Sammy Was Not The Problem... / by Erin Wade

In its "for you" section Apple Music offers curated playlists, reportedly assembled by actual human beings, and offered up based upon your personal music preference profile.

Within the past couple of weeks Apple Music served up to me first an Intro to Van Halen playlist, and then a week or so later Van Halen: Best of the Sammy Hagar Years.

As one of a certain age and musical predilection might expect, listening to these two playlists reawakened in me deep memories of the musical animosity that the presence of Sammy Hagar as the frontman for Van Halen seemed to engender among veteran fans of the band.

Now - to be clear - I am not one of those veteran fans. I came to Van Halen largely from the other direction: I was (and am) a Sammy Hagar fan. In fairness, I was aware of Van Halen before the vocalist changeover, but they didn't get much by way of radio play in the rural Midwest of my adolescent years before 1984 came out, and the primary single released off of that album - Jump - certainly wasn't representative of the band's overall catalog.

So: I started to listen to Van Halen in the mid-1980's because it was the only way to get new material from Sammy Hagar.

For this reason, the frustration with "Van Hagar" was always rather mystifying to me. And, for the record, I wasn't alone. By the time he joined VH Sammy Hagar was already well established as a solo act, and was coming off of three of the best albums of his career to date - Standing Hampton, Three Lock Box, and VOA - and had probably seen more national radio play than Van Halen at that point (I recall hearing I'll Fall in Love Again and Surrender both on the radio); All of which is likely part of the reason all four of the Van Halen albums with Hagar on vocals sold multiple-platinum. Clearly other people liked the combination as well.

Still, after listening to track after track on these playlists (the work I do for you, dear reader) I think I might just get it.

But its not what you think. It's not the vocals - Hagar is different than David Lee Roth, to be sure, but he's arguably got more range and flexibility than DLR; he's a capable rock vocalist.

It's not the lyrics. Yes, most of the songwriting produced by Hagar-era Van Halen is about love, sex, or partying. But then again, so is virtually everything produced by the pre-Hagar, DLR-era VH. Sammy's earlier work, as well as his solo work since, has always included a much wider range of topic areas, including cars and driving, space exploration, the quality of heroes, and snake cults, among others. This narrowness of topic seems to be a signature feature of Van Halen as a band, and certainly doesn't reflect the additional influence of Hagar.

It can't be the bona fides. Hagar had been around and active almost exactly as long as Van Halen, first with Montrose and then on his own. He's been churning out guitar-based hard rock for decades. And he's been doing much of the guitar churning on his own - he's not in Eddie Van Halen's league (and few are), but he's a capable hard rock lead guitarist.

No - I think I hear the problem as I compare these tracks, and that problem isn't Sammy Hagar.

The problem is Eddie Van Halen.

Now, before you begin screaming obscenities and chuck your phone or tablet out the window, allow me a moment to explain.

The departure of DLR and arrival of Hagar coincides with another, more pivotal change in the character of the band:

Eddie's decision to largely set aside his guitar in favor of playing keyboards.

This makes a profound difference in the sound of the band - all you have to do is compare tracks before and after. For example, comparing Hot for Teacher from 1984 with Dreams from 5150:

The second sounds nothing like Van Halen. If I were looking for guitar heavy music like Hot for Teacher, tracks like Dreams and Why Can't This Be Love would be disappointing at best.

But that doesn't really sound like Sammy Hagar either. This does:

Eddie Van Halen's flirtation with keyboards began prior to the addition of Sammy Hagar, with the appearance of Jump on 1984. It was just the one song there, just a hint - or perhaps a harbinger - of what was to come.

The following albums - particularly 5150 and OU812 - are thick with keyboards, and comparatively light on guitar work. This is true to such a degree that, as I mentioned before, they really sound like they are by different bands.

This doesn't have to be the case. Other hard rock bands have incorporated keyboards without losing their core character - Rush in the 1980's being a prime example.

But Rush added keyboards to their instrumentation. Eddie appears to have chosen largely to replace his guitar work with his keyboards. He occasionally sets aside the keys for an entire song, but on those two albums in particular, it's more likely that the keyboards stop briefly, in favor of a few EVH guitar licks.

There are songs that include both keyboards and guitar together of course, but one assumes this puts the guitar in Sammy Hagar's hands. And, for the most part, the guitar work in those songs is fairly basic. I can imagine the veteran VH fans saying, at this moment, that this is because Hagar isn't the phenomenal guitarist that Eddie is.

They'd be right about that. EVH is a far better guitarist that Sammy Hagar. But Hagar is much better than the work on 5150 or OU812 would suggest - Listen to Heavy Metal (above) again if you don't believe me. He's holding back on those albums.

Which brings us to the other part of the Eddie Van Halen problem:

He's just not that good on keyboards.

Eddie Van Halen setting aside his guitar is the rock and roll equivalent of Michael Jordan quitting basketball to play baseball.

For the veteran fan, listening to an album like 5150 is experiencing the Turkey Bacon Problem (TBP) - the album cover says Van Halen, but it just doesn't sound right.

But it could have sounded much closer. Frankly, I suspect Eddie and the other band members knew he wasn't that good on keys and, whether intentionally or not, kept Hagar's guitar work basic to keep it from overshadowing the keyboards. And it would have - EVH is a much better guitarist than Sammy, but Sammy is much better on guitar than EVH is on keyboards.

And, after all, Eddie Van Halen is the one who's name is on the album cover.

(And yes, Alex too - anyone think that Alex Van Halen's name sells albums?)

Eventually they all seem to have realized the error of their ways. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance seem to be much more guitar-focused albums. This, even though Hagar was still with the band.

None of which is to say that any of this is to suggest that the veteran fans should reconsider their opinion of the band during this time, and certainly not to suggest they give it another listen.

But I'd suggest trading "Van Hagar" - which implies Sammy's presence is the causative factor - with a more accurate designation. Something like:

Edward Van Halen's Keyboard Training Sessions.