If ever a rock band epitomised the American Dream, it’s Van Halen. Formed in Pasadena, California in 1974 by four teenage kids from families that had migrated across the Atlantic in the pursuit of happiness, Van Halen were loud, brash, shamelessly ambitious, larger than life, and classically all-American. So was their pioneering spirit.
Van Halen revolutionised hard rock music. When the band’s debut album was released in 1978, punk had unsettled rock’s old order. Giants such as Zeppelin and Sabbath were on their last legs. But VH had seen the future. “This is the 1980s!” declared singer David Lee Roth, boldly if prematurely. “And this is the new sound – it’s hyper, it’s energy, it’s urgent.”
The key to that new sound was Eddie Van Halen, whose innovative two-handed “tapping” technique made him the most influential guitarist since Hendrix. But this wasn’t a one-man show. Eddie’s brother Alex went at his drum-kit like a prizefighter. Bassist Michael Anthony underpinned Eddie’s histrionics and provided killer back-up vocals that had him rightly described as the band’s “secret weapon”. And then, of course, there was ‘Diamond Dave’, a wisecracking, split-jumping, super-toned blond Adonis, son of second-generation Jewish immigrants, and heavy metal’s greatest showman. As Roth stated, “I once heard somebody say to the Van Halens. ‘You guys play the music; the Jew sells it.’ Well, you’re fucking right!”
The band made six classic albums with Roth in a golden era that ran until 1985 when the singer quit to go solo. Amazingly, the band went on to even greater commercial success with Roth’s replacement, Sammy Hagar, with albums such as 5150 and OU812. The only major lowpoint in Van Halen’s history was in 1998, when former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone fronted the band for one disastrous album. But eventually, in 2006, the Van Halen brothers buried the hatchet with Roth. And this reunion – which yielded the 2012 album A Different Kind Of Truth – continues to the present day, albeit with Eddie’s son Wolfgang on bass instead of Michael Anthony.
Here, every Van Halen album is ranked from worst to best – beginning at the very bottom with poor old Gary Cherone…
14. Van Halen III (Warner Brothers, 1998)
Even the most partisan of David Lee Roth loyalists had to admit that Sammy Hagar could sing. What’s more, Hagar had starred on one of the greatest rock records of all time, Montrose’s legendary debut. But the same could not be said of the guy who replaced Hagar in the late 90s. Gary Cherone was the wuss who sang in Extreme, wearing a leotard. It was a disastrous mismatch, producing just one album that sold only 500,000 copies when every other VH album had shifted at least two million. The reason? Van Halen III stinks like a wet dog. Every song sucks, and Cherone sang them like a drowning man.
13. Balance (Warner Brothers, 1995)
The last of the four studio albums that the band made with Sammy Hagar was created amid escalating tension between the singer and the Van Halen brothers. As a result, it had none of the vibe that 5150 or OU812 had. Balance was still a huge hit – a US number one. But apart from the catchy Can’t Stop Lovin’ You and the meaty Amsterdam, it was a bum note on which the Van Hagar era ended.
12. Tokyo Dome Live In Concert (Warner Brothers, 2015)
For a band that built its reputation on stage, it was strange that Van Halen never made a live album in the early 80s when they were at their peak – and when David Lee Roth was still the coolest rock’n’roll star on the planet. Instead, the band’s first live album came in 1993 with Sammy Hagar on vocals, and this, their first live album with Roth, came in 2015 – a two-disc set recorded during the A Different Kind Of Truth tour in 2013. The track listing is perfect, heavily weighted towards vintage material, with just three songs from the new album. The band sounded as great as they did back in the day. And if Roth sang out of tune here and there, so what? He always did.
11. Live: Right Here, Right Now (Warner Brothers, 1993)
Van Halen’s first live album was the better of the two. The reason was timing. Whereas Tokyo Dome Live In Concert had the band reliving past glories with Roth, Live: Right Here, Right Now had the Van Hagar line-up at the height of its powers in the early 90s. Recorded over two nights in May 1992 in Fresno, California, the album featured all of the big hits they’d recorded with Hagar – Poundcake, Why Can’t This Be Love, Best Of Both Worlds, Right Now, Dreams – plus four Roth-era classics, Hagar’s solo anthem One Way To Rock, and a blast through The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. The band, with Hagar, never sounded so great again.
10. A Different Kind Of Truth (Interscope, 2012)
It was a big deal – Van Halen’s first album with David Lee Roth since 1984. And while it was never going to be a match for what they achieved in the past – those six brilliant records from their first imperial phase – A Different Kind Of Truth was a big, ballsy hard rock record in the classic Van Halen tradition. To this end, the band exhumed several songs that were originally written in the 70s before their debut album was released. The fury in China Town was a throwback to Women And Children First. Stay Frosty was an echo of the debut album’s Ice Cream Man. And the band’s pop smarts were in evidence on Tattoo, She’s A Woman and You And Your Blues. Above all, these guys sounded like they were having fun again – Roth most of all.
9. OU812 (Warner Brothers, 1988)
Having proven that there was life after Dave, Van Halen couldn’t resist a little dig at their former singer with the title of their eighth album, a cheeky reference to Roth’s solo debut Eat ’Em And Smile. OU812 did good business (current US sales: four million), but it’s a hit and miss affair. Lacking Dave’s levity, the heavier tracks are all bluster, but a lighter touch on the three hit singles works beautifully. Black And Blue is a funky boogie lit up by Michael Anthony’s doo-wop-influenced harmonies, When It’s Love a deluxe rock ballad, Finish What Ya Started a genuine surprise, with Eddie twanging country-funk licks and Sammy croaking soulfully.
8. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (Warner Brothers, 1991)
All four studio albums that Van Halen recorded with Sammy Hagar topped the US chart, although the third of them might not have sold so well if it had been titled according to the singer’s wishes. “I wanted to name the album just Fuck,” Hagar said. Instead, they chose something more oblique. The album is patchy, but it does boast three songs as good as any from the Hagar era: Poundcake, heavy, grungy, with Eddie applying an electric drill to his fretboard; Top Of The World, vintage feelgood VH; and Right Now, a dynamic, piano-led piece, and the deepest song the band has ever written.
7. 5150 (Warner Brothers, 1986)
For many, Van Halen just wasn’t Van Halen without Diamond Dave. Eddie saw it differently. “We lost a frontman,” he said, “but we gained a singer.” And with Sammy Hagar on board, the band’s career arc continued upwards. 5150, the first ‘Van Hagar’ album, was also the band’s first US number one. With trusted producer Ted Templeman defecting to the Roth camp, VH enlisted Foreigner’s Mick Jones to put a fine gloss on the album’s three keyboard-driven hit singles, Why Can’t This Be Love, Dreams and Love Walks In. And yes, Sammy was a better singer than Dave.
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6. Diver Down (Warner Brothers, 1982)
Possibly the laziest album ever made. There are just 18 minutes of original material on Diver Down. But no matter: despite the whiff of contractual obligation, the album is a blast. Back in the mid-70s, when they were still a bar band named Mammoth, the boys had a repertoire of 300 cover tunes, and Diver Down recalls that era with a stinging rendition of The Kinks’ Where Have All The Good Times Gone!, plus Roy Orbison’s (Oh) Pretty Woman, the Motown classic Dancing In The Street and a jazz number featuring dad Jan Van Halen on clarinet. The original songs are all great too, especially Secrets, the sweetest thing VH ever recorded.
5. Van Halen II (Warner Brothers, 1979)
How do you follow a humdinger of a debut album? Many have dropped the ball, from Montrose to The Darkness. But Van Halen walked it, banging out their brilliant second album in just six days. It sounds like it, too: fresh, a little loose, fizzing with energy, its air of beer-fuelled spontaneity encapsulated in Roth’s fumbled lyric and giggles on Bottoms Up! Shrewdly, VH didn’t try to top the firepower of the debut, opting instead for a lighter, more playful vibe, running from the jammed intro to You’re No Good (such chutzpah!) to Roth’s farewell kiss on the closing Beautiful Girls. And in Dance The Night Away, they delivered the perfect pop-metal song.
4. Fair Warning (Warner Brothers, 1981)
The cover illustration – an extract from Canadian artist William Kurelek’s The Maze, portraying scenes of urban madness and violence – was befitting of the most left-field album in the Van Halen catalogue. Fair Warning is tough, edgy, dark, and in places plain weird.
ZZ Top aside, no other mainstream, multi-platinum hard rock band would have dared to record such bizarre tracks as Dirty Movies (a funky porno satire), Sunday Afternoon In The Park (a sinister, new wave-inspired instrumental), and One Foot Out The Door (a punky, half-finished throwaway). However, the meat of the album lies in two straight-up rock songs: the bruising ghetto anthem Mean Street, and Unchained, featuring Eddie’s chunkiest riff and Dave’s funniest ad-libs.
3. Women And Children First (Warner Brothers, 1980)
Van Halen’s third album included a poster of Roth in classic beefcake pose, photographed by the legendary Helmut Newton. Roth was rock’s leading pin-up boy, but VH hadn’t gone soft. The album is a hard rock tour-de-force, typified by Tora! Tora! (Japanese code for a surprise attack), on which Eddie replicates the buzzing of diving warplanes.
And The Cradle Will Rock…, is Roth’s homage to teenage dropouts. Fools and Everybody Wants Some!! are fluid jams built around crushing riffs. Romeo Delight threatens to run right off the rails. The only light relief comes with the drunken sea shanty Could This Be Magic?
This is Van Halen’s true cult classic.
2. 1984 (Warner Brothers, 1984)
The last album made before Roth quit was also the one that made Van Halen a household name on this side of the Atlantic when its lead single Jump hit number 7 on the UK chart. In playing this simple rock song on a keyboard, guitar hero Eddie beat all those airy-fairy synth-pop acts at their own game. I’ll Wait, the album’s other big pop crossover hit, was also powered by a keyboard riff, but the hard rock crunch of Panama and Hot For Teacher ensured that the band’s hairy fan-base wasn’t alienated. On 1984, Van Halen could do no wrong… but without Roth they would never be as great again.
1. Van Halen (Warner Brothers, 1978)
As one of the classic debut albums, this ten million seller is up there with Zep and Sabbath and Appetite For Destruction. Van Halen was like a bomb going off. With its short, punchy songs, technical flash, testosterone-charged swagger and sense of daring, it kick-started the ‘80s two years early. “We were not afraid of defying convention,” said David Lee Roth. “Everybody was ascending…” Eruption was Eddie’s volcanic showpiece. And the orthodox songs were equally explosive, from Runnin’ With The Devil through to frenetic closer On Fire. “More energy than an atomic reactor” boasted a Warner Bros ad. Classic Rock’s Geoff Barton, then reviewing for Sounds, called the album “senses-shattering”. It still is.