We’ve been excoriated by fans of Van Halen, after the band’s Sucks Series entry somehow ignored Sammy Hagar. This new list, of course, won’t help. Still, we’d like to make the argument for those times when Van Hagar was pretty good.
Sure, this second edition of the band lost much of the original David Lee Roth-era’s randy charm, not to mention its edgy attitude, as Eddie Van Halen and Co. seemed to spend too much time chasing chart hits. It also fell apart with such suddenness and finality that the group ended up making a desperation move in hiring Extreme’s former frontman for a disastrous one-album experiment.
But Van Halen’s Sammy Hagar years weren’t without their charms, even on admittedly charmlessly titled albums like OU812 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge …
“BEST OF BOTH WORLDS,” (5150, 1986): A canny combination of the two dominant Eddie Van Halen sounds opens this track, which moves from a crunchy grind into a happy-go-lucky riff. The stomping rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen then set the stage for a lithe little narrative about wanting more than life naturally affords us — like say, a guy with his own solo career, agreeing to play second fiddle in an already established band, and waltzing his way into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
When Hagar moves into the toppermost of his range for the chorus, Anthony’s impossibly stratospheric backing vocal provides the jet fuel that takes it even higher — giving a preview of successes to come both in Van Halen and, later after everything went to shit, in Chickenfoot.
Of course, Hagar plays it straight where David Lee Roth more likely would have happily strutted, tongue firmly in cheek. Hagar simply didn’t possess that kind of natural sense of humor, nor Roth’s flaky-cool sensuality. Still, there’s a smooth, pre-possessed polish about “Best of Both Worlds” that simply didn’t exist before.
“NOT ENOUGH,” BALANCE, (1995): When Eddie Van Halen stopped drinking, things quickly came to a boil with Hagar. So, Eddie started drinking again. And things didn’t get any better — at least as evidenced on this break-up album, their last alongside the band’s second lead singer.
With laughable stoner-level lyrics like “wham, bam, Amsterdam” on the deep cut “Amsterdam,” it seemed like Hagar had completely run out of steam creatively on Balance. None of it is particularly horrible, but it’s not very interesting either — a curse that accounts, quite frankly, for Sammy’s absence in our VH-edition of Suck Series. When Roth was bad, Van Halen was really bad. Hagar’s curse was that often his worst songs weren’t even distinctive enough to hate.
Anyway, it’s perhaps of little surprise that a melancholy falls over the opening moments of “Not Enough,” one of the better cuts on Balance. A song about departures and the love that can’t keep them from happening, the song isn’t close to perfect. But Eddie Van Halen’s searchingly molten solo erases a rudimentary chorus — and Toto’s Steve Lukather adds a vocal to complete this aching, lonesome narrative.
“MINE ALL MINE,” (OU812, 1988): A song that comes galloping out of the gate, heralding what would one day be understood as the most varied, most complete album of the Van Hagar years.
Featuring a single-take lead vocal from Sammy, “Mine All Mine” has a rare episodic complexity that typically eluded this lineup, as the track moves with a smooth propulsion into this sun-filled chorus just before Eddie returns to set his guitar aflame again. Meanwhile, Alex and Michael Anthony thump with a determined focus — like a marathon runner’s heartbeat.
The subject, which touches on some religious themes, is one of Hagar’s most considered too, though soon enough he’ll devolve — as if on cue — into songs about Mexican cantinas and something that sounds like an ode to VD.
“RIGHT NOW,” (FOR UNLAWFUL CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, 1991): By this point, Hagar’s limited range — both as a lyricist and as a singer — had begun to weigh on the band’s creativity. Van Halen’s penultimate project with him was often dominated more by what felt like trickery (a power drill opening on “Poundcake,” a recycled riff from “Jump” on “Top of the World,” the silly acronym album title) than anything like true innovation, despite the return of classic-era producer Ted Templeman.
And yet, it produced this — perhaps the most unthinkably interesting song Van Halen ever did in the Hagar era: A piano driven, soaringly inspirational song with a starkly drawn message video.
Hagar’s vocal occasionally slips into over-emotive caricature, and Eddie’s solo doesn’t break new ground, but the song’s chorus is so naturally hooky that “Right Now” rumbles unstoppably toward its delicately conveyed (delicately conveyed!) keyboard recapitulation.
“FINISH WHAT YA STARTED,” (OU812, 1988): Van Halen had, with Roth, explored acoustic sounds — and even goofed around with jazz and old Motown songs. But they’d never released something quite like this, with its spacious, Americana feel.
Featuring some of Alex Van Halen’s most complex work, a down-home guitar from brother Eddie, and a confidential approach from Hagar, “Finish What Ya Started” might just be — if not for the bubble-gummy “Feels So Good,” also from 0U812 — the best example of the mainstream sensibilities that always were a latent part of this band’s sound.
Ultimately, “Finish What Ya Started” sounds just like what it was, a song composed by a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’ Eddie and Sammy on the beach, acoustic guitars in hand, after a bottle of tequila and too many cigarettes. Of course, the lyrics are instantly forgettable, a series of ham-handed sexual innuendos. They’re not nearly as funny as they once were with Dave — but they appear to be actually having fun. That’s better than can be said for the end of the first epoch with Roth, and certainly the looming split with Sammy, too.
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