Gimme Five: Songs where Van Halen, well, sucked

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Criticizing Van Halen for the times it were too corny or over-the-top almost feels disingenuous. After all, the band’s legend was founded on their blend of dizzying virtuosity with pervy jokester asides.

That makes this particular entry in the controversy-stoking Sucks Series a tricky proposition. See, we always liked some of Van Halen’s most blatantly goofball moments, from “Ice Cream Man” to “Big Bad Bill.” Even, the terminally silly “Tattoo” from the new album has this almost irresistible charm.

Still, for every hook-filled pop-metal triumph, and every good-time guitar meltdown, there were times when Van Halen simply took it too far.

That’s to say nothing of their curious choices in cover songs, from the awful “Happy Trails,” to the truly awful “Dancing in the Streets” to the unthinkably, mind-bendingly awful “You’re No Good.” Or what happened when they replaced David Lee Roth with Sammy Hagar and then (gulp) Gary Cherone. Or when (gulp!) Eddie Van Halen sat down his guitar in order to … wait; what? … sing?

We stayed away from their renditions of others’ songs, actually, because that could have filled up its own list. Everything else, however, was on the table …

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5. COULD THIS BE MAGIC (WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST, 1980): After a titanic beginning with “And the Cradle Will Rock,” Van Halen’s third album had begun to lose most of its steam by deep into the second side.

The project ground, in fact, to a shuddering halt with this mixed-up ragtime novelty number, which found Roth going head-long into his supper club-singer persona — only to launch into something that sounds like a sea chantey at the chorus. The only respite from this unsteady performance by the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir is when Dave throws it to Van Halen (“Edward!”) for a series of whoozy slide burps.

It’s not just that this was a confusing medley of half-formed ideas, or that it was performed with all of the grace of a drunk-tank regular, though. “Could This Be Magic,” in fact, has no magic. The song lacks all of the charm, and any of the humor, that typically makes these silly detours work for Van Halen.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: David Lee Roth was at the top of his game when I saw him in 1988, kicking and leaping with manic energy. It was drenched in the excess of the late 1980s, and I loved it.]

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4. “PUSH COMES TO SHOVE” (FAIR WARNING, 1981): The truth is, this surprisingly dark album probably needed some lightening up. Going disco, however, wasn’t the way to do that.

Worst of all was what this emptily hedonistic genre exercise left Van Halen to do. Other than a few (actually very interesting) metallic embellishments, he is largely reduced to aping the chanky-chank polyester-era riffs that powered a million mirror balls — a grave misstep. Roth, meanwhile, sounds like he’s gotten into the Xanax.

The only guy who comes off for the better here, oddly enough, is Michael Anthony. His most important contributions were always vocally, rather than on the bass — where his playing (see “Devil, Running with the”) was typically as perfunctory as it was heavy-handed. Except on “Push Comes to Shove,” where all of sudden, Anthony unleashes a series of funky little curlicues. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly enough to save this leaden dud.

[SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: We’re running with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, spinning old Van Halen favorites including “Ice Cream Man,” “Good Enough” and “Jamie’s Cryin,'” among others.]

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3. “WOMEN IN LOVE …” (VAN HALEN II, 1979): Van Halen must have made 1,000 songs about wanting some, and easily 999 of them were better than this dullard.

Eddie tries to dress it up with some introspective licks at the beginning, and that’s almost enough to convince — until the actual song starts. It starts at the pace of a smoking, rusted-out Caddie that’s two quarts low on oil, and it never looses that draggy sense of suspended musical animation. (There are, really, few greater indictments of the sometimes plodding, utterly featureless efforts of both Anthony and Eddie’s drumming brother Alex over the years.) In fact, the longer “Women in Love …” goes, the worse it gets.

Into this atmosphere of creatively spent malaise walks Roth, who tries to goose things with his now-famous brand of winking narcissism — but it feels pasted on, trumped up. Thankfully, II rebounds nicely with the cheeky confection “Beautiful Girls,” one of those other 999 tracks we mentioned earlier.

[YOU DON’T MESS WITH DIAMOND DAVE: At a 2012 Van Halen concert in New Hampshire, David Lee Roth put a quick stop to a fight between fans; watch the video here!]

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2. “UP FOR BREAKFAST” (BEST OF BOTH WORLDS, 2004): Part of a trio of songs tacked on to trick long-time fans into buying a new two-CD compilation that mixed tunes from the Roth and Sammy Hagar eras, the desperately rote “Up for Breakfast” from Sammy had a bitterly ironic title. They’ve never sounded more flaccid.

Of course, smart, well-conceived lyrics were not a hallmark of the hitmaking Van Hagar era. But this doltish paean to early-morning hanky-panky makes “Why Can’t This Be Love” read like Hemingway. (Sammy’s debut hit with Van Halen, remember, including this twilight-zone line: “Only time will tell if we stand the test of time.”) At one point, Hagar, in the midst of an apparent seizure, barks: “Hot tub, loosen up. Baby been soaking. Been tokin.’ Been sippin.’ Slip slide slippin, all got me tripping.”

Also tripping: Eddie Van Halen, who stripped away any writing credits on these new tunes from Anthony, reportedly dubbed over Anthony’s parts himself — and subsequently kicked the co-founding bassist out.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony formed Chickenfoot in the aftermath of their stints in Van Halen. We caught up with the band’s touring drummer Kenny Aronoff for an update.]

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1. “HOW MANY SAY I,” (VAN HALEN III, 1998): This Gary Cherone-fronted album was studiously ignored by long-time followers of Van Halen, becoming the first-ever not to go platinum in the U.S. The project’s worst cut — in fact, the worst thing this band ever did — didn’t feature that here-and-gone late-1990s frontman, however.

Instead, it’s “How Many Say I,” with one Eddie Van Halen (yes) taking over at the mic. On an album that also featured Eddie on bass, and even drums, I suppose it was inevitable that Van Halen would try his hand at singing. This was one former Extreme vocalist away from being a solo album, I suppose.

Clearly, he should have stuck with the guitar. Roth, upon hearing “How Many Say I,” reportedly said it sounded like “hot water being poured on a cat.” Thing is, though, Van Halen kept pouring it, and kept pouring it, and kept pouring it — for six excruciating minutes.

That poor cat.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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