The big question is whether even a sound as titanic as Van Halen’s can sustain the loss of a loudmouth voluptuary like David Lee Roth, or will the whole metal ball simply collapse under the weight of generic gee-tar pyrotechnics? Though often derided as a frontrunner in the Most Obnoxious Man in Rock sweepstakes, Diamond Dave’s giddy way with Uzipaced wisecracks and an unarguably media-genic presence gave Van Halen an overpowering edge on the legions of bands competing in the power-party rock arena. If rock & roll has become a circus maximus, then David Lee Roth was both a patter-spewing ringmaster and an untamable animal in the ring.
His are big lace-up leather boots to fill, and not since Bon Scott guzzled his way out of AC/DC and through the Pearly Gates has a major electrical powerhouse faced a crisis this dire. No matter how honed the axeman, a band still needs an MC. So when it was announced that Van Halen had completed its talent search and the new voice was Sammy “I Can’t Hack 55” Hagar, the response — even among hardened DLR detractors — tended more toward a bewildered “Huh? Montrose? What?” than resounding hosannas, huzzahs and what-a-good-idea’s.
Part of Eddie Van Halen’s cheeky genius, though, lies in his ability to think in terms of both complex orchestration and rock banalities; perhaps after all those years of David Lee Roth’s show-stealing shenanigans, Eddie simply wanted a voice he could work with, an unironic counterpoint to the symphonic breadth of his musical ideas. Or maybe he wanted to demonstrate the expendability of David Lee Roth’s overwhelming personality in pursuit of a purer Van Halen vision. Then again, maybe he just wanted to lay down the ultimo bitchin’ Van Halen platter for the kids to shake to all summer long.
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The cover art shows Atlas grimacing under the weight not of the world but of the metal universe itself. On the back cover, the heavens crack like Humpty Dumpty, the new Van Halen emerging serene in the green mists of sonic triumph. Eddie can still split the atom with his axe, and he knows it. It’s a Van Halen world with or without David Lee Roth, and 5150 shoots off all the bombastic fireworks of a band at the peak of its powers. The Van Halen brothers are back in business.
Like the Wunderkind scientist that he is, Eddie built this monster in his own back yard. The name of the album is also the name of the studio he constructed with longtime pal and engineer Donn Landee. They got the moniker from the police code for an escaped mental patient. Adopting this number and its attendant attitude allows Eddie to pursue, with feckless uniformity of purpose, any and all musical ideas foaming in his brain.
Where David Lee Roth always kept a kind of smirking distance from his material, Sammy Hagar plunges right into the center of the action. When the needle dips onto 5150, the first humongous sound is the foul-textured yowl of Hagar burping out the words “Huhlow, bay-beee.” This is the grease-stained welcome mat to “Good Enough,” a raunch-filled restaurant of the mind with enough meat, oyster and waitress metaphors to sate Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski combined. Hagar’s overconfident opening is a direct lift from the opening of the Fifties hit “Chantilly Lace,” and on “Good Enough” Hagar manages to pay tribute to the Big Bopper while slyly chiding his predecessor in the band by cannibalizing Roth’s full-throated style before chucking it on the lines “U.S. prime, grade A stamped, guaranteed/Just grease it up and bring on the heat.” Bringing on the heat is Eddie’s cue to hammer down hard to prove just who this band’s always been named after.
While the simple-minded celebration of pleasure has always been one of rock’s raisons d’être, there are subtly disturbing undertows in the Californiasurf sway of “Summer Nights.” Although ostensibly expressing a wistful yearning for the halcyon days when all one needed was AM radio and the night, lines like “Yeah, they love it when me and the boys/Start playin’ love with them human toys” sow the seeds of an attitude that can cause real problems when boys grow up and start dealing with real women.
Despite occasional slips into soft-core misogyny (a well-established rock subtext), Hagar’s approach to love is more often along the lines of a standard glories-are-worth-the-heartbreaks sensibility. On 5150‘s first hit single, “Why Can’t This Be Love,” Hagar ponders a basic quandary: he’s finally met the girl who blows his past right out of the water, he’s old enough to know it’s not some puppy-love infatuation, yet he’s bruised enough to mistrust the intensity of the feeling. As Eddie’s pulsing synths and heartthrob guitar riffs circle in orbit, Hagar begs to know why, just this once, can’t it be the real thing, since it feels so goddamn good.
The Eddie-Sammy combination forms its most explosive bonding on “Best of Both Worlds.” Centered on a transcendent guitar riff not unlike the chordal motif of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration,” “Best of Both Worlds” is a double rock dialectic. While Eddie is busy resolving the problems of pastoral versus grunge guitar, Hagar confronts the madonna-whore paradox with quasi-religious fervor as he contemplates the possibility of divine revelation inherent in sensual experience. If one might “tune in to what this place has got to offer,” one might attain heaven on earth through rock, through love, through grace. “It’s not work, that makes it work no,” Hagar sings. “Let the magic do the work for you.”
Ultimately, it is Eddie Van Halen’s uncanny and intuitive ability to orchestrate these contradictions that gives the Van Halen machinery its velocity and amplitude, the qualities that blast the roof off the garage. There’s plenty of hot party action down in rockland, but Eddie’s band is the one with the chops — not just notes and chords and string-bashing Sturm und Drang, but the filigree detail that makes a simple-minded riff a symphony. On 5150, you taste the clean air of the ozone, see the radiant sunbeams shooting through storm clouds, while the fire burns down below. That’s how Eddie plays guitar. When Sammy sings, “Some kind of alien/Waits for the opening/Then simply pulls a string” in “Love Walks In,” he might be singing about Eddie’s guitar playing. On 5150, Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar speak each other’s language.