Y’know, the “cool” thing for fans of Van Halen to do is to go on and on about the glory that was the “David Lee Roth Era”. The first four albums were just the most incredible thing to happen to rock since the invention of rock itself. And when comparing David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar, they scoff at the mere notion that Hagar’s era was just as good if not better.
And while I know there are a ton of Van Halen fans out there who believe that you can only like one form of the band or the other (much like being a Boston Red Sox fan or a New York Yankees fan), I couldn’t disagree more. Just because you say that one woman is pretty doesn’t mean that the other woman is ugly. Y’know?
I’ve done the numbers and both versions of the band sold about the same number of records in total. They also had the same number of Top 40 singles, too (give or take). So the real difference between the two bands were the style of the music and the sound of the lead singers.
I’ve always been a fan of “hair metal/glam metal” and “power ballads” from the 80’s, and for whatever reason I never really saw the original incarnation of Van Halen to be like that. Even though they had a very flamboyant frontman who could do his own style of “arena rock”, I never thought their music fit that particular mold. I thought that, for the most part, Van Roth was a straight-forward rock’n’roll band. Sure, they did pop/rock remakes of You Really Got Me and Dancing In The Streets, but for the most part they weren’t overly “pop” with their sound.
That all changed with the release of 1984. Sure, singles like Hot For Teacher and Panama weren’t initially thought to be Top 40 hits, but after the success of Jump and even I’ll Wait, the sound was obviously beginning to change in a way that Roth didn’t particularly love.
The introduction of Sammy Hagar to the group gave us one of Van Halen’s all-time best singles: Why Can’t This Be Love from one of their biggest-selling albums, 5150. That album emphasized just how different the band had become through songs like Love Walks In, Dreams, and even the unreleased (but hugely popular on rock radio) Summer Nights. The album sold over six million copies and was the band’s first #1 album on the Billboard Top 100…the first of four straight #1 albums under their new lead singer.
As we go into OU812 in 1988, the sound of “pop rock/arena rock” and “power ballads” continued with songs like When It’s Love, Feels So Good, Black and Blue, and the unreleased (but highly popular on rock radio) Cabo Wabo. Perhaps it was the reception by the newer fans of the band, but many hardcore fans forget the fact that the album sold over four million copies in North America alone.
While the sound began to change again to a more generic-pop-rock sound with 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the album still debuted at #1 and sold over three million copies. I’ll admit that I didn’t care for the songs as much (Poundcake was a fun first single but Right Now was overplayed due to their licensing agreement with Pepsi), but I was still a fan of the band and of Hagar at vocals.
There were three more songs I absolutely loved under the Sammy Hagar regime…and two of them were off of their final #1 album: Balance. Those songs were Can’t Stop Loving You (which was as “pop/rock” as you can get) and the incredibly awesome “arena rock” single: Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do) (which showed that the band was beginning to go back to their hard rock roots a little bit more).
The final song that I loved with Van Hagar was their single from the Twister soundtrack: Humans Being. This song confirmed their return to hard rock, even though their ability to write catchy singles was pretty much done at that point (not to mention the fact that Hagar then left the band and unsuccessfully tried another reboot of the band with Extreme singer Gary Cherone).
So while I could do more and more comparisons between the two, I think it’s safe to say that this entire “argument” is completely subjective. There will never be a winner in the war between Van Roth and Van Hagar…other than the fans, of course.