham, bam, oh, Amsterdam’ and ‘1-900-S-P-A-N-K’ and I just thought, ‘What were we thinking?’” He praises Cherone as “a normal guy, a guy who’s in it for the music, like me, Mike and my brother. There’s no room for ego in this band. It has always been a collaboration.”
1999-2003: After their worst-selling album, with Cherone on vocals, “Van Halen III,” the band goes on hiatus. Eddie Van Halen undergoes hip-replacement surgery and is treated for tongue cancer.
2004: Hagar is back for a reunion tour. There is lots of manly schmoozing and hugging on-stage, christened with a nightly toast, but a quarter of the two-hour show is bogged downed by solo sections for each musician. Nonetheless, the fans come out in droves and the quartet accrues $54 million in tour revenue.
2005-07: Hagar splits again, citing Eddie’s drinking and sloppy playing on the previous tour as primary reasons, detailed in Hagar’s 2011 memoir, “Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock.” Anthony is also ousted, replaced by 16-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen on bass. Roth is re-enlisted, and a 2007 reunion tour piles up more than $56 million in revenue. The band ignores the nine top-40 hits it scored during the Hagar era, and focuses exclusively on the six albums recorded during the Roth years, 1978-84.
2012: A new studio album, “A Different Kind of Truth,” is released, the first with Roth on lead vocals in 28 years. It includes a handful of songs recycled from the original mid-’70s demo financed and recorded by Kiss’ Simmons. Yes, everything old is almost new again.