My original plan for today was to just feature the first Van Halen record that was released after they replaced David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar. Frankly, the rest of their albums after “5150” are not making the cut. However, as I was doing some comparisons in my mind, I realized the better approach was to listen to, and compare and contrast “5150” with Roth’s first solo album, “Eat ‘Em and Smile”, which was released just four months later. David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen will forever be linked, even when they weren’t in the same band, so the comparison is certainly relevant.
To start things off, in case anyone still wonders how I feel about this, neither act on their own lives up to the legacy of Van Halen 1.0. The more frequent comparison is Van Halen vs. Van Hagar, and while Sammy Hagar is a technically better singer and musician than Dave, he just doesn’t bring the same edge, charisma, presence or attitude to the band. Said another way, original Van Halen was for some time, the fiercest and most dominant rock band in the world. Van Hagar is like when the coolest guys from school all get married and have families and grill in their backyard instead of rocking the night away. It’s a nice experience, in a different kind of way, but it isn’t what we look for when we stare deep into the eyes of rock and roll. Both of these albums are good, and I enjoyed both more than I expected to or remembered, but neither comes close to the brilliance of the first six Van Halen records.
Others may disagree with me, as “5150” was actually the first Van Halen record to ever reach #1, and it was the most commercially successful album they ever released. It opens with the tune “Good Enough”, which unfortunately, it really wasn’t. However, the second track, “Why Can’t This Be Love”, is a happy and relatively well-intentioned song, and is one of my favorites on the record. “Get Up” is Eddie being Eddie, although the hook doesn’t really follow. Next, we have “Dreams”, which is Eddie going back into his synthesizer and Sammy sings so high, I think he even reaches the upper limits of his range. If you recall, the music video for this song was nothing but footage of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, and this may be the only rock video ever that my dad enjoyed even more than I did, as a lifetime wanna-be fighter pilot.
“Summer Nights” is one of the funkier and better songs on this album, and reinforces the depth that does exist here across all of the songs. “Best of Both Worlds” may be my favorite track on the album, and despite the void left by Dave, it is a pretty damn good song and is some of Sammy’s best work in the band. “Love Walks In” is a pretty schmaltzy love song, which is OK, even though it is pretty much the polar opposite of “Ain’t Talkin ‘Bout Love”. I like it nonetheless, and it has some good harmony backing vocals and solid drumming from Alex Van Halen. The title track is decent, and the album ends with their closest replication of what Van Halen used to be before they traded in their Jack Daniels and girls on each arm for an assistant coaching job in youth league soccer, on the song “Inside”.
To compare and contrast, David Lee Roth recruited Steve Vai, who was about as close as one can come to being in Eddie’s league without quite getting there. He really can play, and gave Dave the credibility he desperately needed, along with some really good songs as well. Like “5150” and most other albums, there are some filler tracks, but there are some very notable high points, and with Dave on point, the attitude and charisma are closer to the roots, even if it lacks some of the overall musicality from when he also had Michael Anthony on backing vocals and Alex Van Halen on drums.
The record opens with “Yankee Rose”, and the infamous opening line from its video, from Roth in full tribal gear, ranting “Give me a bottle of anything… and a glazed donut… TO GO!” Dave is slowly transforming from rock god to cartoon character here, but Steve Vai keeps him on track on this song as well as the rest of the record. “Shyboy” is probably the most Van Halen-sounding song here, and would have easily blended in with some of the tracks on “Fair Warning” or “Women and Children First”. “I’m Easy” is Dave the showman selling his wares. “Goin’ Crazy” is their version of blended guitars and synthesizers, and like “Dreams” from Van Halen, it is good, if not great.
They do a take on the blues-rock standard “Tobacco Road”, and I really like the slow-jam riff of “Big Trouble”. Like “5150”, this is another good effort, and probably the best record Roth ever released after he left the band. If for some reason you aren’t familiar with David Lee Roth, you can understand him completely in one track, the last song which is another standard recorded by many including Frank Sinatra, “That’s Life”. “I’ve been a puppet, a poet, a pirate, a pauper… NOW I’M A KING!” That self-proclaimed and fully validated cockiness is what Van Halen missed sorely with Sammy Hagar, even if Sammy is probably a much humbler and more tolerable guy to sit down and have a beer or three with.
We all know the rest of the story. Eventually, David Lee Roth made his way back to Van Halen and stayed in the band until we lost Eddie. Unfortunately, his voice didn’t join him and he was a shell of his former self by the time that happened. Sammy broke off with Michael Anthony and John Bonham’s son Jason to form his own act, and is still rocking Cabo San Lucas and wherever else the road may take them. Eddie’s son Wolfgang is now leading his own band Mammoth (the original band name of Van Halen) after replacing Michael Anthony in his dad’s band. A lot of hard feelings and rivalries are slowly dissipating, as each of those involved from all acts look back and know their lives are better for the music of Edward Van Halen. So is mine.