The Audition Part One – Van Halen: Sammy Hagar of David Lee Roth?

Changing a good thing can be tricky business.

In sport, there’s the examples of Mark Thompson and Chris Scott at Geelong and Mick Malthouse and Nathan Buckley at Collingwood. In recent times, we’ve seen Manchester United wrestle with the challenge of transitioning from Sir Alex Ferguson to David Moyes and now Louis van Gaal. While Cricket Australia have managed the succession of post-Allan Border captaincies with aplomb (Taylor, to S. Waugh, to Ponting), the change from G.S Chappell to Kim Hughes was hardly a success.

The music industry is no different to the sporting world and in this post I’ll look at one of the biggest line-up changes in rock and roll.

While some changes were enforced (which undoubtedly gives you some clues as to who will be discussed in this series) and some were brought about by (ahem) ‘musical differences‘, there have been some were inspired line-up movements and some almighty cock-ups worth a look.

Grab your spandex, crack a can of hairspray, practice your pout and delve into the world of what Henry Rollins once described as “the trauma of traveling to gigs in a lear jet and staying in five-star accommodation”; the world of glam rock and Van Halen’s switch from ‘Diamond’ David Lee Roth to Sammy (van) Hagar.

Van Halen: 

IN: Sammy Hagar (1985 – 1996)
OUT: David Lee Roth (1972 – 1985)

No line-up argument polarises opposing camps more than whether DLR or Sammy Hagar was the best Van Halen frontman*. Bands are often the sum of their parts – see Paul Hester and Crowded House, INXS with Michael Hutchense or imagine U2 without one of Bono, Edge, Mullen or Clayton – so when it comes to Roth-era Van Halen versus Hagar-era Van Halen, it’s almost like you’re talking about two completely different bands in terms of sound, direction and genre.

Roth’s swagger and undeniable sex appeal, Eddie’s guitar genius, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen’s tighter-than-a-fish’s-arse rhythm section (not to mention Anthony’s distinct backing-vocals) made Van Halen one of the biggest rock bands of the ‘70s early ‘80s – becoming, perhaps, the band for whom the term ‘stadium rock’ was coined – and were characterised by an appetite for hedonistic excess arguably rivalled only by Led Zeppelin at the height of their success.

On top of the charts and the stadium rock world with their 1984 LP, the Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony were ready to shiv Roth by the end of that corresponding world tour and a change had to be made. Diamond Dave was given his marching orders and into the breach stepped southern California singer-songwriter Sammy Hagar. The band dynamic changed considerably and Van Hagar was born.

Much like AC/DC though, the change in lead vocalists added an entirely new chapter to the band’s history; propelling them from stars to bona-fide-rock-n-roll-giants. With a reputation as one of the hardest-partying bands in the business, Hagar’s ‘where’s the booze, where’s the blow, where’s the hookers?’ aesthetic – not to mention the very handy fruits of his song writing partnership with Eddie – played right into the hearts and minds of Van Halen’s audience and the excessive consumption leitmotif synonymous with the 80s.

While these days Van Halen’s popularity is quite a ways off the insanity of their heyday (with Roth back on vocal duties and Michael Anthony now on the outer in favour of Eddie’s son, Wolfgang, on bass), they remain one of music’s legendary bands and a bona-fide phenomenon.

Roth-era classics include JumpPanamaRunnin’ With The DevilAint Talkin’ Bout LoveDance the Night Away and the MTV staple (for obvious reasons) Hot For Teacher (although Alex Van Halen’s dancing chops are worth a watch for the comic value alone).

Sammy Hagar meanwhile, enjoys pretty juicy royalty checks for hits like DreamsWhy Can’t This Be LoveLove Walks InWhen It’s Love (spot the trend yet?), Top Of The World and Right Now.

The Verdict?

Van Halen got it right. The commercial success of the band with Sammy Hagar up front went from ballistic to thermonuclear. Bringing on a singer who was also a very handy guitarist allowed Eddie Van Halen to experiment more with keyboards as well as added some more beef to the band’s live sound. Diamond Dave’s charisma, showmanship, irreverence and borderline ADHD, set the bar as far as cock-rock is concerned. Although there’s the argument that getting to the top is one thing, but staying there is another, Diamond Dave’s hard yards on the way up propelled the band to the top of the U.S music charts and packed stadiums to the rafters with boys who looked like girls, who liked girls who liked boys who looked like girls (as the song goes). I’m in the DLR camp, but it’s not like Sammy Hagar screwed up a good thing.

Who’s the better front man in Van Halen? David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar? 

*Like the punch Ali never threw at Foreman, bringing Gary Cherone (vocalist from 1996-1999) into this discussion would be quite undignified for all concerned.

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