Van Halen: Last Great, Last Good, First Bad Album Roundtable
Perhaps no band in rock history has risked alienating its audience as much as Van Halen has over the years. Two of their biggest gambles -- trusting guitar hero Eddie Van Halen to add keyboards to his arsenal and replacing original singer David Lee Roth with the fundamentally different Sammy Hagar -- paid off. A few did not.
Looking back at all eras in the band's increasingly drama-filled history, when's the last time Van Halen made an album that was truly great all the way through? And when's the first time they sunk below the Mendoza line and delivered a bad record? Six of our writers answer these and other questions about Van Halen's studio work below.
What was Van Halen's last great album?
Nick DeRiso: Van Halen’s 1978 debut isn’t just their best album, it’s their most complete one. Certainly, some songs are better than others, but Van Halen moves with such a fast-paced sense of frivolity, there’s no time to become introspective. It works so well because nobody is trying too hard, which is where subsequent albums – both in the tenure of David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, for different reasons – tend to bog down. Roth ended up turning the pursuit of fun into something distinctly un-fun (“One break, commmmming up!”), while Hagar’s attempts at sounding sexy came off as sophomoric (“Hello, baaaaaaay-beeee”).
Michael Gallucci: 1984's 1984 sounded like both the culmination of Van Halen's career and the end of an era. After the recycled riffs and songs of Diver Down, 1984 was a super-slap of originality: the synths, the songs and the sense that they weren't taking themselves so seriously anymore. David Lee Roth's exit the next year opened a new chapter for the band that traded in all those things that made 1984 so great for a more creatively stagnant safety net.
Matthew Wilkening: It's tempting to say 1986's 5150, because it contains a lot of greatness, and the Van Hagar era deserves more respect than it gets. But it also features a couple of tracks that can't be ranked any higher than "very good," and the album's computerized drum sound has not aged well. So the answer is 1984. Even though it features only two full songs based on keyboards, they helped freshen up everything around them and proved that the band wasn't nearly out of new ideas.
Rob Smith: 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, because it’s a wall-to-wall exercise in guitar godhood – a dense, heavy album (albeit with lighter moments) that reveals a little something different with every listen, or at least it did for me. “Poundcake,” “Spanked,” “Judgement Day,” “Pleasure Dome,” “Top of the World” – each of them is a different exploration of the possibilities of the instrument in a hard-rock context. 1988's OU812 was more about the individual songs – a balls-out rock track here, a ballad there, a chicken-pickin’ tune thrown in for good measure. FUCK sounds very much of a piece, and the band is sturdier than they wound up being on 1995's Balance, where they kinda sputtered out. What’s more, the production on FUCK was arguably the best of the Van Hagar era – why just make a wall of sound, when you can make a mountain of it?
Jed Gottlieb: If we are talking truly great, then no doubt 1984. Sometimes, in my darkest moments, I think that 1984 was the last perfect rock album. For a band supposedly based on excess, Van Halen made one of the tightest rock records here (not a song over five minutes, and the average being around 3:45, which seems the VH sweet spot). It has one foot in Led Zeppelin, one in the Cars, another in Queen and a fourth in Chuck Berry -- hell yes, four feet, like a majestic mustang racing GTOs and 442s in the midnight streets of Pasadena. I’m no Sammy hater, and parts of 5150 astound me, but that sublime magic between cheeky, gonzo frontman and guitar king ended when Roth left.
Greg Renoff (author, Van Halen Rising and Ted Templeman: A Producer's Life in Music) The last great one was 1984, the last with David Lee Roth, the Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony partnered with producer Ted Templeman and engineer Donn Landee. That six-man team never worked together again, and as a result, the sonics and songs that followed on subsequent albums never matched up to the first six Van Halen LPs.
What was Van Halen's last good album?
DeRiso: Roth’s first tenure in the band ended on a high note, as Van Halen found their creative footing again on 1984 after 1982's stop-gap Diver Down. It’s not a perfect album – some of Eddie's now-dated experiments with synths didn’t really come off, and the whole thing fizzles out toward the end – but there’s no denying the very best moments here. Maybe the most interesting thing of all? Michael McDonald is involved with one of them.
Gallucci: Even though Sammy Hagar's first album with Van Halen, 5150, refuses to take any risks, it's a commercial powerhouse unlike any other Van Halen album. The monster riffs that power "Why Can't This Be Love" and "Dreams" are turbo-charged versions of the template the great "Jump" laid down. And Hagar is a better, and less campy, singer than Roth. Too bad its workmanlike nature sucks out most of the album's joy.
Wilkening: 2012's A Different Kind of Truth. It doesn't matter that most of the best songs were reworked versions of unreleased songs from the band's heyday. This album proved that Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth belong together, and Roth's updated lyrics were not only age-appropriate but also among the finest of his career. Also, while actual singing was never his strongest suit, he used what he had in the chamber wisely throughout. If the whole thing was about 10 minutes shorter, it might be my choice for "great."
Smith: I liked A Different Kind of Truth. Sure, Roth didn’t sound like a 26-year-old anymore, but after his two new tracks on 1996's Best Of – Volume 1, like, 16 years before, I don’t know why anyone would have expected him to. There was some solid stuff on Truth – “She’s the Woman” (which should’ve been the first single), “Blood and Fire,” “Chinatown” and, yes, “Tattoo.” (I’ve known a few mousewives-turned-momshells, and it’s good to have that phrase to describe them.) It was good enough for some of us to think they might actually have kicked off a kind of resurgence, that maybe in another three or four years, there might have been another new Van Halen record to dig and play loud and argue over. Silly us.
Gottlieb: Dub A Different Kind of Truth to eight-track, slam it into your ’82 Chevy G20 van and it will be pure heaven. Roth does his madman mid-song narrations (“It’s not who you squeeze but who returns to once again squeeze you, no doubt / Love ’em all, I says, and let Cupid sort ’em out”). Eddie does the expected face-melting solos while acknowledging his disciples (high-speed tapping picked up by Randy Rhodes, over-the-top Yngwie Malmsteen arpeggios, Steve Vai squeals, Tom Morello screeches). Purists hate Eddie's son Wolfgang for replacing Michael Anthony, but it’s hard to hate the results here. Sure, there a few below average cuts, but do a song-by-song comparison to a Sammy Hagar record or, ugh, the Gary Cherone one.
Renoff: A Different Kind of Truth is a good Van Halen album, its most redeeming quality being David Lee Roth's stellar lyrics. They are arguably the best of his career. Read 'em and you'll be a believer.
What was Van Halen's first bad album?
DeRiso: 1981's Fair Warning, where Van Halen seemed to lose sight of the delicate balance that made them great. It’s a dark, dark record, and that certainly provides a broad showcase for Eddie’s constructed style of playing. But Fair Warning lacks the humor that always balanced that out – and, quite frankly, gave Van Halen their gravitas. This is what Van Halen would have sound like if they were just another metal band. Conversely, they went too far on the follow-up, turning Diver Down into a slight, though undeniably merry, party record. Combine highlights from both, and you might just have the next good Van Halen album.
Gallucci: I'm not a fan of 1980's Women and Children First or Fair Warning, but "Everybody Wants Some!!" and "Unchained" are great Van Halen songs. There's nothing on the lazy Diver Down that even comes close to those LPs, let alone the much better Van Halen and the follow-up, Van Halen II. Diver Down is barely a half-hour long and half of it is made up of cover songs that were perfected the first time around. These are B-sides, not an album. Nobody sounds like they could be bothered with a new record -- like they were just buying some time till they rebooted for 1984.
Wilkening: Balance. For one thing, it's another example of just how badly grunge rattled the older generations of rock stars, making them think they had to operate within a certain palette of emotions -- even if that took them far away from what earned them a spot in our hearts in the first place. This album was just completely devoid of the joy and energy that appeared on every previous Van Halen album. When we learned shortly afterward that Hagar and Van Halen had basically grown to hate each other, Balance made a whole lot more sense.
Smith: 1998's III is bad. Aside from “Without You” and maybe – maybe – “Fire in the Hole,” I hear nothing on III that’s worthy of the band. Gary Cherone was left to do a Sammy Hagar impression on most of it, which was a shame, because he’s a much more versatile singer that he was allowed to show. Such a waste. But you asked what the first bad Van Halen album was, and Balance came before III, and Balance is not very good. It did have a couple great songs (“Seventh Seal,” “Don’t Tell Me [What Love Can Do]"), but it also had what I think is the worst thing they ever recorded (“Can’t Stop Lovin’ You”) and a lot of other material that just sounded rote. Of course, over time we’ve found out that Eddie and Sammy were on the outs while putting it together, which might account for most, if not all, of the album’s ills.
Gottlieb: As I said, I like Hagar. I even like the pop optimism of “Right Now.” But For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge ... well, it’s kinda boring. Where Roth’s version of the band seemed to add something with each record, Hagar reduces the sonic landscape each time around. Sure, the chorus of “Poundcake” has some snap, but everything on 5150 has snap. Even the weird one here, “Man on a Mission,” plays it straight. Give me “Inside” or give me death. Wait, belay that, just give me Roth.
Renoff: III wasn't a good album, but you don't need me to tell you that. The songs and performances just weren't up to snuff.
Which Van Halen album just missed being good?
DeRiso: 5150. The best Sammy Hagar-fronted Van Halen record was the first one, bolstered by a song in “Best of Both Worlds” that might make an all-era Top 10. It also features arguably the best Van Hagar ballad, “Dreams.” But he can’t quite nail the winking lasciviousness that Roth would have brought to songs like “Summer Nights,” much less his dizzy sense of humor on “Inside."
Gallucci: As mentioned earlier, I really don't like Women and Children First and Fair Warning. I think they're messy, rushed and basically half-ass variations on their first two albums, but without a great song or two (like Women's "Everybody Wants Some!!" and Warning's "Unchained") to power them. Which means we're pretty much left with the rhythm section's monster crunch, Eddie Van Halen's guitar fireworks and David Lee Roth's increasingly annoying shtick. Combine those two records and there's probably a good one in there somewhere.
Wilkening: Their only bad ones are Balance and III, and it's hard to imagine a quick fix that would save either one. What's more fun to think about is if Sammy Hagar didn't have to squeeze out one last contractually obligated solo album in between 5150 and OU812. Eddie Van Halen played bass on all of 1987's I Never Said Goodbye, but it would have been more fun to hear some of that record's songs brought into the sessions for the admirably diverse but also spotty second Van Hagar album -- and for Hagar's lyrical well to be a bit more full when it came time to write the words for songs like "Source of Infection" and "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired.)"
Smith: To these ears, Balance and III are their worst records, and I think it would take a lot to nudge them into “good” status. Of the rest, Diver Down gets a lot of crap because it’s short and thrown together and has a bunch of cover tunes on it, but Van Halen were one of the great backyard party bands ever – they lived on cover tunes for years. And Diver Down is a party-forward record. Perhaps a few more originals would’ve done the trick; you know, break out a couple or three of those Gene Simmons-produced demo tracks that collected dust until A Different Kind of Truth and throw ‘em on the platter. Have you ever heard the original take of “She's the Woman”? That would’ve sounded awesome on Diver Down.
Gottlieb: When Hagar joined the band, expectations were both high and low. And he met them both on 5150. But if you pretend the band debuted with 5150, it’s impressive. It sounds like Journey with sass and just the right amount of experimentation. But by OU812, the band sort of gave up. That doesn’t mean the record sucks. It has moments: The band tries to summon “Running With the Devil”-style energy on “Source of the Infection” with a guitar break that’s essentially a “Hot for Teacher” rewrite (with a clear jab at Roth's "Yankee Rose" opening). “Feels So Good” finds the middle ground between a Journey power ballad and a Phil Collins rocker (if you’re into that kind of thing, and I am), and no song is as dumb and fun as “Cabo Wabo.” But the LP never locks into place. It’s a classic sequel: enjoyable but uninspired. And yet, those “Cabo” pre-chorus harmonies: magnifique!
Renoff: III is the only Van Halen studio album that isn't good, but it didn't miss the mark by a little.
Do you believe Van Halen can make another great album?
Nick DeRiso: Sadly, no. They were only able to construct A Different Kind of Truth by raiding the vault for old ideas to scavenge. And I just can’t see a Van Hagar reunion ever happening again.
Gallucci: Nope. Van Halen were a product of their era. They came around at exactly the right time when rock 'n' roll needed a kick in the ass at the end of the '70s, when too many veteran bands were testing the punk and disco waters. But as the '80s rolled around, Van Halen were just as tired and boring as those bands they dethroned. 1984 was a blast because the synths added a thrilling new element to the mix. But that was 35 years ago. There's nothing left to say at this point.
Wilkening: What other hope do you think gets me out of bed every morning? I'll walk out alone onto an even smaller limb: At this point I'm almost equally curious about what they could do with Roth and Hagar. Odds are the original connection remains the strongest, as A Different Kind of Truth seemed to prove. But who knows? Maybe whatever sounds a 64-year-old Eddie Van Halen is hearing in his head match up better with Hagar's talents.
Smith: I don’t think they’ll make another album, period – great or otherwise – unless someone goes into the vaunted 5150 vault and scrounges up enough quality odds and ends to cobble together something great. I get the impression that, alleged health issues aside, Eddie is ambivalent about spending time with anyone but his family, and that’s fine; he’s earned that right. And even if Eddie’s healthy and ready to roll, Roth’s recent public statements probably make his return to the fold unlikely, and I don’t see Hagar coming back (because, you know, he doesn’t want to. Or maybe he does. Or maybe he doesn’t. Or maybe he does, but only with Mikey. Or … whatever). I imagine all we’ll have from Van Halen is all we currently have, and that’s okay. It’s enough.
Gottlieb: Do they have the songwriting and playing chops? Yes. I honestly believe that. Only ego holds them back. Of course, ego powers them. David and Eddie don’t work as artists without massive galaxy-sized egos. To make something truly great, they need to have the original lineup. To have that lineup, they need to take the egos down a notch. And here lies the paradox.
Renoff: Van Halen are done. David Lee Roth just said so, right? Here's to hoping Edward and Alex Van Halen make him eat his words, and we get a reunion of Michael, Alex, Edward and David.