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

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock 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 nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Pat

    Nick,

    You most certainly are not a VH fan! “Push comes to Shove” is actually the bands nod to reggae that Dave was into at the time 1980-81 not disco. Women in Love is a true VH classic. In fact it was resurrected by Wolfie Van Halen for the 2012 tour. A song even a twenty year old can find value in!
    If your not a VH fan don’t listen to it, and definately dont write a laughable review on material that is very well received by fans world wide! If you take the time to read the reviews on 1981s ” Fair Warning” You will learn that many believe ( including the entire band )that it was their Masterpiece album. This is inspite of it’s slow sales 2 million copies 2x Platinum.

  • Garrett Kniffen

    Nothing from the Roth era deserves to be on this list … there’s plenty of lousy material to choose from on the Hagar albums.

    Hell, a top twelve list could be comprised of Van Halen III tracks alone.

  • Matt

    5, 4, and 3 are ridiculous choices, but since all original VH songs in the DLR era are amazing, I guess you had to pick something. Also – “You’re No Good” is not an ‘awful’ cover by any means. Great post, regardless.

  • Thor

    Push Comes to Shove is one of the Best Van Halen songs- shows their versatility and Edward reels off on truly stunning solo…

  • billy olsen

    always treat vhIII as a solo project. mike didn’t play bass on ‘push comes to shove’ and it was more inspired by reggae than disco. they still ‘play women in love’ at concerts to cheering fans. ‘black and blue’, ‘love walks in’ , ‘feels so good’, ‘feelings’, can’t stop loving you’, there is plenty of sammy stuff you could of chose instead of the roth era pieces. plus are you really a fan?

    • Nick DeRiso

      Here’s an interview with Michael Anthony where he talks about the influence of Percy Jones from Brand X on his playing during “Push Comes to Shove.”

  • Brad

    Typical hipster. Van Halen isn’t obscure enough. He knows bands that are a lot better but you’ve never heard of them.

    • Nick DeRiso

      I certainly know a lot of Van Halen songs that are better. Start here. Then go here.

  • Brian

    While I will agree with you on “How Many Say I” the other 4 picks are completely off. Along with “How Many Say I” you could easily pick 3 other songs off of Van Halen 3, including “Josephina”, “From Afar” and “Dirty Water Dog”. The only song I would pick from the DLR era is “One Foot Out the Door”. Just horrible.

  • John Brennick

    Nick – you have no taste. Pick any Hagar album and I’ll find songs worse than the Roth songs you listed. Dreams, Mine All Mine, Source of Infection, Sucker in a 3 Piece… and heck, throw every dang song from Carnal Knowledge and Balance in there. All worse than the Dave songs you listed.

  • Frank Martin

    I’ve been into VH since 1981s Fair Warning

    Could do without:

    1) Big Bad Bill (is Sweet William Now)
    2) Dancing In The Street
    3) Happy Trails
    4) Inside
    5) How Many Say I
    6) the vocals from VHIII

  • Frank Martin

    A lot people like to call themselves VH fans but actually they are only VH fans if DLR is in the band. To say the music of Vh sucked without DLR is like saying EVH had nothing to do with the music with or without DLR and his output just sucked as a musician. There’s a lot of great guitar work on those albums whether you like Sammy or not. Maybe you forgot but it was DLR that left the band, not the other way around. Don’t get pissed at VH for wanting to continue without Dave. They did the right thing in getting Sammy. A world with four more VH albums is better than none at all. Even VHIII had some cool guitar work but I just didn’t get into the vocals, that might have been best as a instrumental release.

    • cray

      Disagree Frank and Nick. There is no Sammy Hagar VH on this list and numbers like Poundcake (how did this not make it on the list), 5150 and anything off of OU812 could occupy top 5, 10, 15, 20 suck lists. When 5150 came out I nearly died, I liked Van Halen because the sound, the vocals, the drums, that guitar, the lyrics were all rude, crude, over-the-top and at the same time full of sexy swagger beyond anything before and after, it was fun, it was a party. Then all the sudden the fun was gone and Van Halen turned into a Journey/Survivor/Def Leppard rock anthem machine instead of mayhem generating rock n roll band. Ultimately, this sorely missed component was revived on Different Kind of Truth, which is actually a very good follow up to 1984.

      I understand it is a matter of taste, but seriously? I never understood the Hagar bit. Hear he is a very cool guy, hard working, etc. guy probably brings a lot to a band, but I can’t help say his music sucks, his lyrics suck. I don’t get it, never got Montrose or his solo work, I don’t know how Van Halen ended up so successful with the guy, but there it all is a 10 year history and a pairing of the most unnatural sort; Cheeseball and Rock Mayhem.

      Last thing I’ll say, Eddie had he proposed Honeybabysweetiedoll to Cheesy Sammy, he would have been shot down. This is just the kind of material that has been missing from Van Halen for far too long.
      That insanity, “I’m the one” over the wall push, that gives you a head rush and makes you want to drive faster or run the guy over in front of you is what I missed in Van Halen…clearly, based on a Different Kind of Truth it’s a formula that is sincere and really f*cking works!

  • Fritz

    I can’t stand DLR. Hagar is one the most versitle rock n’ roll singers of all time.

    • http://vhnd.com David Lee Roth’s Jockstrap

      That screechy sound in Sammy’s voice? He got that trying to lift me.

  • Jeff

    Here’s my list:
    (1) Insert any Van Halen song here
    (2) Insert any Van Halen song here
    (3) Insert any Van Halen song here
    (4) Insert any Van Halen song here
    (5) Insert any Van Halen song here

  • Shanahanahan

    Nick, I pity you, for not recognizing the greatness of the amazing, earth shattering song that is “Women In Love.” And any person who does not get chills up their spine hearing the “Will you ever be the same” part of “Push Comes To Shove” is not paying attention to the unreal musical chemistry of when Eddie and Dave clicked on record. Every song you picked should have been from the Sammy or Gary Cherone era. The first 6 records made with Dave do not have one bum track.