Album of the Day — October 9
Van Halen — 5150
Van Halen — 5150
It wouldn’t be fair to honor Eddie Van Halen’s genius without acknowledging Van Halen (v2.0).
After the departure of David Lee Roth, no one knew what to expect. It’s fair to say that most people thought the band was done …because very few bands have any success after a lead singer departs.
Most people were wrong.
Serendipity, via Eddie and Sammy’s respective Lambrogheni’s, brought Sammy Hagar into Van Halen’s world.
Earning his wings with fellow axman Ronnie Montrose, in the band Montrose, Hagar broke free by the end of the 70s. And by 1985, Sammy Hagar had carved out a solid career as a solo artist with good songs, hit records, and sheer tenacity.
Hagar was playing and often selling out arenas before he joined Van Halen, so his financial motivation was nil. He’s said often that he made less money in Van Halen than he did as a solo artist — given the volume of sales Van Halen had versus Hagar’s solo work, I might raise an eyebrow, but if we know anything about Hagar, he’s a VERY astute businessman.
ANYWAY, Hagar met the Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony, they jammed, and the rest is history.
They wrote songs and went into Eddie Van Halen’s 5150 Studio (California police code for a “mentally disturbed person” is 5150) in November 1985 and emerged in March of 1986 with 5150.
For the first time in Van Halen’s career, Ted Templeman was not producing (he’d gone on to produce David Lee Roth’s first solo album). This elevated engineer Donn Landee to the Producers chair and the label had the band bring in Foreigner’s Mick Jones, too.
It should be noted that the chemistry between Van Halen v1.0 is simply unparalleled. They may not have liked each other very much, but that chemistry produced genre-defining and mind-blowing music.
What Van Halen lost with David Lee Roth they gained with Sammy Hagar.
Van Halen with Sammy Hagar got a better songwriter, a better singer, and a competent guitar player — allowing Eddie the freedom to noodle with keyboards live.
For the first time in the band’s history, they branched out from their sound. Listening to Roth era Van Halen, you notice that Eddie’s guitar is pushed up in the mix and generally on the left channel to simulate a “live” sound.
Eddie was never a fan of that “live” sound, so on 5150, his guitar playing was equal in the mix. As such, there is a noticeable difference in sound on the album. It’s also the first album to not contain an instrumental.
5150 is loaded with tight, well-written, and for the first time, well-sung, rock songs. And from the very first sound, which is appropriately Sammy Hagar shouting “HELLOOOO BABY!” before kicking into the typical Van Halen lyrical double entendre with “Good Enough.”
It’s a great lead-off song because it keeps the PG-13 raunch of the Roth era, tight rhythms, Eddie’s guitar-slinging, and it asks the listeners' question — is this band “Good Enough”? And yes, it’s good enough.
5150 is a non-stop barrage of those kinds of songs — hits.
With Hagar’s songwriting, the band was able to show a little more tenderness and sensitivity. “Why Can’t This Be Love” is remains a sentiment that has a universality that Roth was incapable of tapping into. To be blunt, Hagar is just a better songwriter. Hagar was never afraid to tap into his emotions.
It’s probably the reason that five of the ten songs got released as singles:
“Why Can’t This Be Love?” — #3 on Billboard Hot 100
“Dreams” — #22 on Billboard Hot 100
“Love Walks In” — #22 on Billboard Hot 100
“Best of Both Worlds” — not charted
“Summer Nights” — not charted.
The only misfire is, thankfully, the last song on the album, “Inside.” It’s safe to say the album would’ve been a little better without that one.
Not surprisingly, 5150 remains polarizing among Van Halen fans. But it sold one million copies in its first week, becoming Warner Brothers Records fastest-selling album (at the time), and it became the band’s first Billboard #1 album. A string they continued with each subsequent release for the next 12 years.
To be fair, 1984 peaked at #2 and was kept out of the #1 spot by the biggest selling album of all-time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller … so, there’s that.
Robert Christgau gave it a C+ saying: “Wonder how the guitar mavens who thought Eddie equaled Van Halen are going to like his fireworks displays and balls-to-the-wall hooks now that video star David Lee Roth has given way to one of the biggest schmucks in the known biz. No musician with something to say could stomach responding to Sammy Hagar’s call, and this album proves it.”[Boy, he really doesn’t like Sammy Hagar.]
Tim Holmes from Rolling Stone wrote: “Eddie can still split the atom with his ax, and he knows it. It’s a Van Halen world with or without David Lee Roth, and 5150 shoots off all the bombastic fireworks of a band at the peak of its powers […] On 5150, Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar speak each other’s language.”
Look, I love the Roth era more than the Hagar era. This is not to say I dislike the Hagar era, quite the contrary. My emotional attachment to the Roth era is greater — I was an adolescent, and those songs captured that moment in time for me. By the time Hagar came along, I was a little older and had some experience under my belt. Which is to say, the emotional depth Hagar brought to the band spoke more to me.
And you can call them Van Halen and Van Hagar or whatever you want. But in either (or any) incarnation, this band was always ALL ABOUT EDDIE.
And of course, every Van Halen fan has their favorite incarnation. And of course, comparing the two eras of the band is, on the one hand, inevitable, and the other hand, pointless. They’re two different bands.
And 5150 is where my affinity for the band drops. By then, I had discovered The Replacements and had developed different tastes. This is not to say my love for Van Halen went away; my tastes had changed. I would continue to follow the band a little bit, but we’d grown apart like many relationships, not together.
I got lucky and was able to see Van Halen three times, 2x with Roth and 1x with Hagar. Sadly, it was many years ago and in all cases, there were always chemicals involved.
With Eddie Van Halen’s passing, many will play the “What if…” game. What if they recorded one more album? What if toured one more time? What if they just did one tour with both Roth and Hagar?
Let’s look at that:
What if they recorded one more album? — I’ve no doubt there are loads of tapes with Eddie’s noodling out there. Maybe even a full song or two. But tastes have changed so much. I fear his reputation would be tarnished had the band re-united with Roth to record another album (did you hear A Different Kind of Truth?)
What if they toured one more time? — I saw them in 2008 with David Lee Roth, and while I was pretty lubricated, it was very far from a stellar show. But the band with Roth was always hit or miss…his voice was just worse. I doubt 13 years has done it any favors.
What if they just did one tour with both Roth and Hagar? — Sure, that woulda been cool as hell. And there was scuttlebutt that talks were happening with all the original members doing something like that, but it’s not gonna happen. And the truth is, I think Eddie was a lot sicker than anyone let on, so it just never seemed practical.
All that Eddie had to give, he gave.
It’s there on the albums, whatever record you want to listen to.
Van Halen was Eddie Van Halen and Eddie Van Halen was Van Halen.
They’re both gone now, but their music remains. And thank God for that.
Rest in peace, Eddie.