When David Lee Roth left Van Halen in 1985 nobody knew if the group would survive. The flamboyant frontman was the face of the band, and when his cartoonish videos for “California Girls” and “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody” went into heavy rotation on MTV his solo career took off in a huge way. But at the same time, former Montrose singer Sammy Hagar was having his own breakout moment with “I Can’t Drive 55.” The last thing on his mind was joining a band. But when he met up with Van Halen he couldn’t resist the opportunity.
The new incarnation of Van Halen released 5150 on March 24th, 1986 and promptly became the most famous example of a rock band doing the impossible — replacing their lead singer and continuing with wild success. We phoned up Sammy Hagar to talk about that moment in time in honor of the album’s 30th anniversary.
This week is the 30th anniversary of 5150. How does that feel?
What a trip, man. Unbelievable. I just got out of bed, and what a thing to wake up to. I need some coffee for that one. Wow.
Were you a fan of Van Halen back in the 1970s?
I gotta say that the first time I heard “Eruption” into “You Really Got Me” I thought it was badass. I was like, “Wow, who are these guys?” The thing that always impressed me about Van Halen is that they were like a pop band that was heavy. They had attitude and were reckless and everything that is cool for rock and roll, but they were really poppy. The music was very major chord-ish. Bands like Black Sabbath were minor, deep, dark. Van Halen wasn’t dark at all.
What did you think of 1984?
To me, it was all about the first and last albums [with David Lee Roth]. 1984 was fantastic. They really got the sound, pretty heavy. It was great.
You were doing very well as a solo artist. Some people in your shoes would have been like, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m doing fine on my own.”
It’s so funny. I had just come off the VOA tour, my most successful tour. I was selling out every city besides New York. I could never break New York. I came off the tour. It was really long since I had such a big hit with “I Can’t Drive 55.” It opened up so many markets for me and I tried to hit them all. I can’t tell you how many shows I did. I just toured the whole year. When I got back I was burned out. I had a ton of money. I was over being a solo artist. It was the best timing in the world. It was like divine intervention for me. I cut all my hair off the day I got home.
Ted Templeman was trying to talk to me about writing more songs since we had such a big success with VOA. I was having dinner with my wife and I got on the phone with Ted and he went, “Wow, man, Dave just quit Van Halen. Don’t tell anybody.” I said, “Really? Wow? What a trip.” I turned to my wife and I said, “They’re probably going to call me.” Who else were they gonna call? 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.
I was about go to L.A. to pick my Ferrari BB 512i from the “I Can’t Drive 55” video. It was at Claudio Zampolli’s shop for a complete tune up. I left it there when I was on tour. Eddie Van Halen walked in there and saw my car and tells Claudio, “That’s a nice car. Whose is that?” Claudio goes, “That’s Sammy Hagar’s. You should call him and put him in the band.” He calls me right from there.
It was that quick. I had just come home. I had just cut my hair. I was getting ready to go to L.A. I said, “Eddie, that sounds great. I’d love to play with you, but I’m just burned out. I’ve been touring solo for ten years. I’m thinking about taking a year off.” He goes, “Let’s get together and see what happens.” I say, “Okay, I’ll call you next week.” He goes, “How about tomorrow?”
I really wanted to play with the guy. I wasn’t thinking about Al [Van Halen] or Mike [Anthony]. I wasn’t thinking about filling anyone’s shoes. I thought about it and said, “I’ll call you tomorrow.” I woke up and decided to come down. I gotta get my car anyway. I went down there, walked in the studio and those guys had been up all night. They were trashed up, and the studio was trashed up too. It was noon and Eddie was just waking up. He came out and Al comes over, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. I was like, “These guys are reckless. It’s early in the morning for all this.”
I had my doubts, but I was kind of intrigued by their recklessness. I’m a pretty reckless guy myself, but I wasn’t a drugger or a drinker. Everything else about me was pretty reckless. Anyway, we started playing music and I was like, “Wow, this is really fucking good.” The first songs we did were “Summer Nights” and “Good Enough.” I was real impressed with Ed and Al and Mike. They were badass.
I never liked the band that much because I didn’t like the lyrics, personally, and I didn’t like Dave’s persona. 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. We jammed a blues song and a bunch of others.
I went to sleep, woke up the next morning and went, “Wow, I’m joining that band.” That’s all it was. It was all about the music. I had nothing to do with fame and fortune, none of that. It was so inspiring.
You had no trepidation about replacing a frontman that was so iconic?
I was never a fan of Dave. He wasn’t the kind of artist I was looking at and going, “I want to be like that.” Never in a million years. My favorite artists were Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Peter Gabriel. I know it sounds crazy, but those kind of artists were who I looked up to and who I wanted to be like. After playing with those guys I realized the band was really about the music, and all this showmanship and stuff was attractive, but once that flamboyant thing got your attention, your attention immediately went over to Eddie. You’d go, “That guy is really unique. That guy can play.”
There was talk of it being called Van Hagar at one point, right?
Yeah, that’s what Warner Bros. and Geffen wanted. I was on Geffen then and [David Geffen] was talking to Mo Ostin about how it could work. They start saying, “What if it don’t work?” I’m sure they tossed around the idea of calling it Van Hagar as an experiment just in case Van Halen got back together. We all said, “No.” It would have been interesting. Looking back now, it’s sort of a way to divide the two eras up. But we were so fearless when we realized what we could all do together.
Ed was freaking out when he heard me sing, Al and Michael Anthony too. They were going, “Holy shit, this guy has rhythm in his voice, he has pitch and a range from hell.” I could pick up a guitar and say, “Hey Eddie, how about a groove like this?” and play some rhythm and he’d go, “Holy shit, let me play organ.” We were all over the place. It was such an inspiration back and forth that it started elevating both of our musical abilities. Everyone around us got goosebumps. It was magical. That doesn’t happen every day.
When young bands get together they’re all focused on their own shit, hardly listening to one another. We were all seasoned professionals. When you get together with other seasoned professionals, and the chemistry is right.… You heard the music. You know.
I felt that we needed a producer since we were just getting to know each other. We couldn’t produce ourselves since we would have taken too long. We’d still be in there. I called up Mick Jones who was a good friend forever. We played him some demos and he threw his hands in the air and was like, “I’m here. Call this assistant and get me a hotel room. I ain’t leaving.”
Everyone was jaw-dropping, including Mo Ostin when he walked in and went, “Well, can we hear something?” We played “Why Can’t This Be Love” live in the studio. Mo just held up his finger and went, “I smell money.” The road was paved from then on. No one doubted it once they heard five minutes of music.
The first show was in Shreveport, Louisiana. How did you feel walking onstage that night?
I was a fucking wreck. It was Valerie Bertinelli’s hometown. She had her whole family backstage and I didn’t even know those people. There were all these people around. When I would tour solo I was real private. These guys were back there getting drunk. I was a wreck. I was like, “What the fuck man? I hope this gonna work. Rehearsal is one thing, but the gig is another.” The record hadn’t come out yet since we were late getting the mixing and the packaging together, so the only thing out was “Why Can’t This Be Love.” And we were going out and playing all of the album.
They had just come off their biggest album. It was the only time I felt fear. I was like, “I hope they’re ready to hear all new shit.” But man, when we came out they tore down the fucking barricade down. It was that way for about nine years.
I didn’t see Van Halen on the 1984 tour, but I know they weren’t getting along or having fun. They were over-the-top drinking. People I know that saw that tour told me they did about eight songs. The show was one guy at a time coming out and doing a 20 minute solo and Roth doing his schtick. They really weren’t into it like we were. When I joined the band we wanted to play every song we knew. We’d start jamming Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” and Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” We’d bust into “Young Man’s Blues” by the Who. We busted out “Mississippi Queen” one night. We were having so much fun and were so fearless and excited and in love with each other that it was really, really special.
That’s the sad part about it. I don’t know how that can change. I guess you fall in love with someone and wind up hating their guts.
You had members of the audience sing “Jump” most nights. Why was that?
I didn’t want to sing it. It was such not my style of singing, but it was such a big hit we couldn’t not do it. We were that arrogant. It wasn’t me, it was all of us. We were like, “Fuck, we’ll do whatever we want.” Actually, they didn’t like that song that much either. That’s the crazy thing. I don’t know what they would tell you if you asked them now, but at that time they didn’t want to play it.
Watching the album hit Number One must have been really vindicating.
Yeah, that was real validation. It was the first Number One record for all of us, and it stayed there for five weeks. The crazy thing is that it took three weeks to go to number one. It was a lot more difficult back then before Soundscan. Back then, it wasn’t all about sales and it kept building and building. I think we sold something like a million records in the first week, but they didn’t count it that way for the charts. It was some weird system.
It was a big deal for us all to have our first Number One record together. I remember us drinking champagne in Atlanta at the Ritz Carlton. Our manager told us the news and we popped a bottle at 2 in the afternoon, which wasn’t my style, and we probably had a pretty good show that night. I don’t remember that one.
Do you look back at the first year together as your best times with the group?
No. We continued to have good times. I got to tell you, they were all good times until the Balance record. That was the end of the good times. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge was a good time. I was going through a divorce and it was a hard time personally, but on tour I might have had a better time than I’ve ever had in my life. I was becoming a free man, being the lead singer in one of the biggest bands in the world. There was nothing wrong with those times either.
You guys really had the world at your fingertips.
Yeah. Breaking up then was the worst timing they could have possibly done. Grunge was kicking everyone’s ass but ours. All the hair bands were taking a dump, but not Van Halen. Balance was Number One and the tour was sold out. We were the only ones holding our own against all the grunge bands. To make a change then was a big mistake. I think it still is for Van Halen. I think if we had stuck all that out and kept making good records, we could probably still be a real thing, probably what Led Zeppelin would be if they were still around. There are certain bands that had that thing, and Van Halen was certainly one of them. I would like to have seen what Ed and I could have done as songwriters. I’m not saying I want to do it again because I think we lost that opportunity, but one of the biggest mistakes that Van Halen made was trying to break up when the world of music was changing.