Obviously we are talking lead singer for Van Halen.
David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar? Which version of VH do you prefer? This is like asking, Ginger or Mary Ann.
Is it possible to like certain years of both versions, or is it strictly one or the other? There are have been various reunions with both, but let’s not get into that. There was even the Gary Cherone era (1996–1999), but let’s ignore that one too. So, the choice is between the David Lee Roth era (1978-1985) and The Sammy Hagar era (1986-1996).
David Lee Roth
The first two albums, Van Halen (1978) and Van Halen II (1979), defined the band’s sound and swagger. A hard rock band that preceded the “hair band” decade of the 1980’s, Van Halen offered up a muscular sound and a unique guitar attack. Early in his career, David Lee Roth had a voice with great range and vocal precision. His voice and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar solos separated VH from the pack of similar hard rock bands. The first album offered several memorable songs and the second album broadened their appeal with a fuller soundscape. Roth quickly established himself as one of the best vocalists of the era. Onstage, his leaps, kicks and flips added energy and urgency to their performance. His long flowing hair and open shirts gave a sexual energy to their live show. “Runnin’ With the Devil” “Ain’t Talkin’ ’bout Love” were very strong singles from their debut album. “Dance the Night Away” was the best single from their second album and helped propel it to more than six million sales (reached in 2004). Eddie Van Halen’s guitar was one you didn’t forget, thick and powerful. Van Halen had arrived.
Women and Children First (1980) The band shifted focus a bit with their sound. “And the Cradle Will Rock…” was a huge single from the album, although it reached only 55 on the chart, but it defined the direction they heading. Sales were strong and the album reached number six on the chart. The next several albums would be less “pop” and have a grittier guitar sound. “Everybody Wants Some!!” although not a single was a very popular song and tested Roth’s vocal ability.
Fair Warning (1981) This album lacked the big, radio-friendly hits, as VH continued to tinker with their sound. “So This Is Love?” was released as a single, a good song and a strong Roth performance but didn’t require a huge muscular performance. This album wasn’t a bust but it did not sell very well and took awhile for fans to warm up to it.
Diver Down (1982) An usual album, in part because five of the songs were covers. “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” “Dancing in the Street” received a lot of airplay, helping the album to reach number 3 on the charts, but it was one of their weaker albums, skimpy on original ideas. Every album seemed to have several songs that were there to give Eddie Van Halen an opportunity to do some shredding, resembling partial song ideas, but entertained fans with his incredible ability.
1984 (1984) The band rebounded with an original and heavy-hitting album that reached number two on the chart and has sold more than 10 million copies to date. Four big singles highlighted this album, which had stronger, more complete singles. The album also featured more keyboards, courtesy of Eddie Van Halen. “Jump,” “I’ll Wait,” “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher” were played all over the radio. The use of keyboards had been a long-running issue between Eddie and Roth/Templeman.
Creative tensions within the band, between Eddie Van Halen and Roth, and with producer Ted Templeman over the direction of the music had been brewing over the past several albums.
The Roth era ended with Diamond Dave going on to an unspectacular solo career. I thought some of his records were good but without the musical talent of a partner like Eddie Van Halen, Roth was not going to achieve near the success that he did with the band. She used guitarist Steve Vai and others, but it was inconsistent at best. Roth was a very good match for the early years of VH. His stage presence and swagger fit the VH persona, but in a power struggle with the Van Halen brothers, he was clearly at a disadvantage.
Sammy Hagar began his career with the hard rock group Montrose, who’s producer was Ted Templeman, the VH producer. Hagar had a very successful solo career going, with popular album and the song, “I Can’t Drive 55.” He was not only a powerful vocalist, but he was a very good guitarist, a skill that wouldn’t be needed when he joined VH.
The Hagar era began in 1986 with the 5150 album, which became the group’s first number one Billboard album. There were three top 40 tunes from that album. This project was met with great anticipation and some skepticism. Would the Sammy experiment work? It did, this is a well-crafted album with a super-good vibe.
OU812 followed in 1988, with three singles including the top five hit, “When It’s Love.” The album reached number one, sold over 4 million copies, but the reviews were mixed. This album was mostly solid, a few false notes, but not quite the seamless hit as the previous album.
For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge arrived in 1991, and was another number one album. There were several singles getting airplay, “Poundcake,” “Right Now” and “Top of the World.” There was a big difference between the these songs and the rest of the filler on the album. Again, the album sold well (hardcore fans bought it up), but critics were generally unkind.
In 1993, Live: Right Here, Right Now was released. Recorded in 1992, the Van Halen live set with Hagar, unfortunately, contained only a few songs from the Roth-era. Very good, but not great album. “Panama,” Jump,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” and “You Really Got Me” was it.
Balance, the final Hagar-Van Halen album, arrived in 1995. “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” was one of five singles and best performing of the bunch. The group moved away from long-time producer Ted Templeman, going with hard rock veteran Bruce Fairbairn. Again, the album reached number one and sold several million units, but was it a good album? I have no memories of this album. By this time, I had lost interest in the band. The style was predictable and lacked any originality. The rumors of in-fighting spelled the end of this era.
One more Hagar-Van Halen song would surface on the soundtrack to the film Twister and appear on their upcoming greatest hits album. It is actually not a bad song, not a classic, but better than some of the autopilot work of their last several albums. Sammy was used to being a lead singer, he certainly was in his solo career. He didn’t have the natural four-plus octave range of Roth, but he was a very capable singer. Later in his career, Roth wasn’t hitting the hit notes either, but you can work around that. Hagar wasn’t as outlandish as Roth onstage but he had his own stage presence.
So, we are years beyond the hey day of Van Halen. Their last chart hit was more than 20 years ago. Since then, the band has released several under-performing albums, a few tours, some reunions, but little of the magic that for twenty years ruled the charts and concert stages. Few bands have such distinctive lead-singer eras that had monster hits in each. Predictably, neither singer liked playing the other singer’s hits with the band.
If you are making your own greatest hits compilation, there are great songs in each era. My view, enjoy the best from each.