Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony reflect on 25th Anniversary of the chart-topping album, Hagar's first with Van Halen after the departure of David Lee Roth.
By Peter Lindblad
Somebody had to go, and it wasn't going to be Eddie Van Halen. Not with his brother, Alex, on his side and the very name of the band at stake.Whether he left Van Halen of his own volition or was kicked to the curb by the two siblings, David Lee Roth found himself on his own in April of 1985, ready to eat them or anybody else and smile that 1,000-watt smile to the world. However, the future of Van Halen, this hard-partying, hard-rocking juggernaut from California that had vaulted up the pop charts, was in doubt - that is until Eddie made friends with fellow sports car lover Sammy Hagar while his Lamborghini was in the shop. But, at first, Hagar was apprehensive about joining Van Halen.
"My first reaction was, 'I don't want to be in that f**king band,' because Dave's image kind of overshadowed the band. It really did," said Hagar. "The general public, they heard the music on the radio, but me, I was in the industry. And I heard all the tales, and I would go into a building, the same arena where they had just played, and you hear all the horror stories, and I always thought, 'I don't want to be in no f**king band like that.' And so, I said, 'Well, I'll go down and check 'em out.' It's pretty much in the book [Hagar's best-seller "Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock"] about all this, but I thought I would check 'em out and maybe get Eddie to play on one of my records - not to be in the band or nothing, but I thought he was a really talented guitar player, and you know, I'm going to do a new record. I'll get him to play on the record, you know. And I went down and jammed with Ed, Al and Mike, and I went, 'Holy shit. This is f**king good.' And they went, 'Holy shit. This guy can sing.' And it was just magic from that moment on."
Hagar's arrival signaled a change in direction for Van Halen. More emphasis was placed on Eddie's shiny new toy, the synthesizer, and Hagar's sincerity as a songwriter starkly contrasted the "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sarcasm and unabashed hedonism boasted by Roth's lyrics. It was a marriage that later turned rocky, but in the beginning, the partnership between Hagar and Van Halen would produce the biggest selling album of the band's career, the chart-topping 5150, named after the California police code for a mentally deranged person. 5150 turned 25 years old in 2011, and the switch from Roth to Hagar was as controversial a lineup change as rock music has ever witnessed.
Tensions boil over
1984, and the high-flying videos for "Jump" and "Panama" - not to mention the titillating "Hot for Teacher" schoolboy fantasy, rolling along on Alex's barreling drums, Anthony's howitzer bass, Roth's lascivious clowning and Eddie's hot-wired guitars - that were all over MTV, had made the men of Van Halen giants. Only Michael Jackson, with the indomitable Thriller ruling the charts with an iron fist, was bigger. Onstage, every night was a party to end all parties, the greatest rock and roll show on earth. Eddie's dizzying, thermonuclear guitar fretwork dazzled, while Roth's outrageous showmanship, impossible gymnastics, cheeky humor and hairy-chested machismo made him a golden god.
Behind the scenes, however, during the 1984 tour, jealousy and personality clashes, issues that had dogged the band for years, were tearing Van Halen apart. Eddie could no longer stomach Roth's spotlighting-hogging ego, while Roth was becoming increasingly irritated by Eddie's substance abuse and moonlighting without the band's approval. Furthermore, there were creative differences, Roth becoming more insistent upon moving toward more of a pop-oriented sound, as opposed to Eddie's desire for increased musical complexity. There are two sides to every story, says the old saw, and the backbiting and accusations that have flown back and forth regarding Roth's departure are rivaled only by the litigious slings and arrows of the Mark Zuckerberg-versus-the Winklevoss twins Facebook saga.
Little did bassist Michael Anthony know then that a similar drama would play out when Roth's replacement, Sammy Hagar, was booted from Van Halen in 1996, before Anthony himself, in the mid-2000s, was exiled from the band he'd been in since 1974.
"In the latter days of Van Halen, before I was out of the band, you almost start to lose perspective on why we're doing this in the first place, because Van Halen became a pretty well-oiled machine - touring and everything, and of course, it all becomes big business and whatever," said Anthony. "It almost got to the point where we never got into the studio to really jam, like we do in Chickenfoot [the band he's in now with Hagar, Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer Chad Smith and guitarist extraordinaire Joe Satriani]."
Chance of a lifetime
Things weren't always that way with what many refer - sarcastically or affectionately - to as the "Van Hagar" years. When Sammy Hagar entered the picture, stepping in for Roth as Van Halen's singer and rhythm guitarist in 1985, his arrival was a breath of fresh air. Introduced by a mechanic, of all people, sports car lovers Hagger and Eddie initially hit it off. But, before this fortunate happenstance, Van Halen had been foundering in its search for a new lead vocalist. As the story goes, Patty Smyth of Scandal was offered the role, but she nixed the idea. Jimmy Barnes was considered, too, but nothing ever came of it. Haggar, as it turned out, was the ideal replacement, even if news of his enlistment wasn't greeted with cheers and toasts from everyone.
For Haggar, joining Van Halen was the chance of a lifetime. Though he'd had solo hits, including the ubiquitous "I Can't Drive 55" in, of all years, 1984, and AOR staples such as "There's Only One Way to Rock," "Three Lock Box" and 1982's "Your Love is Driving Me Crazy," which rose all the way to #13 on the Hot 100 chart, Van Halen was playing in a different league. And after the trials and tribulations the Red Rocker experienced earlier in his career with Montrose, Haggar was grateful for the reception he received in Van Halen.
"Montrose ... Montrose wasn't that much fun," admits Hagar. "You know, we were fun, but we were poor on our ass and we bombed at practically every show we played. (laughs) We got booed ... oh yes. I mean, we headlined Winterland in San Francisco, and we headlined Paris at the Olympia Theater - the only two cities in the world where Montrose was the headline act. The rest of the time, we were an opening act, and we got booed off whenever we opened for anybody. It was like, 'F**k. Why doesn't anyone like us?' (laughs) And then we went on to sell, over the years, four million albums of that first [Montrose] record and we never even made the Top 200. It was never even on the charts. So, you know, that wasn't that much fun (laughs). It was like being in the f**king infantry, on the front lines the whole time, you know (laughs)."
Hagar, though, had his detractors, even though his technical proficiency on guitar - something Roth never had - expanded Van Halen's capabilities, allowing Eddie more opportunities to play synthesizer live. Many of them would continue to deride Hagar long after 5150, Van Halen's first album with Hagar onboard, had fallen off the charts, but Hagar had the last laugh.
"Oh man, joining the band, having the same old thing that always happens with everything I do - the doubting Thomases [that say], 'Aw, this is never going to work. Sammy's a whole different guy. Nobody can replace Roth,'" recalls Hagar.
As the skeptics lined up to express their misgivings, Van Halen went in the studio with Hagar in November 1985 to bang out 5150 in short order. Wasting little time, the band assumed a bunker mentality during the recording sessions, which would quickly yield fruit.
"Just going in there while we were making the 5150 record, we were on fire," remembers Hagar. "You know, we locked everybody out. No one came in but our manager and our engineers and producer, [Foreigner's] Mick Jones, and so forth. And everybody in that room is going 'this is a fight to the f**king world, here's this.'"
For his part, Anthony wasn't quite sure what to make of Hagar when he first showed up to work. This wasn't the laidback California surfer dude and hippie philosopher Anthony had pictured. Any reservations he had, however, were quickly dismissed.
"I know Sammy was ... I think he was just starting to take a long break [just before he joined Van Halen]," says Anthony. "So, he comes walking into the studio and I was sitting in the control room and he came walking in, and here he is, his hair is all shaved off, pretty much. And I said, 'Whoa, that's Sammy Hagar? This ain't the guy we signed on to come play with us.' But yeah, we had a few ideas that were already written that we were kind of working on, before Sammy came in. One of 'em was 'Good Enough' ... I forget what the other one was, but we had a couple of ideas and we started playing, and Sammy just started singing off the top of his head, you know, just listening to this stuff. And there were a lot of lyrics that he actually ended up using in the songs. That's how well it clicked. I still have the cassette tape somewhere at home of that first time. We all had copies, and we were just blown. I mean, as soon as we started playing, as soon as we started playing ... we actually stopped and said, 'We've got a band.' That's how well it clicked. It was great."
What chemistry, what magic - Hagar couldn't believe how fast the record, released 25 years ago in 1986, and the promotion of it, came together. The salacious "Good Enough" was a powerhouse of an album opener, its rhythmic pistons pumping furiously from start to finish, while the triumphant "Best of Both Worlds" happily marched up a mountain of life-affirming riffs. The bruising "Inside," with its roiling guitars sounding as brutal as a gang initiation, was a cocky middle finger pointed straight at Van Halen's critics, and "Summer Nights" nostalgically pined for those humid, sweaty evenings of misspent youth, when smoking joints, drinking beer and fouling around in the backseats of cars was all that mattered.
"5150 was actually recorded pretty quickly, because we had a lot of ideas already and then a lot of stuff, obviously, was written once Sammy entered the thing, but I think the band was on such a high at that point," said Anthony. "I mean, we were firing on 16 cylinders at that point, because it was new and fresh and Sammy really brought his own thing into the band full-on. Here was a guy who could vocally sing anything that Ed was coming up with, and he could play guitar. So from that standpoint, he could make suggestions musically and melodically there, and he could also pick up a guitar and jam with us in the studio, too. And I can't remember, but I think ... I can't say for sure, but it seemed like we did that album pretty quick - a month, a couple months."
A pristine palace of sonic grandeur, with its sparkling production, 5150 - that cocoa-buttered muscle man down on one knee holding up the world on the cover indicative of the band's ambition and the pressure they were under - wasn't your typical Van Halen record. For one thing, it had soaring ballads, earnest love songs like "Dreams," "Why Can't This Be Love" and "Love Walks In" that contained nary a hint of Roth's prurient penchant for sly sexual innuendo and bawdy jokes. Different too was the fact that Eddie's guitars, so prominent in the mix on Van Halen classic hard-rock rumbles like "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," "Everybody Wants Some," "Running with the Devil," "And the Cradle Will Rock," "Mean Street" and "Unchained," among others, had taken a step back, quite comfortable on equal footing with keyboards, Anthony's big, booming bass and Alex's thundering herd of drums. And then there was the stunning vocal interaction between Anthony and Hagar, a signature feature of Van Halen's sound with Hagar.
"I'll say one thing, after doing backgrounds to David Lee Roth, because his vocal range is a lot lower, all of a sudden, it was like, 'Whoa,'" says Anthony. "I mean, it really pushed me in the beginning, so I was all of a sudden singing in registers that I hadn't really sung in before. Not that I couldn't do it. But I never did it with Van Halen, and it was cool. And I think it really inspired me and the fact that I could sing those parts, I was really digging it. We really kind of took it to another level vocally with the backgrounds we were doing."
While the public waited with bated breath to hear the results of this unusual union, Hagar and company had every reason to be satisfied with what they had produced. And Warner Bros. was thrilled, too. To think, after Roth had left, the record company, nervous about its cash cow, had pushed the band to abandon the Van Halen name, or even change it, officially that is, to Van Hagar. Not only that, but the suits had put their foot down about allowing Van Halen complete control in the studio. Their ace in the hole, producer Ted Templeton, who captured all the vital energy and punishing intensity of Van Halen's live sound on record in the making of Van Halen I and II, and Fair Warning, Women and Children First and Diver Down, was out of the picture, and they weren't about to let the inmates run the asylum. Don Landee, the engineer on previous Van Halen records, initially assumed production duties, and later, Jones was recruited to provide production assistance.
Still, when all was said and done, Warner Bros. figured it had a monster hit on its hands with 5150. And they couldn't wait to cash that lottery ticket. "Warner Bros., they shot us right out there on tour," said Anthony. "We didn't even know what happened. The album wasn't even out yet and boom, they had us out on the road. I guess they were all wanting new summer homes and stuff like that (laughs). But you know, for the first two, three albums that Sammy did, we'd tour and then we came right back in the studio and bam, we were going and then we were right back out on the road before we knew it. It was all happening really fast at the time, but like I said, the band ... we were really on a high right then."
Hagar's head was spinning, as well. "So then we go out and play the first show before the album was out, and the place knocked the f**king barricade down in Shreveport, La., and ripped the stage apart," says Hagar. "We damn near had to stop the show in the middle of it, because it was just ... you know, it's those kinds of things: the energy and enthusiasm and the success. The album goes to No. 1 the third week out, it stays there for three weeks. Everybody had their first No. 1 album. It was just one thing after another; it was just success, success, success."
Swept up in all the swirling madness that used to accompany a No. 1 record, Hagar and Van Halen, nevertheless, relished the spoils of their victory. And the backlash that came from longtime Van Halen fans that pledged their allegiance to Roth and gnashed their teeth over the new sound of the band didn't faze Hagar or the other members. Instead, when the 1986 Tour, so named as a not-so-veiled swipe at the doomed 1984 Tour that caused so much tumult within the band, ended and 5150's meteor had fallen to earth, this new Van Halen went back to work.
There was a concert movie, "Live Without A Net." OU812, 5150's follow-up, arrived two years later, and it contained the hits "When It's Love" and the countrified "Finish What Ya Started," with its light "aw shucks" pop manner and incredibly nimble guitar picking. 1991 saw Van Hagar release For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge - the acronym of which produced a certain F-word Hagar is found of using - and it reunited the band with producer Templeton. Unlike the first two albums, which generally received more positive reviews than scathing rebukes, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was savaged by the critics as being unnecessarily fussy and devoid of fun, and it signaled the end of Van Hagar's first run. Then came 1995's Balance, and the tensions that had simmered between Hagar and the Van Halen brothers, who were breaking down physically with Eddie's hip problem and Alex's neck pain, began boiling over. Still, on a commercial level, everything Van Halen and Hagar touched seemed to turn to gold.
When asked what his favorite memories are of the Van Hagar period, Anthony said, "I think one was just seeing every album go to No. 1, and then enter at No. 1 in the charts with Sammy. It's funny because, it isn't until I can really sit back and look at what's happening, or somebody comes up to me, a friend or something, and says, 'Wow! Do you know how big you guys really are?' We never really realized it, because you're working so hard and you're there, and plus, it's great, you're playing for the big crowds and everything, but you don't have time to sit back and think of what happens. I think it would scare the shit out of me if I did. But, you know, we were just having so much fun doing it, there was a time when it was like, you know ... we called ourselves the four-headed monster. There was no stopping us. And I don't know, I just think ... you know, just the way Sammy entering the band just elevated the whole thing, it was like man, it almost seems like a dream now. You know, every now and then, I'll put on 'Live Without a Net' or see something live that I've got that the band did, and the energy that the band had, it was pretty cool. I sit back and kind of ... whoa, we were happening."
What was happening internally was not so pleasant. Hagar and Van Halen reached the point of no return with the recordings for the "Twister" movie soundtrack, which Hagar was dead-set against, and plans for a compilation album, which Hagar also resisted. And so, like Roth, Hagar exited in a storm of controversy, with Hagar saying he was fired and the Van Halen claiming that he quit. Some reports have said that Hagar did, indeed, quit, but it was because Van Halen was recording with Roth again behind his back.
Since then, of course, Van Halen has churned through a series of singers, chewing up and spitting out Gary Cherone before recycling Roth, not once but twice, and Hagar, whose reunion with the band lasted from 2003-2005. In 2011, Hagar put out an explosive tell-all autobiography that detailed, in no uncertain terms, his strained relationship with the Van Halen brothers and his wild times with the band, as well as hitting on other parts of his musical career.
About the book, Sammy says, "I just figured it was time for people to hear my story. I know it kind of sounds stupid, but I wanted to do it while I still remembered it. All this stuff, my memory is still pretty good, real good actually. It just ... I don't know, it was time, you know. I'm one of those guys who don't make decisions unless it just comes to me, and I think, 'Oh, I'm going to do that.' I'm really a knee-jerk f**ker. I'm kind of like an insect. If I'm cold, I move towards heat. If I'm hot, I move towards cold. If I'm hungry, I eat. If I'm tired, I sleep. So, somebody offers me the book ... I've been offered a book a hundred times, for the last 20 years. I even wrote a book already once and never released it. And I just said, 'Yeah, this is right.' I thought the Van Halen stuff ... I was just getting sick of doing interviews and going down the street and on the radio and people, fans, getting me letters saying, 'Why can't you and Eddie get it together? Why don't you give Eddie a call? Why don't you guys go back in the studio? Why can't you go on tour? Why didn't you guys play my town? How come you ...?' And I'm just going, 'F**k. I've got to tell these people why. It ain't me, damn it. It's not me. I'm not the problem here.' I've made 15 records and probably played a thousand shows since the last time they've shown their faces (laughs). It's not me. I really kind of wanted to get that out. And I feel real good about getting it out."
In some respects, despite their differences, Hagar feels bad for what's become of Van Halen, who, as rumor has it, is working on a new record with ... drum roll please: David Lee Roth.
"I think [Eddie] and Al, as much as I love Al, they over-think everything until it ain't no more, it ain't there no more," said Hagar. "By the time they finished going back and forth and back and forth, wake up in the middle of the night, changing their minds, it's pretty soon that that golden light just went to darkness. And it's no longer there. So, they go, 'Aw, f**k it. Yeah, we shouldn't have done it anyway. Yeah, it's probably better. Okay, next.' It's the way they function, and I don't know what their problem is with that, but you know, there's a lot of abuse going on in that in terms of personal stuff and everything else, and I just ... I feel bad for him. I feel bad for the fans ... Van Halen, one of the biggest, greatest bands in history, in rock history ... you know, we hold a lot of titles. And to just not give anything ... God, it's just such a waste. I couldn't live like that. If I was still in that band, and we had these long hiatuses, I would have just quit. I would have retired from music completely, and just said, 'No, I'm not going to wait seven or eight years,' and then say, 'Okay, let's make a record and go tour. Get the f**k out of here.' It's like an athlete, boxers, Muhammed Ali takes two or three years off from the Army thing that came down on him, and he was never the same fighter ever again, you know. And that's the way all athletes are. You know, musicians, rock musicians, are especially like athletes. You've got to keep your art, your hands and your voices, your body, everything, has to stay in that kind of condition - lubed up and ready to go. Otherwise, you lose it, and I'm sorry, but those guys are crazy."
As for Anthony, he and his Jack Daniels bottle-shaped bass began drifting apart from Van Halen after 1996 as well. Though he stayed on for various projects, despite various reports that he was no longer in the band, Anthony's role steadily diminished, until in 2006 Eddie revealed that Van Halen would carry on with his son Wolfgang replacing Anthony on bass. Since then, Hagar and Anthony have grown closer, having worked together on Planet Us with Satriani and others before touring as a member of the Other Half during part of the Sammy Hagar and the Waboritas tour. And now, Chickenfoot is a thriving enterprise, with two hit records to its credit.
"There was a time when Sammy was out of [Van Halen] that we actually lost touch," says Anthony. "We didn't really communicate too much, and obviously, Eddie and Al, that was my band. So, it was politically incorrect for me to have anything to do with Sammy, which I was kind of bummed out about that because Sammy and I became really good friends during the time he was in the band, and I think it was ... God, it had to have been a few years later, when ... I think I remember getting drunk on New Year's Eve, and I was with some friends, and I said, 'You know, I'm going to call Sammy.' And I called him and got his voicemail, and we actually played phone tag a couple of times like that. He called me back and he happened to be in the L.A. area doing something at one point, and he gave me a call and said, 'Hey, why don't you come on down and we'll hang out.' We actually became better friends the second time around than when he was in the band the first time. I think probably because it wasn't ... well, the first time he was kind of thrown into it: 'Here's your new lead singer,' and it started out like that. Whereas the second time, we just hung out, and really didn't even talk about anything musically or anything like that. It was just, 'What's been happening in your life? What are you doing' and we are better friends than we have been."
Looking back on it all, Hagar has no regrets about the time he spent with Van Halen, even with all the eventual hassle that came with it. We had nine incredible years, two horrible years, and then another reunion nine months of horror beyond horror, and you still look back, and the horror is pretty much the most recent things so I can recall things, thinking, 'I'll never play with that guy again. I would never be in the same room with Eddie Van Halen again, sober or anyway,' because anybody who was in as bad a shape as I saw, sober is still going to be crazy," explained Hagar. "So, I'm not going to deal with it. So, looking back, it's still too fresh from that reunion tour, but at the same time, I had some of the greatest times in the history of rock. For nine years, it was the greatest ride on the planet. I mean, I don't think life could be any better than that for any musician or artist. And then it went bad. But, too bad - the last couple of years ... everything written in my book, I put that in there because it was part of the deal. And everyone wrote about it and brought it up, and exploited it. But the truth of the matter is I had nine of the greatest years of my rock and roll life in Van Halen. It was one of the greatest things I'll ever do. And the only thing that rivals any of it is this Chickenfoot thing."