The conflicted history of Sammy Hagar’s Van Halen smash “Right Now”: ‘It shows you what I know’

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By 1991, Sammy Hagar’s limited range as a lyricist had begun to weigh on Van Halen’s creativity. Certainly, this wasn’t the moment anyone thought they might make a message song.

After all, Van Halen’s penultimate project with Hagar 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 “Right Now” — perhaps the most unthinkably interesting song Van Halen ever did in the Sammy 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 Van Halen’s solo doesn’t break new ground, but the chorus is so naturally hooky that “Right Now” rumbles unstoppably toward its delicately conveyed (delicately conveyed!) keyboard recapitulation.

A deeper dive into that era, however, hints at the looming troubles for Sammy Hagar and Van Halen, no matter this song’s eventual success. “Right Now,” in fact, actually began as two different demos — and Hagar and Eddie Van Halen never pictured them as going together.

“I wrote the lyrics, and I had the melody,” Hagar once told Rachel Ray. “And Eddie Van Halen, he had this piano part. It took us seven months to realize that the piano part that he was trying to get me to write lyrics to, and the lyrics that I was trying to get him to write music to [actually would work as one joined track]. One day, in the studio, he was playing the piano and I was in the other room — and I go: ‘They fit!'”

“Right Now,” released this week as part of 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, became one of the Hagar era’s signature songs, going to No. 2 on Billboard mainstream rock charts, and sticking forever in their former frontman’s mind: “We married them together in the song,” Hagar adds, “and it was the weirdest thing. Normally, you don’t write songs like that.”

Later, the track was made into a celebrated high-concept video — though there was some intrigue involved with that process, as well. Today, Hagar calls it “the biggest video Van Halen ever had,” but it almost never got made — because he actively boycotted the idea.

“When they presented that, I hated it,” Hagar admitted later. “I said, ‘I am not doing this.’ I wrote the best lyric I’ve ever written in Van Halen. I’m trying to upgrade this band’s image to where we’re finally not just a party band that can play our instruments — and they want to put words (on the screen)? Why don’t they just use the words I wrote? They’re great words. It’s a statement. I said, ‘It’s gonna be confusing.'”

Confusing or not, “Right Now” would claim three honors at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992, among them video of the year. The Van Halen track has since been used in countless films, and was even part of an ad campaign for Pepsi. In comments on the Mark Fenske-directed film, part of a new segment of TV’s “Video Killed the Radio Star,” Hagar still obviously doubts whether it really reflected the song’s original meaning — though he’s willing to accept that the video has become part of pop-culture history.

Hagar adds that he actually stopped taking people’s phone calls on the concept for about a week. Ironically, by the time he gave in — after a direct call from Van Halen’s label head — Hagar had fallen ill, forcing the band to cancel some of its previously scheduled shows. All of that adds up to a sullen, disconnected performance in the celebrated video.

“When we shot it, I had pneumonia,” Hagar says. “But it was already etched in stone. If you look at my attitude in the video, I wouldn’t even cooperate. And I’m not like that, either. Everybody knows Sammy’s not like that, right? But it’s the biggest video we ever had, so it shows you what I know.”

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