The original Farm Aid concert at Champaign, Illinois’ Memorial Stadium on September 22nd, 1985 was an evening of firsts. It was Bob Dylan’s first time playing with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, launching a partnership that would last two years and take them all over the world. It was the first time that Neil Young, John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson came together to aid family farmers, kicking off a massive charity initiative that continues to this day. It also marked the first time that Sammy Hagar played in public with Eddie Van Halen, beginning a whole new chapter for Van Halen.
The group had just parted ways with David Lee Roth following their blockbuster LP 1984, which hit just as Sammy Hagar was breaking through with his pop hit “I Can’t Drive 55.” He wasn’t shocked when he got the call to audition. “Who else were they gonna call?” Hagar told Rolling Stone in 2016. “At the time there was Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio and Sammy Hagar. We were the only solo artist vocalists that could jump into a band that high profile.”
He was initially unsure about the idea. “I never liked the band that much because I didn’t like the lyrics, personally, and I didn’t like Dave’s persona,” he said. “I had no intentions of joining the band, but then I heard this music. I thought I was going to grab Eddie and go, ‘Hey, come do my next record.’ But when I played with the three of them there was such chemistry and it was so exciting. We played until midnight, about 12 hours without stopping.”
Right around this time, Hagar was booked to play Farm Aid. At the end of his brief set, Eddie Van Halen came out for a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” The chemistry was instantly apparent to everyone in the house, even if Hagar got a little excited and sang the first verse a second time at the end instead of the third one. Right afterwards, Hagar was announced as the new frontman of Van Halen, and the next year, they dropped 5150 and went on a world tour.
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They were one of the biggest rock bands on the planet for the next ten years, but it all began imploding after Hagar left in 1996. He came back for a reunion tour in 2004 following their brief attempt to carry on with Extreme’s Gary Cherone, but Eddie’s severe alcohol addiction lead to major conflict, which Hagar laid out in tremendous detail in his 2011 book Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. Fans continue to dream that Hagar will come back for one final tour – possibly even with Roth on the bill as well for a mega evening of Van Halen – but that is almost certainly a pipe dream. For now, take a look back at Farm Aid in 1985 where the whole Van Hagar saga began.