Dreams: Imagining Van Halen’s ‘5150’ With David Lee Roth
Sammy Hagar opened 5150 with that glorious, mischievous and lustful cry on March 24, 1986, introducing his distinctive personality to Van Halen fans. But he also seemed to be channeling founding singer David Lee Roth, who could have jumped into almost any Van Halen song the exact same way.
Roth had split with the band in the spring of 1985. Eddie Van Halen first performed with Hagar in late September at the Farm Aid benefit concert, giving the world its first look at the new creative partnership. For most of 1985, however, nobody knew when the follow up to 1984 would come out – or how it would sound.
Well, what if it had sounded a lot more like Roth-era Van Halen? Imagine Roth never left the band and the nods to slick Top 40 that Van Hagar indulged in were tempered in favor of the stranger, impish tone of Roth’s full-length solo debut Eat ’Em and Smile.
Using educated guesses based on history and artistic trajectories — and a little bit of wishful thinking — here’s the track listing for 5150 and Smile. Not sold on that title? Maybe Crazy from the 5150? How about Goin’ 5150? Whatever it would have been called, another album from the classic-era lineup of Van Halen might have sounded something like this:
The only opening options are the actual opening options — “Yankee Rose” from Smile or “Good Enough” from 5150 (featuring Hagar’s “Hello baaaaaby”). But Roth has no reason to introduce himself with such grand cheek and charm. What would have fit, especially after the keyboards that kick off 1984, would have been some virtuoso-level and playful guitar. Roth attempted to replace Eddie Van Halen with guitarist Steve Vai – and his speed and flair certainly matched Van Halen's. But the student could never replicate the master's taste or muscle. Nonetheless, “Yankee Rose” absolutely feels like Van Halen. The call and response between singer and guitarist, the thumping bass line, the driving drums, the harmony vocals, the idea of turning the Statue of Liberty into a sex symbol – all of it intentionally adds up to a triumph that would fit nicely between “Drop Dead Legs” and “Hot for Teacher.”
"Why Can’t This Be Love"
The idea that at Roth-fronted follow up to 1984 would be pop free is silly. Eddie clearly had mainstream radio on his mind when making 5150, and Roth himself wasn’t above trying to capture Journey and Huey Lewis fans with something tight and sweet: “Goin’ Crazy” dipped a toe in; “Just Like Paradise” cannonballed the pop market. But Roth would have gagged at an anthem like “Dreams” and lost his lunch at the suggestion of doing “Love Walks In.” “Why Can’t This Be Love” seems like both a nice compromise and call back to the mid-tempo boogie of “Beautiful Girls” and “Little Guitars,” even if it falls short when compared with those early tracks. Picture “Why Can’t This Be Love” with a wry smile and wink, instead of chocked full of earnestness.
"Best of Both Worlds"
Songs like this turned Sammy skeptics into Van Hagar converts. Yes, like "Why Can't This Be Love," "Best of Both Worlds is mid tempo and flirts with cornball pop. But it swaggers. And swagger is everything when trying to sell a Roth fans on Hagar. It’s hard to think Roth would ever sing, “Well, there's a picture in a gallery of a fallen angel, looked a lot like you.” But he might speak it. He might do one of his famous mid-song monologues, toss the phrase in and giggle and grunt. Again, the song feels like a compromise. But the guitar work is all glory and fire.
This Roth tune was actually written by bassist Billy Sheehan and performed with Sheehan’s early band, Talas. It also features a bass line that's so fleet it might just stump Geddy Lee. So you really have to suspend disbelief to imagine “Shyboy” as a Van Halen song. Still, it would serve as a wonderful jolt after two cuts that slow things down. If the first few songs on this imagined album didn’t offer enough punch, “Shyboy” would change that with a pace that gallops and full-frontal guitar histrionics. This song recalls “I’m the One” and would offer Eddie an ideal backdrop for tapping-on-fast-forward and tremolo high-dives.
In the Venn diagram of Hagar and Roth, the lazy, hazy groove of “Summer Nights” fills up the overlap. There’s nostalgia, partying, sex, romance, the brotherhood of adolescent immaturity. While the themes seem ideal for Roth to riff on, the actual lyrics would need a rewrite. Where Hagar was blunt and obvious, Roth was charming and clever. But the genuine Southern California vibe and Van Halen revving up his Steinberger GL2T makes it a perfect side one closer.
Here we have another track that shows the gulf in aesthetics between Van Halen's first two lead singers. Roth is fun and funny where Roth is forceful. But there’s enough middle ground here to make the track work. Filler to be sure, but filler with a solid hook and nice spot for another mid-song monologue. Obviously, Roth would have come up with something better than Hagar’s “rack of what?” shout. Hagar comes on too strong with his cat calling, when his predecessor's harmless hamminess would have been more appropriate. Still, Hagar is clearly going for a call back to Roth’s earlier line from "Everybody Wants Some!!": “I like the way the line runs up the back of their stockings.”
If a track had to be cut to fit the LP, “Good Enough” could be dropped in favor of opening side two with “Tobacco Road.” Some complain that they leaned on too many average covers (a common critique of Diver Down), but part of the magic of a new Van Halen release was discovering how nuts the band could get with someone else’s material. Rumor has it Roth wanted to put Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour” on an upcoming album but “Tobacco Road” works better. Originally a garage-rock romp by the Nashville Teens, this version split the difference between the chaos of “Ice Cream Man” and vaudeville camp of “Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now).”
OK, let’s really get into it. For all Hagar’s skills, he could never tell a story like Roth. Where Hagar often subscribed to the don’t-bore-us-get-to-the-chorus school of rock, Roth was the crazy uncle who would regale you with a yarn that was clearly too much for young ears. “Big Trouble” is this story. Just take in these lyrics, “Cherry Blue and Mighty Mouse, kinda quiet dude and she was 'sposed to be back at the house with the kids and the dog – 'and tonight we're Rocketeers,' said Mouse.” What? And still, “Big Trouble” works as a tough, tight rock song. It has a huge hook just screaming for Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals and wide space where Vai lays down brilliant solo that Eddie could have improved upon.
"Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?"
Eddie and Alex Van Halen would have probably reserved this spot for “Get Up” or “Goin’ Crazy.” (“Goin’ Crazy” actually has great bones and might sound more like a Van Halen song than anything else on Eat ‘Em and Smile, especially around the guitar intro.) In this alternative universe, however, Roth managed to get the band to double down on the gonzo weirdness of “Big Trouble” by putting it back-to-back with “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” This gem has become a rare treasure in Roth’s catalog. Its slow-burn groove and syncopated, understated guitar riff seem like something off an aborted Prince project, but its roots are pure Van Halen: the intros to “Top Jimmy” and “Drop Dead Legs,” the noir tones of “Dirty Movies,” the less-is-more slink of “Secrets,” the whole vibe of “You’re No Good.” Van Halen could have scored with “Ladies’ Nite.”
Most of 5150 played it safe. The band tried to write hits – and they succeeded spectacularly. With “Inside,” they remembered that every Van Halen album needs an experimental track. No, it’s not the electro-prog of “Sunday Afternoon in the Park,” and that’s a good thing. With “Inside,” the quartet came up with something anti-commercial: It’s one minute of catchy rock, four minutes of four dudes shouting insults, boozing it up and chanting, “That's what's comin' down on the inside. Don't let this get around to the outside.” In no world, would the song make the Top 40. It proved the guys could have fun making art. And as we all know, the Roth lineup loved making art together (though that may have been the only thing they enjoyed doing together). “Inside” won’t make any classic Van Halen playlists, but it recalled how messy the band could be – and that’s a good thing. Plus, if you’re going to build a song out of smack talk and witty repartee, you have to include David Lee Roth (see the last few bars of “Two Fools a Minute”).
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