All those who strolled their school halls in the late ‘70s or first half of the ‘80s clinging to a spiral notebook with a “VH” logo scrawled across the front knows that line from Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher”. Yes, boys. We did miss you and we’re glad you’re back.
New bassist Wolfgang Van Halen was walking the schools and crushing on high school educators just a few years ago. When Wolfie was born in 1991, his father and uncle were seven years removed from the classic 1984 album, the last to feature David Lee Roth.
With made-for-video Diamond Dave at the helm, Van Halen used that album to expand their hard rock audience to the MTV generation. The same kids who plopped down allowance money for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual, and Madonna’s first album also bought 1984 by the boatloads. The album took Van Halen to its greatest commercial heights with US #1 single “Jump” as well as hits “Panama”, “I’ll Wait”, and the aforementioned “Hot for Teacher”.
Then Roth took his hairy chest and spandex out for a solo spin and never returned. Guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, and then-bassist Michael Anthony recruited Sammy Hagar, one of the era’s few rockers with bigger hair than Roth. Although the faithful whined, somebody was still buying Van Hagar product, since they churned out four #1 studio efforts over the next decade. In the post-Red Rocker era, an ill-fated 1998 endeavor with Extreme’s Gary Cherone as the next dip into the whose-turn-is-it-now-to-front-our-group pool put a nail in the VH coffin.
Now, 14 years later, the lid has been pried off. With the release of A Different Kind of Truth, Wolfie experiences a studio album by Roth-era Van Halen for the first time in his life.
In his lifetime, Wolfie has also witnessed some of Pop’s contemporaries resurrect themselves. After The Long Run (1979) the Eagles let 28 long years fly by before reuniting for Long Road Out of Eden (2007). The Who went missing for 24 years between It’s Hard (1982) and Endless Wire (2006). The Cars shut the door after Door to Door (1987), finally revving up their engines again with Move Like This (2011). Steely Dan had gone incognito for two decades when Two Against Nature (2000) thrust them back into the limelight with a Grammy win for Album of the Year.
Guns N’ Roses have been showered with hype and scorn for most of Wolfie’s lifetime, thanks to constant postponements for the infamous Chinese Democracy. After the one-two punch of a pair of Use Your Illusion albums in 1991, a collection of covers for (1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?) was assumed to be a stopgap while the group readied its true follow-up. As the years and band members disappeared, frontman Axl Rose watched his image transform to that of an obsessive, egomaniacal micro-manager. When Chinese Democracy (2008) finally arrived, the votes opposed outweighed the votes in favor.
Rose isn’t the first agonizingly meticulous leader to unravel his band in the pursuit of perfection. Tom Scholz has traversed a similar “I’m committing career suicide” path. With Boston, he has released a scant five albums over a 36-year career. Scholz and Co. quickly followed the once best-selling debut in history (1976’s Boston) with Don’t Look Back (1978), but have done nothing timely since. An eight-year gap built demand for Third Stage (1986), sending the album and its lead single, “Amanda”, soaring to the tops of the US charts, but then the boys who gifted us with “More Than a Feeling” didn’t feel up to trotting out another release until Walk On (1994).
Fans walked away in droves and Corporate America (2002) made a paltry dent in the public’s wallets. Album #6 is supposed to come out this year. Scholz is the only remaining original member.
There have been other rock titans who never really went away, they just went solo while their bands went on holiday. Iggy Pop and David Johansen have regularly thrust product on the market, just not with their original groups. As such, their band’s reunions were perceived more as publicity stunts. Some 32 years separated Johansen’s New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon (1974) and One Day It Will Please Us to Remember Even This (2006). The Stooges, led by Iggy Pop, topped that with 34 years between Raw Power (1973) and The Weirdness (2007). In both cases, the long overdue returns went unnoticed by the general public considering neither the bands nor their anchors were ever mainstream.
There are superstars who’ve likely boosted their careers with short-term vacations. In 1983, Def Leppard exploded with Pyromania. Fans went manic in anticipation during the four-year wait for Hysteria (1987). However, it proved an even bigger blockbuster than its predecessor. The group went dormant another five years before Adrenalize (1992), which left fans a little less than juiced.
Similarly, Michael Jackson took five years between Thriller (1982) and Bad (1987). For the rest of his career, at least four years transpired between albums. Considering his constant tabloid presence, his occasional chart absence probably helped make the arrival of new product a welcome event.
In 1975, Bruce Springsteen was eager to get a new album back on the shelves in the wake of Born to Run’s success. However, contract disputes led to a three-year work stoppage in what seemed like an eternity then. Bruce had other idle periods, taking five years off between Tunnel of Love (1987) and the double whammy of Human Touch and Lucky Town (1992) and seven years between The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and The Rising (2002). He’s been on fire ever since, seemingly rejuvenated by his time away. The upcoming Wrecking Ball will be his sixth studio effort this century.
Speaking of Springsteen’s newest, a few other classic rockers are slated to return to the scene in 2012. Kiss is due to release Monster, their first project since Sonic Boom (2009). The latter album was 11 years in the making. It became the group’s highest charter, peaking at #2 in the US, but it was also their first non-gold seller.
Rush returns this year with Clockwork Angels, their first album since Snakes & Arrows (2007). Their longest layoff, however, was between Test for Echo (1996) and Vapor Trails (2002). The delay had an effect on Rush similar to what Sonic Boom did to Kiss; Trails was Rush’s fourth consecutive top ten album, but first in their career to miss the gold mark.
Classic rockers aren’t the only ones to disappear for long stretches. Sade and Kate Bush have each retreated from the spotlight for at least decade-long absences. Country fans pray that Shania Twain and Garth Brooks end their decade-long sabbaticals. Of course, English folk singer/songwriter Vashti Bunyan makes them all look prolific. Frustrated with the poor reception of her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, she abandoned the music industry. What fan base she had acquired waited 35 years for her next effort, 2005’s Lookingafter.
My original concept for this article was an open request to one of my favorites to get back in the studio. I wouldn’t expect most readers to be familiar with Fish. No, I’m not talking about the jam-band Phish, led by Trey Anastasio. Fish is a Scottish singer who got his start with the British-based Marillion in the early ‘80s. That neo-prog outfit became my favorite band after Misplaced Childhood (1985), but Fish only stuck around for one more album, Clutching at Straws (1987), before embarking on a solo career. From 1990 to 2007, he never went more than three years between releases, unleashing nine studio undertakings.
However, nothing has happened since. Wikipedia indicates a working title of A Feast of Consequences for a 2012 release, but twitter and Facebook posts from Fish mention only current gigs, not any time spent in the studio.
I can wait a little longer. Long gaps in a treasured artist’s discography are painful, but endurable. An eventual return is better than a complete disappearance. VH and GNR fans survived. The Rush and Kiss armies have soldiered on. Even if The Stooges and New York Dolls could hardly capture the raw power of their initial work, there’s something cool about them treating their fans to long-awaited comebacks. Fish, just promise me Wolfgang Van Halen won’t be starting a band with his son before you’ve put out new product. I’ve missed you and I’ll be glad when you’re back.