Starting with their Top Twenty debut album in 1978, Van Halen almost single-handedly redefined heavy metal as sunny, pop-friendly California party music that managed to retain its physical power and virtuoso credentials — a concept that would reverberate throughout the hair-metal Eighties. With Eddie Van Halen's highly original guitar pyrotechnics a constant through the years, Van Halen would shuffle their lineup again and again. Initially fronted by the flamboyant and ever-quotable David Lee Roth, the band garnered a loyal mass following that held fast long after Roth's 1985 departure, and through numerous well-publicized intra-band squabbles.
The Van Halen brothers' father, Jan, was a freelance saxophone and clarinet player who performed styles ranging from big band to classical in the Netherlands. The family moved to Pasadena, California in 1967, "with 15 dollars and a piano," as Eddie once said. Jan washed dishes, then played in wedding bands to support the family. Beginning around age six both Eddie and Alex received piano lessons and extensive classical music training, but with move to America they discovered rock & roll.
Eddie learned to play drums, and Alex learned to play guitar; eventually they traded instruments and started a band called Mammoth. Roth, the even-then outgoing and outrageous scion of a wealthy family and lead singer of another rival band, Redball Jet, joined them. The bassist and lead singer of another group, Snake, Michael Anthony came aboard shortly thereafter. After learning that there was already another group claiming the name Mammoth, the group considered calling themselves Rat Salade before deciding on Van Halen.
Van Halen played the Pasadena/Santa Barbara bar circuit for more than three years. Its sets initially consisted primarily of cover material ranging into disco to pop, but the band eventually introduced original songs and was soon one of the most popular groups in California, regulars at the Sunset Strip hard-rock club Gazzari's, and an opening act for Santana, Nils Lofgren, UFO, and other established acts.
In 1977 Kiss' Gene Simmons spotted Van Halen in L.A.'s Starwood club and financed its demo tape. After seeing the group and upon hearing Simmons' recommendation, Warner Bros. Records' Mo Ostin and staff producer Ted Templeman signed Van Halen. Its self-titled debut album hit Number 19 and eventually sold more than 6 million copies. The debut single, a pile-driving cover of the Kinks' 1964 hit "You Really Got Me," hit Number 36. The followup, "Runnin' With the Devil," hit Number 84.
Roth's swaggering good looks and extroverted persona, not to mention pithy, frequently tongue-in-cheek statements on the rock & roll lifestyle he claimed to espouse, assured press coverage. But while the mainstream media focused on Roth, musicians and fans were riveted by Eddie Van Halen's guitar mastery and an array of unorthodox techniques that he developed as he taught himself to play: rapid-fire hammer-ons and pull-offs, two-hand tapping, and any combination thereof to produce his unique sound. In addition, the guitarist was also known to build and/or meticulously customize his instruments, using everything from sandpaper to chainsaws to alter the timbre of his instrument and achieve a distinct sound. Long before the group ever recorded, Eddie became a legend among local guitarists eager to learn the secret of his sound. Like countless guitarists before him, from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton, Eddie began performing with his back to the audience to guard his technique.
Van Halen II (Number 6, 1979), released as new wave began coming to the fore, continued in the group's straight-rock style and featured their first Top 20 single, "Dance the Night Away," as well as the popular "Beautiful Girls." Women and Children First (Number 6, 1980) spun off the single "And the Cradle Will Rock" (Number 55, 1980) a metal showcase that typified the band's dense, loud, crunching style.
In 1979 Van Halen launched its second world tour, its first as headliner. Early on, the band embraced its larger-than-life image; for example, tour incidents ranged from Roth's breaking his nose on a lighting rig when jumping onstage to the band trashing its dressing room after a promoter failed to comply with the band's contractual stipulation that the backstage candy dish contain no brown M&Ms.
Fair Warning (Number 5, 1981), another multiplatinum effort and possibly the band's most meaty metal album, followed. The more light-hearted, almost campy Diver Down (Number Three, 1982), which included hit covers of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" (Number 12, 1982) and Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" (Number 38, 1982) became the group's highest-charting album to that point. (In 1981 Eddie married actress Valerie Bertinelli; in 1991 their son, Wolfgang, was born. Three years later, Eddie stopped drinking.)
Van Halen's biggest album with Roth was 1984 (Number Two, 1984), which contained the Number One hit "Jump" (on which Eddie played synthesizer) as well as "I'll Wait" (Number 13, 1984), "Panama" (Number 13, 1984), and "Hot for Teacher" (Number 56, 1984), all songs supported by popular videos that showcased both Roth's alternately boastful and clownish persona and Eddie (and the rest of the group's) flashy musicianship. Shortly before 1984's release, Eddie Van Halen had composed and played the guitar solo on Michael Jackson's "Beat It," a few bars of heavy metal that many observers believed helped the video land a spot on MTV's then predominantly white playlist.
The loquacious Roth and the soft-spoken Eddie had long been considered one of rock's oddest couples. When in 1985 Roth released his four-song EP, Crazy From the Heat, and it spun off two hit singles — covers of the Beach Boys' "California Girls" (Number Three, 1985) and of the 1956 Louis Prima medley "Just a Gigolo"/"I Ain't Got Nobody" (Number 12, 1985) — a breakup was widely rumored. The videos for the two songs were hugely popular, and for a time Roth had a film in development (the deal fell through). When Roth delayed recording for Van Halen's seventh album, tensions rose, and Roth left the band. That June, established hard-rock singer and former Montrose frontman Sammy Hagar was named Roth's replacement.
The Hagar era began auspiciously, with the group's next three multiplatinum albums — 5150, OU812, and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (or "F.U.C.K.," as it's slyly abbreviated) — all hitting Number One. Among the hit singles from these records were "Why Can't This Be Love" (Number Three, 1986), "Dreams" (Number 22, 1986), and "Feels So Good" (Number 35, 1989). Van Halen headlined the Monsters of Rock Tour in 1988 and in 1991 bought the Cabo Wabo Cantina, a Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, restaurant and bar. (Hagar later bought out the other members.) The innovative, text-oriented 1992 video for "Right Now" didn't boost the single beyond Number 55, but it did win MTV's Best Video of the Year award and provided the theme for a round of Pepsi commercials shortly thereafter. The year 1993 saw the release of the band's first live album, Van Halen Live: Right Here, Right Now (Number Five). Balance debuted at Number One in 1995 and sold double-platinum nearly immediately upon its release. It contained one Top Thirty hit, "Can't Stop Lovin' You."
Throughout his tenure with Van Halen, Hagar continued to release solo albums. While this wasn't considered a problem by the other members, tempers flared in spring 1996, when the band finished the Balance tour. Hagar's wife was pregnant and he wanted to take time off; the rest of the group wanted to work on a few new tracks for a greatest-hits compilation, an idea that Hagar was against. Some speculated that Hagar objected because a best-of package would undoubtedly feature songs from the Roth era, songs Hagar had declined to sing in concert.
In June of that year, Van Halen claimed that Hagar left the band, while Hagar insisted that he was fired — a difference in opinion that has lasted to this day. The remaining members of Van Halen invited Roth back into the studio with them to record two new tracks for the hits album. That fall, the apparently reunited foursome presented a trophy at the MTV Video Music Awards, and speculation was that Roth was back in the band full-time. Apparently Roth thought so, too, because he was miffed when Eddie, the band's spokesperson, clarified in a press statement that Van Halen's intentions were to include Roth in a couple of new recordings and nothing more. Again, the difference of opinion regarding the group's original intention prevails.
With Hagar gone and Roth out of the picture again, Van Halen hired ex-Extreme singer Gary Cherone as its new lead vocalist in November 1996. The choice was initially surprising, since Extreme's biggest hits, "More Than Words" and "Hole Hearted," were ballads. But the bulk of that band's catalogue was hard rock, and the collaboration seemed to reinvigorate Eddie Van Halen. He and Cherone immediately began writing songs together, with Cherone's lyrics inspiring Eddie's music — the first time the group's music wasn't written first.
This new incarnation recorded Van Halen III (Number Four, 1998), an album that signaled another Van Halen first: Eddie singing lead on one song. The band toured and the single "Without You" rose to Number One on the Mainstream Rock chart, but CD sales fell quickly. The release sold just 500,000 copies, making it the first Van Halen album not to go at least double platinum. In November 1999 Cherone left the band. He recorded a solo album and returned to a Massachusetts stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which he starred in after Extreme broke up.
Meanwhile, Eddie Van Halen, a heavy smoker, participated in what was said to be a clinical trial of preventative treatment for tongue cancer in 2000. In 2001 he revealed that he had been treated for cancer.
Roth's solo career yielded three platinum albums, with his third and fourth albums, Eat 'Em and Smile and Skyscraper, both Top 10, featuring the hits "Yankee Rose" (Number 16, 1986, from Eat) and "Just Like Paradise" (Number Six, 1988, from Skyscraper). The band for Eat 'Em included bassist Billy Sheehan, guitarist Steve Vai, and drummer Greg Bissonette. This lineup remained fairly steady for Skyscraper, but Sheehan left, and in 1989 Vai began his solo career. A Little Ain't Enough, a critical and commercial disappointment despite its Top 20 showing, had no hit singles.
In 1991 Roth fired his band and moved to New York City, where in April 1993 he was arrested while purchasing a small amount of marijuana in Washington Square Park (he received a year's probation). His 1994 release, Your Filthy Little Mouth, continued the decline, and a 1998 album credited to the DLR Band fared no better. Even commenting on his low commercial standing, Roth remained quotable as ever and published a breezy, explicit autobiography entitled, Crazy From the Heat (with Paul Scanlon), in 1997.
In 2002, the first of three Van Halen-related unthinkables happened when Roth hooked up with his nemesis, fellow former VH singer Hagar, for a joint tour some dubbed "The Sam and Dave Tour" (Hagar suggested "Sans Halen"). The second unthinkable happened the following year when Van Halen announced it was working with Hagar again on a track for a greatest-hits collection.
In 2004, the band released The Best of Both Worlds (Number Three), featuring alternating tracks from the Roth and Hagar years, and then hit the road with Hagar. The band's comeback tour was one of the top ten tours of 2004, grossing $55 million. The group went into hibernation again after the tour, as Eddie Van Halen headed into rehab for alcohol abuse. Then, in late 2006, he announced that Roth had been invited to participate in a reunion of the original band. Music journalists were skeptical, given the fiasco of the lineup's aborted reunion. Indeed, the first string of shows was canceled to allow Eddie to enter rehab in early 2007. In the meantime, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (with both Hagar and Roth on the inductee list; Hagar and Anthony were the sole attendees).
But sure enough, in September 2007, Diamond Dave and his ex-bandmates (minus Anthony, with replacement Wolfgang Van Halen, Eddie's son, on bass) kicked off their long-awaited reunion tour in Charlotte, North Carolina. The tour received generally positive reviews, and Rolling Stone's 2007 year-end issue listed the reunion as "Miracle of the Year." With Eddie fighting rehab and health issues, the 74-date show was seen by nearly a million people and grossed over $93 million. The group also hinted that a new Roth-fronted Van Halen album might follow. Meanwhile, in 2009, Anthony and Hagar — who had toured in recent years as "The Other Half" — joined up with master guitarist Joe Satriani and Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith in the band Chickenfoot, whose self-titled debut album charted at Number Four.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Chuck Eddy contributed to this article.