I haven’t written much about controversial issues since the election. There are many reasons for that, many of which are related to our pathetic media, which is focused on partisan screamfests and the TV version of shockjocks rather than interesting and intelligent debate of actual issues that matter. I’m not sure if the fact that the best place to get thoughtful discussion of current events where both sides can speak without yelling is a comedy show (The Daily Show) is a good thing or bad thing.
Anyway, I’m ready to break out of my shell. There’s an issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, and I can remain silent no longer. So here goes: Sammy Hagar got a raw deal.<!–more–>Yeah, that’s right, Sammy Hagar got a raw deal. The Van Hagar years of Van Halen, when the Red Rocker served as the group’s frontman, have become a quick and easy symbol for thoughtless mistakes that are better forgotten. Like New Coke and <em>The Godfather III</em>, the mere mention of Van Hagar elicits knowing chuckles that translate as “What were they thinking?!?!”
I think that’s wrong.
First off, let’s not confuse the issue. Sammy was not in the same league as David Lee Roth. Few are, after all, as Dave is one of the top five or so frontmen of all time. Few had his charisma and energy and personality. With DLR on the mic, Van Halen became the prototype for the American hard rock band. (More on that later.)
But it’s not like Sammy sucked. He was a proven hit-maker, a known quantity, and viewed as a legitimate lead singer for the biggest band in the world. He wouldn’t make the top 50 frontmen of all-time, but he was certainly serviceable. Given the fact that Van Halen wanted to continue recording after Dave and wanted to remain a band that sold millions of albums and had charting singles, Sammy was a solid choice.
The Sammy era started off well enough. <em>5150</em> is a pretty good album. I would argue “Best of Both Worlds” belongs on any list of the top Van Halen songs. Follow-up <em>OU812</em> was a decent effort, and the band deserves credit for trying to stretch themselves. After that, things certainly fell off the cliff. Still, when Sammy was new and the band was focused, they cranked out two chart topping albums and a slew of Top 40 hits.
Yet, somehow, there is a certain segment of the music audience that wants to blame Sammy for all that went wrong with Van Halen. As if he was responsible for Dave’s departure, he forced Eddie to start playing the synthesizer, and he was the force that turned them into a Top 40 band, when the truth is those decisions were made long before Sammy arrived.
We now know that Eddie was primarily responsible for Dave’s departure and no one twisted his arm and forced him to start playing around with the synth. The band’s only #1 hit, “Jump,” came on Dave’s last album. And let’s not forget Eddie was the one who brought in Gary Cherone after Sammy left. In fact, now it’s pretty clear that Eddie, and to a lesser extent Alex, is a total nutjob. But blaming him for the band’s failures would deflate their legend too much.
Why does this matter? Because Van Halen matters. They took the sound of classic hard rock, added the intensity of the emerging punk sound, and threw in a healthy dash of humor and showmanship to create an iconic sound that in still rippling through the American music scene. In fact, I’ve put together this little theory in my head, without doing too much research to see if it holds up. It’s pretty simple: every American band since the 70s either follows the path of Van Halen or Bruce Springsteen.* Regardless of genre, they either want to be the hard-rocking party band that makes it big, or the thoughtful, passionate spokesman for a generation. Like I said, I’m not sure if it holds up, but you have to admit at some level it makes sense.
(The one glaring exception, of course, is Bon Jovi, who managed to follow both paths and sold a gajillion albums doing it. That Jon is no dummy, even if his hair is always perfect.)
I don’t think it’s right to exclude the Sammy years from the Van Halen catalog. Sure, they may not have been as epic as the Dave years, but not many bands ever reach that level. And, at least for the first two albums, it’s not like Van Hagar sucked. There were an awful lot of people who use the term derisively now who were buying the albums and the t-shirts and the concert tickets from 86-89. So while we acknowledge that the Dave years were better, let’s not pretend that there wasn’t some quality in the Sammy years. And let’s not blame Sammy for Eddie’s craziness.