So Van Halen has released a new album with David Lee Roth–and fans everywhere rejoice. The ring has been cast into the fiery depths of Mt. Doom, the Death Star has been destroyed, and the evil Hagar beast has been vanquished. All is now right with the world.
Van Halen fans (the true ones, not those pesky fans of the Hagar years) are thrilled that the real band is back together (conveniently overlooking the exclusion of Michael Anthony, whose contributions to the Van Halen sound, particularly with harmonies, was underrated). I have heard the new album and I just have to say: meh. Sure, it does sound like vintage Van Halen, but more than anything it has a “been there, done that” feeling to it. It doesn’t really add anything new to the Van Halen legacy.
And therein lies the problem with the revisionist historians who revile Sammy Hagar as the man who ruined Van Halen. “He made them go soft,” the detractors say. The fact is that the band was already headed in a less guitar-driven direction anyway–Eddie Van Halen’s growing love affair with keyboards began long before Hagar joined the band–for proof just listen to 1984 again. There is nothing wrong with this. A band needs to evolve. If it keeps releasing the same material over and over again it eventually becomes an imitation of itself and fans lose interest. At the time of Roth’s departure, the band had pretty much gone as far as they could with him. It was obvious that Eddie wanted to expand his music into areas that Roth was either unwilling to go or that were beyond his capabilities as a performer. Van Halen didn’t change because Roth left. On the contrary, Roth’s departure freed them to embrace the new avenues they had already begun to explore.
Case in point: Love Walks In. Yeah, yeah, I know that this song is reviled among Roth fans as indicative of everything that was wrong with the Hagar years (though I happen to think it’s a great rock ballad). I’m pretty sure I recall reading that this song was written by Eddie. So if you want to blame someone for it, blame him. Did Hagar’s presence possibly lead Eddie to write the song? Perhaps. He would never have written the song for Roth to sing because Roth does not possess the range to sing it. You can hate Hagar’s voice all you want, but you cannot deny that he brought with him a greater vocal range that enabled the band to write songs with greater nuance and variety than they had in the past, and his ability to play lead guitar allowed Eddie to add more keyboard texture to his songs with the knowledge that they could be performed live.
I don’t think this made them soft, just different, but they were still Van Halen. Why Can’t This Be Love sounds like a song that could have felt at home on 1984 next to Jump. It’s not as if they became a ballad band ala Chicago in its later years. Songs like Best of Both Worlds, Black and Blue, Poundcake, and Humans Being still rocked.
But lest you think this is a pro-Hagar, anti-Roth piece, I want to assure you that it’s not. I happen to like both incarnations of the band. In my opinion both front men made great contributions to their particular eras. In fact, I find the whole Roth versus Hagar argument rather passe. It’s just like the Star Wars versus Star Trek debate. Why isn’t it possible to like both? I recognize that there are people who truly hated the Hagar years, and I respect their opinions, but I think the number of haters has grown over the years as it has become more fashionable to bash that era. I believe the majority of these new haters are not being honest with themselves. How else to explain Van Halen’s enormous popularity during the Hagar years? Those were not just new fans. There were plenty of Roth holdovers who thought 5150 and OU812 were very good albums when they came out.
So if you are among those who always hated the Hagar years, I’m okay with that, and I’m not here to change your mind. But if you enjoyed the Hagar years when you were younger, it’s okay to admit it, you don’t need to hide anymore. As Obi Wan Kenobi might say, “Trust your feelings.” Those years weren’t so bad.