In 1986, Van Halen released their most successful album to date. Today, we still debate the Sammy Hagar era versus David Lee Roth
I remember when “Why Can’t This Be Love” hit the radio airwaves. Besides hearing it on WZPL as a borderline pop/rock crossover (this song ended up hitting the Weekly Top 40 and Kasey Kasem’s gold touch while Roth-era Van Halen was still rotating in the hard rock circuit), I do not recall friends hungry to get their chompers on the single. But I do remember that they were more curious if Hagar joining Van Halen would be a train wreck. It felt like being at a gladiator match, and we had the power to give the thumbs up or thumbs down. “But it will not be the same without Diamond Dave.” “But the red rocker is going to open new doors.” “But the space shuttle disaster.” Focus!
Van Halen – Why Can’t This Be Love Single Cover
Van Halen fans were too busy marred by the feud between David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar. It masked the eventual impact that 5150 would climb to number 1 on the Billboard 200 outstretching 1984 by one spot (that album reached number 2). If it were not for that meddling Michael Jackson and his Thriller album, 1984 would have ruled the world—MWUAHAHA! Roth Vs. Hagar. Hagar Vs. Roth. Roth! Hagar! Hagar! Roth! Either way it summed up the rock world in 1986.
MTV: Van Halen Unleashed
Looking back at that scuffle of egos seems a bit silly, but you will always find some kind of perpetual poll or argument on who or what was better? Eat ‘Em and Smile or 5150? What we do know is that like a shriek in the night, Hagar gives us a devious introduction to the new Van Halen with, “Hello baaaaaby!” It announces that there is there is a new sheriff in town and things in the Van Halen universe would change.
Sam & Dave: Life After Van Halen
At the time, I could have cared less. I was not caught up in the heated arguments nor did I bother with 5150 despite seeing the album PR posters trying to get my attention at Donna Jo’s, our small town record store, or the inner city Peaches record store in Indianapolis.
I dug Hagar and wanted to drive fast if only I was old enough to drive. It is like that Vanishing Point fantasy. Despite the circumstances you wanted to be Kuwolski. Practically every time Friday Night Video would broadcast, they played Sammy Hagar’s video “I Can’t Drive 55.” But at the time, my internal argument was not who should have the crown. It was about which video was more alternatively dystopian: Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55” or Judas Priest “Turbo Lover”. For me, Priest trumps all because of the fiendish skeleton creature on a motorcycle riding into the deserts of hell. Yet, Hagar’s song haunts me like any good period piece. There’s only one way to rock, right?
Sammy Hagar – I Can’t Drive 55
I also had—on vinyl, mind you—next to my copy of New Edition’s 1984 self-titled album (that is no joke), a copy of David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat. I also latched on to Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile not just for the Steve Vai element, but for the song “Yankee Rose.” Who am I kidding, it was the Steve Vai effect. The guitars in that song are mind bending. If anyone could show just how fun and outlandish rock and roll could be, it was Roth and Vai bouncing off of each other. In addition, I also had a cassette of 1984, against my mother’s wishes. Something about a baby cherub smoking a cigarette rubbed my mother’s religious side wrong. Good thing she did not catch on to me owning AC/DC’s Highway To Hell.
David Lee Roth – Yankee Rose
I guess I was more in favor of David Lee Roth at the time even though I did not blatantly come out and campaign for it. Eddie Van Halen sitting his guitar on the sidelines and opting to jam on the keyboards just seemed out of place in my personal hard rock and metal hemisphere. Nonetheless, what this album made me realize years later is that Hagar had one up on David Lee Roth. He could play guitar, and he could play it well. It took the burden off of Eddie Van Halen allowing him to do other things. It also turned Van Halen more into an entity and less of a show piece.
I thought “Why Can’t This Be Love” was excessively corny. But then again, in 1986, I was into as much Iron Maiden as I could get my hands on. My best friend, who was a little older, was into two things: fucking and Motley Crue, and when he was around we would listen to one of those. My first awkward experience of having a first girlfriend happened this year, as well. She was also into two things: Bon Jovi and the Violent Femmes. I was temporarily the third. My heavy metal underpinnings did not sit well in that hemisphere. And neither did Van Halen’s new device.
Once the album took off, it took off. Shortly after its release, the band embarked on a massive arena tour that prompted the recording, Live Without A Net. One hit flowed right after another. It appeared Van Hagar was doing just fine.
Van Halen – Live Without A Net
5150 begins with “Good Enough”. Not a hit single but an absolute rocker to show Hagar can fit into the Van Halen spectrum of the guitar heavy mantra. The strobe light rhythms power up like a rocket ship.
But just as this album flares up into guitar god frenzy, it gets doused by the synth heavy “Why Can’t This Be Love.” I don’t hate this song. I just don’t go searching for it. If it comes on the radio, as it does regularly on Sirius XM’s ‘80s station, I don’t scoff at it. What I do scoff at is the disjointed transitions the album provides, making things seem bi-polar in context.
To me, the intro to “Dreams,” which is the other synth-heavy hit, sounds like background music to Epcot Center. This is the antecedent to what we know a Van Halen song to be. The song is so cheesy and tries too hard to sound like a motivational poster that it becomes endearing in its own colorful expression. Naturally many engaged the song like Aerosmith fans engaged “Cryin’” and “Crazy” from Pump. But I can hear others. This isn’t “Drop Dead Legs” or the mid-section to “Panama!” How am I supposed to get laid when all she/he wants to do is cuddle to “Dreams.” And now listening to the song, there is a certain sentimentality to it that you cannot help but enjoy for its moment in time.
Van Halen – Dreams
The accentuation to “Dreams” is “Love Comes Walking In.” Again, it is another hit that sounds like a coming of age moment. It presents a blatant form of innocence with an underlying premise that the song is about aliens. What? Aliens, you say? Hagar boasts on Live Without A Net that this was the first song they wrote together as a group, and it was written, indeed, about aliens. Such a boisterous serenade for outer space creatures. I cannot say knowing that knowledge made the song any cooler than say Andre Norton made science fiction book covers cool. I refuse to believe you can hip this song up. But in its power ballad magnificence, “Dreams” exists in its own entity for those who lived, again, in that moment.
Whatever your poison, the floating ballad of “Love Comes Walking In” or the hip rocker “Summer Nights,” these songs have taken on life themes. “Summer Nights” is indeed one of the more carefree and realistic summer evening cruises up and down the main drag in our home town. “Love Comes Walking In” was played to fancied-up teens experiencing prom. Hold each other close, but not too close the chaperones are watching. What about the aliens? Always going back to the aliens.
A song I always found odd was “Get Up.” The ballads may seem somewhat out of place, but this song is really out of place. It goes into hyper drive and moves on a completely different level than what the other songs do. I don’t quite understand the logic in this song beyond the simple fact that they wanted to make a Van Halen song as explosive as they possibly could. From Eddie Van Halen’s perspective it makes sense. For Hagar’s perspective, it feels uncomfortable.
Much like “Get Up,” 5150’s impact had a reaction more than any Van Halen album. For better or worse, what side of the fence your allegiance was devoted to, or what decade you base your context of this album, the year 1986 and Van Halen was a roller coaster ride of emotions and music. This album was a foot firmly placed on the ground. However everything would change from here on out leaving with it the legacy of perpetual debate that is split both by the fans and the band: Michael Anthony joining Sammy Hagar and the rest remain in Van Halen, joined by Eddie Van Halen’s son Wolfgang Van Halen. Which side are you on? Or are you under the guise of why can’t we all get along? What would the youth think of this album now?