“The best frontman I ever saw. Nobody else came close”: The day David Lee Roth turned in the performance of a lifetime

David Lee Roth on the ramp at Donington 1988, arm aloft
David Lee Roth, back at Donington in 1988, four years after *that* triumph (Image credit: Ross Halfin)

In 1997, 10 years before David Lee Roth rejoined Van Halen, the singer recalled in his autobiography Crazy From The Heat a nasty little episode that occurred some time around the early 80s, when he overheard a conversation between Eddie Van Halen, his brother Alex and an unnamed music-business figure. Roth wrote of this in the bluntest of terms: “I once heard somebody say to the Van Halens: ‘You guys play the music; the Jew sells it.’ Well, you’re fucking right.” 

Those words spoke volumes about the dynamic in the band during that era. And for British rock fans there was no greater exhibition of Roth’s showmanship than when Van Halen played at the Monsters Of Rock festival at Donington Park on August 18, 1984. 

When video footage of this performance resurfaced online in the summer of 2023, VH diehards proclaimed it “the Holy Grail”. A pro shoot from side-stage, it includes the whole set, except for a few minor cuts, plus backstage scenes from before and after. It captures all the raw power of the band; the heated atmosphere generated in the 65,000-strong audience; the element of chaos as a small number of delirious fans made it onto the stage to make a grab at their heroes. Above all else, it captures the wise-cracking, high-kicking David Lee Roth at the very top of his game. 

“As a frontman, Roth was untouchable that day,” says promoter Andy Copping, who saw the show as a 20-year-old, and has run the Download festival at Castle Donington for the past 20 years in his role as Executive President of UK Touring at Live Nation. “The way that Roth interacted with the audience was just brilliant. As the master of ceremonies, the orchestrator, he was the king.” 

But on that beautiful summer’s day, as Roth ruled that stage, there was unrest behind the scenes. Within Van Halen’s inner circle there was a growing sense that a split with the singer was inevitable, and for photographer Ross Halfin, working for the band at Donington and privy to what was going on backstage, the signs were clear. “It was always a bit weird with Van Halen,” Halfin says. “Roth was sort of separate from the rest of them. I didn’t notice this on the first tours I did with them, but I certainly did by 1984.” 

Van Halen had come a long way since they first toured in the UK in the late 70s, when Roth famously declared that Lewisham, in south London, was “the rock’n’roll capital of the world!”. But at Donington the party was coming to an end. A British audience was seeing Van Halen with David Lee Roth for the last time.


Forty years on, the Monsters Of Rock show of 1984 is still remembered as the best Monsters of them all. The bill was incredible, with AC/DC headlining over Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne and an impressive supporting bill featuring guitar hero Gary Moore, Californian rockers Y&T, German headbangers Accept, and, making their first appearance in the UK, the hottest new band out of Los Angeles, Mötley Crüe

This was Monsters Of Rock in its classic form: one day, one stage, seven bands you had to see. At least that was the idea. 

Most of those 65,000 people got there in time to see Mötley Crüe, and as Tim McMillan from Kettering remembers it: “The Crüe were loud, dumb, crude, with this snotty arrogance – everything that Kerrang! had promised!” But some people arrived late, this writer included. Eighteen at the time, I was en route from Guildford to Donington with my mate Graham and 50 other denim-clad rock fans on a double-decker bus, which got hit by a passing car on the M1. Fortunately no one was seriously injured, but our bus was stuck on the hard shoulder for an hour, maybe two. By the time we walked on the grassy slopes of Donington Park, the Crüe were long gone and Accept were on stage, banging out their homoerotic anthem London Leatherboys

Andy Copping arrived even later. Having spent the early afternoon DJ-ing a rock set at a club named Lazers in his home town of Lincoln, he got to Donington just in time to see Y&T end their set with a hapless roadie dressed up as a sort of robotic knight in armour. “I was gutted to miss Mötley Crüe,” he says. “But there was no way I was going to miss Van Halen. I’d seen them in 1980 at Leicester De Montfort Hall, and it was completely life-changing for me.” 

The 1984 Monsters Of Rock, more than any other before, had been hyped up as a battle of the guitar heroes – principally Gary Moore, Eddie Van Halen and Angus Young. As Copping recalls: “Gary Moore was on fire that day.” Moore threw down the gauntlet with a blistering rendition of White Knuckles, his answer to Eddie’s Eruption, and an epic version of his signature ballad Parisienne Walkways in which he held one high note that seemed to last an eternity. 

The afternoon sky was a clear blue – save for the barrages of plastic beer bottles, most of them half-filled with piss, that flew overhead regularly as a form of entertainment between bands. 

In sweltering heat, Ozzy Osbourne took to the stage. With a band that featured another emerging guitar hero, Jake E Lee, successor to the late Randy Rhoads, and a set that included Crazy Train, Bark At The Moon and Black Sabbath classics Iron Man and Paranoid, a shirtless and wild-eyed and clapping Ozzy overran his allotted time in what Copping describes as “a monumental performance”. 

Ozzy was a hard act to follow, but Van Halen were not to be upstaged. They were on a high following their US No.1 hit Jump, and a multi-million-selling album, 1984, that would also have made it to the top were it not for what turned out to be the biggest-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, on which Eddie Van Halen had ripped it up with the solo in Beat It.

Van Halen backstage at Monsters Of Rock, 1984

(Image credit: Eddie Malluk / IconicPix)

The Donington crowd was buzzing, heaving, as Van Halen’s set kicked off with an explosion of wild noise, Eddie bent over his ‘Frankenstein’ guitar, his fingers a blur, Alex Van Halen pounding the drums and Michael Anthony thumping his bass caveman-style. Eddie’s trousers were as loud as the noise – banana-yellow with black tiger stripes. But the real razzle-dazzle came from David Lee Roth as he danced out to centre stage wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a glittering coat over skintight gym-bunny pants and vest. Arms raised like a prize fighter stepping into the ring, Diamond Dave sparkled in the sunshine. 

Eddie’s guitar tech Rudy Leiren delivered the high-volume introduction. “Alright, Donington! Are you ready? For the first time in five years, the mighty Van Halen!” In all this excitement, Leiren had his timing a year out. The band’s last UK tour was in 1980. But no matter. The heavyweight champions of American rock were here again at last. With Leiren’s voice still echoing, Eddie cranked out the riff to Unchained

It was all too much for one young woman standing close to the stage beside Mark Blake, then a 19-year-old university student from London, now an author and Classic Rock contributor. He recalls watching as a teenage blonde was overwhelmed by the sheer force of David Lee Roth’s charisma. “She let out a scream and then just keeled over,” he says. “But she was back on her feet by the end of the song.” 

As the band tore into their second number, Hot For Teacher, they were flying, Roth throwing off his coat as they turned up the heat, Eddie breaking into a broad grin as they switched from frenetic all-out attack to teasing little breaks. But with the drum solo that followed, some momentum was lost – their first mistake, and not the last. 

“If anything, the show was too solo-heavy,” Andy Copping says. “Michael Anthony’s bass solo was just boring and pointless, and even Eddie’s solo didn’t connect with me the way I wanted it to.”

The latter lasted for more than 10 minutes, and felt like twice that. Everybody knew that Eddie was a genius. He didn’t need to labour the point. But even if they dropped the ball in these moments, the songs, and Roth’s star power, carried them to victory. Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love was a glaring omission, but there were two other zingers from the debut album in On Fire and Runnin’ With The Devil, the heavy hitters House Of Pain and Everybody Wants Some!!, the joyous Little Guitars, a playful version of Roy Orbison’s classic (Oh) Pretty Woman, and a sizzling Panama. The peak moment came as the sun was setting and Eddie got behind his keyboard for Jump, the track with which he beat the synth-pop bands at their own game.

In the spiritual home of heavy metal, all tribalism was forgotten as massed ranks of rockers bounced and jumped with carefree abandon. And it was Roth, of course, who jumped highest. “When he stood on the drum riser, we all knew what was coming,” Copping says. “He leaps up and does the fucking splits and hits the ground with his arms in the air. Magic!” 

The image of an airborne Roth would become burned into the collective memory of everyone who watched that Van Halen that day. Equally unforgettable were the raps he delivered between and during the songs. “Don’t stick your tongue out at me unless you’re gonna use it!” “If you throw something at me I’m gonna come down there and fuck your girlfriend!” And an old favourite: “Look at all the people here tonight!” Copping still remembers every word. “All those lines are completely embedded in my skull,” he says. “I would quote them like lines from The Young Ones or Fawlty Towers! For me, Roth’s on-stage banter has never been equalled.” 

Van Halen’s set ended with their signature version of The Kinks’ 1964 hit You Really Got Me, powered by the riff that pretty much invented heavy metal. Then the four band members joined hands as they bowed out, all smiles… 

When headliners AC/DC hit the stage, Donington was in darkness. There was a chill in the air, and some fans had lit fires using wooden pallets. The start was dramatic: Angus Young appearing on a platform high above the stage, soloing manically into opening song Guns For Hire. All the big numbers were rolled out, including Back In Black and Let There Be Rock, and the climax was a spectacular For Those About To Rock (We Salute You) ending with deafening cannon fire. 

But on our ride home in that dented bus, the talk was all about Van Halen. More specifically, David Lee Roth. So cool, so cocky, and so funny. The Muhammad Ali of rock.

David Lee Roth backstage at Monsters Of Rock 1984

(Image credit: George Chin/IconicPix)

Andy Copping travelled home that night with mixed feelings. “My expectations had been so high, I just felt a bit flat,” he remembers. Now, after watching the video of Van Halen’s performance, he says: “I enjoyed it more than I did on the day. I thought: this is fucking great!” But, with hindsight, he adds: “As sad as it is to say it, you were seeing Roth going: ‘I’m now superseding this band…’” 

For Ross Halfin, the video had the opposite effect. “At the time, when I was shooting the show, I thought they were great. And I saw the 1984 show twice in America and it was phenomenal. But when I watched the footage from Donington, I couldn’t believe how bad they were!” 

What Halfin remembers most clearly is what happened after Van Halen’s set, when things took an unpleasant turn. “During the show, Ed would smile at me and I’d smile back,” he says. “He had a really good smile. I went backstage afterwards to do some pictures. John Entwistle from The Who and Neal Schon from Journey were there. I was shooting them all together. And the first thing Edward said to me was: ‘What were you smiling at, you fucking fag?’ 

"I thought he was joking, but then he said it again with some venom. I started to react to it, and then Eddie Anderson, their security guy, stepped in between us. Michael Anthony said: ‘Hey, just ignore Ed, he’s been drinking.’ In the past, Edward had always been really friendly with me, so when he turned nasty it really threw me. But he was drunk, and it’s not fair to judge people when they’re like that.” 

Neal Schon, John Entwistle and Eddie Van Halen backstage

Neal Schon, John Entwistle and Eddie Van Halen outside the Van Halen dressing room at Donington. (Image credit: Ross Halfin)

In the video footage, Roth is seen laughing with Alex Van Halen just before show time. But, as Halfin claims: “That’s probably because Roth was stoned.” If that’s true, then the singer’s on-stage acrobatics were all the more impressive.

What Halfin says in conclusion is that the bad vibes from Eddie were symptomatic of a general sense of tension in and around the band. As he puts it: “Once you know the politics of a band, it’s very off-putting.”

It was on September 2, 1984, just two weeks after Donington, that Van Halen played for the last time before the split with Roth, at a Monsters Of Rock show in the German city of Nuremberg. With a certain irony, that performance ended with the band huddled together for an a-cappella version of Happy Trails, a sweet little tune by the so-called ‘singing cowboy’ Roy Rogers. ‘Happy trails to you,’ they crooned, ‘until we meet again.’

Twenty-three years later, after Roth had finally made his peace with the Van Halens for a reunion tour, Copping did everything in his power to lure them back to Donington to headline Download. “On two occasions I had them confirmed,” he sighs. “I got so close, but it never happened. For me, that was the band that got away.”

What he’s left with are the memories of 1984. “People still say it was the best Monsters Of Rock ever,” he says. “And every time I think back to that day, I think of David Lee Roth. The best frontman I ever saw. Nobody else came close."

Paul Elliott

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”