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.