REVIEW: Van Halen – 5150 (1986)

VAN HALEN – 5150 (1986 Warner Bros.)

Back in 1986, a lot of the rockers in my neighborhood had given up on Diamond Dave; we just couldn’t swallow “California Girls” and still wear our Judas Priest shirts proudly. On the flipside, we really dug Sammy’s “I Can’t Drive 55”. When the split and new singer were announced, we waited hopefully that Van Halen with Hagar in tow would produce something that really rocked. Then in early ’86 we saw that embarrassing live video for “Why Can’t This Be Love”, and all hopes were dashed. Eddie playing keyboards instead of guitar? What was with Sammy’s poofy short ‘do?  And that out-of-tune scat?  THIS was the new Van Halen?!

Way on the other side of the country in Pitt Meadows, British Columbia, Craig Fee remembers 1986 much like I do:

“I had been riding the Van Halen roller coaster through the DLR solo EP and all the pre-world wide web breakup speculation in magazines, and on all the rock radio stations in the area. When I’d heard that Sammy Hagar was the new lead singer, I was thrilled! I loved Sammy’s solo work. A friend quickly introduced me to Montrose (I was too young for that era of his career). I was fully on the Van Hagar bandwagon! This is gonna be AWESOME!!! Can’t wait to hear the new material!

“I first heard “Why Can’t This Be Love?” over a scratchy FM signal from Seattle. It sounded…different from 1984. Very different from anything on Diver Down.

“The video was to debut the next day on MuchMusic. My buddy Dan and I rushed home from school to watch (and record on his BetaMax) the debut of…a concert video? Gnarly!

“We must’ve played it a dozen times after the world premiere. Both of us were huge fans. It was after the 8th rewind and playback that both of us realized the same thing. It’s the same feeling when your team is expected to ‘win it all this year’ and gets thoroughly outplayed in the finals. That numbness mixed with pride, anxiety and half-hearted disappointment.”

The gnarly “new Van Halen video”

5150 isn’t as bad as we feared it would be, in fact it’s quite good in spots. Its major flaw is that this was a band in upheaval, and David Lee Roth was such a huge part of their sound. 5150 is a transitional album. It picks up with the keyboard flavours of 1984, and moves forward into parts unknown. Musically, most of this album was written with Dave still in the band. In his autobiography, Crazy From The Heat, Dave describes the music that Van Halen were writing as “morose”, reflective of the overall mood of the band.

While 5150 is not a completely joyless affair, it is considerably less upbeat than the party rock that they specialized in with Dave. Ballads have replaced Dave’s snarky winks and smiles. Sammy Hagar was obviously an apt replacement; he’s an accomplished singer, songwriter and guitar player, and he has a great voice. The fit however was awkward at first as Van Halen shoehorned Hagar into the songs written with Dave.

Things start out well enough. “Good Enough” is an upbeat boogie-oriented party rocker. Great song, but the production is painfully thin. The drums clank along, awkward electronic toms creating a cacophony of noise. The guitar lacks Eddie’s trademark “brown” warmth. Where Dave called the album “morose” I would use the word “cold”.

Then, “Why Can’t This Be Love”; better than the live video version but still containing a weird bridge section featuring Sammy scatting. It’s a good song, a great song even, but it feels tired lyrically and musically. Perhaps Dave could have turned it classic, much like he did with “I’ll Wait”. Sometimes when listening to 5150, it hurts to imagine what might have been.

“Get Up” is an OTT (over-the-top) rocker, almost too fast as it sounds at times like the band is falling apart. This sloppiness of old is refreshing. Alex throws in some tasty fills.  Mike, Ed and Al’s backing vocals help make this sound like a real Van Halen rocker. Nothing mindblowing or earth shattering, but enough to keep the album moving.  If it had been produced with more oomph, it really could have been something.

Up next is “Dreams”, a simple little keyboard ballad. Eddie’s first guitar solo consists of just two notes! This isn’t a bad song, but far too reliant on that pop keyboard lick. It doesn’t feel very Halen, but Sammy definitely proves his vocal chops.

Side one ended with the classic “Summer Nights”.  Although it was a B-side (to “Love Walks In”) I think it should have been a single in its own right.  I find the funky verses to be a bit awkward, but the chorus to be irresistible. This is a party rocker, obviously and perfectly suited to those hot summer nights with your radio.

The second half of this wax commences with “Best of Both Worlds”, a pseudo-rocker, but it lacks balls and spark that we have come to expect from a Van Halen rock song. The chorus is decent and obviously the song has become something of a live classic. It wouldn’t make my personal best-of tape.  Craig had a much more turbulent relationship with the song:

“‘Best Of Both Worlds’ is the song that might’ve been the catalyst for my divorce of Van Hagar as the logical continuation of my favourite band.  The lyrics are absolute fucking cornball nonsense.  Look them up.  You’ll see what I mean.  The Live Without A Net version on the B-side of the single brought me vivid flashbacks of those awful pink sweat pants Eddie wore onstage for the concert video.  Those terrible Sammy and Mike harmonies.  That cheesy walk Mike, Sammy and Ed did onstage.  Sammy’s spray painting of the shoes and the accompanying ad-lib were possibly the lamest shit I’ve ever heard.  Do you think David Lee Roth would’ve had a pair of fucking SHOES thrown onstage?  Hell no!”

“Love Walks In” also would not make my personal best-of tape. Maybe this is how Dave defined “morose”? Another keyboard song, and softest on the album, this is Van Halen entering uncharted territory: a commercial power ballad. If they felt like they couldn’t do this kind of song with Dave, they must have felt great when this song went to #22. Lyrically, Sammy’s talking about aliens. Yes, aliens!  (Sammy Hagar believes he has been an abductee.)  And love. I don’t really get the lyrics, but witness lines such as:

“Contact, asleep or awake,”

“Some kind of alien, waits for the opening,”

“Silver lights, shinin’ down,”

“I travel far across the milky way,”

So there’s that. But in the same song, lines like “There she stands in a silken gown,” and love walking in. I’m not sure where Sammy was going with it. I’m sure most listeners didn’t really pick up on the UFO concept at the time.  But who cares when everybody in the sold-out arena has their cigarette lighters out?

Up next is “5150”, another rocker along the lines of “Best of Both Worlds”, but faster and with a lot more life. This is not a bad song. Shame the album doesn’t have more like this.

Lastly is “Inside”, a song that I just can’t decide if I like or not. It’s barely a song, more like a story with a bassline, and an entire band sounded completely wasted. It grooves along with a robotic synth bass riff. Sammy’s on top of it, telling a story about…new shoes? Not sure exactly. The band, audible in the background, sound loaded but having fun.  It’s like something off Diver Down, if Diver Down was performed by robots.  As strange as it is, this song sounds like Van Halen, in the sense of a wasted band who isn’t afraid to play whatever the fuck they want. Unfortunately it also sounds like half an idea.

That’s 5150, the massive #1 smash hit (a first for this band), but also transitional album. I think the following disc, OU812, is stronger and more comfortable (albeit sounding unfinished). But to get from A to B, you have to make a journey and that’s what 5150 is. It may lack power, it may be half-loaded with sap, it may sound weak. The tour supporting it was a tremendous success and many of these songs became concert staples.

Craig Fee tells me that this is his favourite Van Hagar-era album. “Probably because I listened to the living shit out of it trying to love it.”

I get that.

3/5 stars

5150_0003

All 7″ singles purchased for me by Craig at Jerry’s Records in Pittsburgh.  Click here for a gallery of the goodies he scored for me.

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60 comments

  1. Great write up Mike! Back in the day, many of us attributed VH’s shift from guitar metal to more commercial power ballads to the belief that Eddie Van Halen was so pussywhipped by wife Valerie Bertinelli that it was effecting the music. Anyone care to discuss?

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        1. Perhaps you do? Or perhaps I’m full of shit? I listen to both OU812 and 5150 pretty regularly, they’re both great for a drive, and I think I prefer OU812 where the wife may prefer 5150. Although she did once call Sammy Hagar “David Lee Roth”.

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  2. I like this one a whole lot more than you do, Mike. I consider it a 5/5 and the only Hagar-era album that holds its own against any of the DLR-era albums. VH were among my top bands from ’80-’82, but by the time 1984 was released I had jumped ship (even though I’ve since gone back & grown to really enjoy that one). So when they teamed up with Sammy, who I really liked solely from his Standing Hampton album (I wasn’t yet aware of Montrose), I was hopeful…and 5150 didn’t disappoint. I also have emotional connections to it as I was breaking up with my first long-term girlfriend while longing for a girl who lived across the hall in my dorm (it was my junior year of college). Maybe that’s affected my ability to be objective about it, but it’s still the only “Van Hagar” album I love listening to from start to finish.

    Although we’re not on the same page, I thought this was another excellent LeBrain review.

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    1. Thanks Rich! I appreciate it! Although you and Uncle Meat seem to share one mind, I have chosen not to be creeped out!

      I didn’t get 5150 until way later. I got the cassette second hand from this kid at work named Todd Burnside. I was pissed off because the cover was ripped and taped back together! I felt like he ripped me off.

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      1. I guess one’s enjoyment of this album could depend on your initial exposure to it. As a 20-year-old whose interest in VH waned after Diver Down, it was a breath of fresh air and sounded perfectly of its time in 1986. I can imagine hearing it a few years later it could come across as a little thin-sounding…a remaster would be very welcome.

        As for 1984, as strong as that album is, I don’t think it’s in the same class as their first four albums. Those were all game-changers, for me & my high school friends, at least.

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        1. Fair Warning is the pinnacle for me, after that it’s a coast. DD is half covers half throwaway one great song and 1984 is basically the culmination, some of the cuts are old tracks they dusted off and shined up. It is great but VH said what they basically needed to say in the first 4 albums.

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        2. I just listened to DD again yesterday as well, and you know what? I really enjoyed it! Sure it’s half covers but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought Dancing and Pretty Woman were the only covers on it, when I was a kid!

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        3. Really! Nothing against the first four (just listened to Fair Warning yesterday) but 1984 I keep coming back to over and over again. It’s got the hard rock, the atmosphere, and the singles. I consider it pretty near perfect.

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  3. I have to completely agree with KamerTunes. Couldnt agree more actually. Not only do I find this album to be by far the best Van Hagar album, I think it compares with a few of the DLR era Van Halen records. I threatened to review this album several times and never followed through on it. My review would have been certainly different. I would have given it a minimum of 4.5-5 starts. I agree with the cornball lyrics in Best of Both Worlds, but find the song itself to be very strong. The title track is and always will be one of my favorite Halen songs of any era. To quote Kamer directly.. 5150 is the only Van Hagar album i not only love listenting to from start to finish, its maybe the only Van Hagar album i would even consider attempting to do so. Considering I have been vocal in the past of you handing out too high of review ratings, this is one of the rare times that I can say that a LeBrain review actually underrated the album in my opinion. Great review, but still honestly surprised you dont like this more.

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    1. I don’t like I love any Van Hagar albums start to finish, but OU812 would be pretty close for me. But for me, 1984 is an incredible monument, easily my favourite Van Halen album. It has such a vibe to it, and I guess in hindsight that vibe might have been tension. Whatever it was, I don’t feel very much when I listen to 5150. I hear four guys happily making music but I don’t really feel anything.

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  4. Uhhh, nah I agree with Mike. It has potential but the production is shite. They would have been better served if they could have retained Templeton, but he wisely chose to stay with DLR and it’ easy to see why. DLR’s material was way better.

    I think they were all playing it safe musically and lyrically. I love Sammy but feel he’s totally wrong for VH, but totally right for what I believe EVH was going for at the time. OU812 would for me be a improvement, thats probably the peak of what “Van Hagar” did. Maybe he was whipped, but EVH was clearly moving in this direction from a couple of albums prior. I feel that he took the guitar hero thing as far as it would go and was looking to flex his compositional muscles. Maybe he was overcompensating for have some other powerful voices in the fray. Maybe they were still breaking in the studio and hadn’t really worked out all the kinks.

    Whats really missing was that sense of fun, it would take a while but they would temporarily find it with F…K. then they would get morose again.

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    1. Thanks for the vote of confidence Craig! (and I would like to clarify that this Craig is not Craig Fee…at least as far as I know, anyway.)

      But I didn’t like F..K either. I like the heaviness of it, but I don’t like most of the songs.

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  5. Well I gotta side with Kamer on this one!
    5150 is just a plain out different beast than the previous 6 Halen Releases beforehand.
    Sure enuff Hagar more or less brought his writing style to Halen and I think they were just looking for change and yeah the expectations were high man cuz we skipped out first period class to go and purchase 5150 at A&A as soon as the record shop opened it’s door and than to my buddy’s car as he bought the cassette and man as soon as we heard HELLLLLLOOOO BAAAAAAABY…..hook line and sinkered we were sold on the new model Halen and than it was buying everything in the press that was released on them,paying $40 back in 87 for a VHS copy of Live Without A Net..we were on board and on board with Roth as well…two,different beasts one a modified outfit(Halen) and one still staying old school (Roth ) what could be better back in 86!
    I agree some of Hagars lyrics are corny but who cares ummmm look at the Crues Dr Feelgood release if u want corny lyrics!! Every single band had some kind of corniness about it cuz man that was in…Whitesnake,Priest Warrant and on it goes ….
    It was just good to get music period …..
    Now having said this my fav all time is Woman & Childern First by Halen and yep Sammy is no where to be found but he did put out a solid albums with Halen so more power to em…

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    1. Oooh, the battle lines are drawn!

      Well Deke you do have a good point about almost all hard rock lyrics being pretty cornball at that time. Dr. Feelgood…I dunno, I thought it was pretty OK for lyrics, mostly. I mean that title track was considered serious rock for the time. Warrant and Priest though, their lyrics at the time were AWFUL.

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      1. Oh yeah man the lyrics to Dr Feelgood were good no doubt it was the drivel of She Goes Down and Sticky Sweet….music was good lyrics were Sixx dumb….
        My 2 cents…..

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        1. She Goes Down was kinda funny…Sticky Sweet was just TERRIBLE! I remember getting the single for Dr. Feelgood and Sticky Sweet was on the B-side. I was like, “What the shit is this? This song sucks.”

          Time For Change is naive but I didn’t think so at the time.

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  6. Oh, absolutely, not saying it was bad at all. In fact I love it like about a smidge less than Fair Warning. I’m just saying it was a lot of dusted off old riffs polished to all heck by Templeton. Like, we’re emptying out the closet to give you the best!!!

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    1. I get the feeling VH have done that (emptying the closet) many, many times. When I was researching Balance for that review I discovered that a couple of those songs were also ancient. FUCK had 316 on it which also was ancient, plus a recycled riff from Jump. Of course the new CD is fully 1/2 oldies. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just something I find interesting.

      I wish I had that kind of backlog of solid gold stuff to put out at any time, but unfortunate for you, on this blog, I tend to post everything — the good, the bad, the shit!

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      1. VH is as I think back in the day a lazy band when it came to material.
        What they had to write they would just do enough to fill a album or do half covers /half originals like Well I’m not gonna tell ya the album Mike……hahahaha…..
        So after DD in my mind they were lazy..hahaha….but still wrote cool stuff like Hang em High so I was a follower and a buyer..hahahaha….

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        1. Very good point Deke (running time of a VH album never seemed to exceed 30 minutes).

          It’s easy to look at this and say, “Well VH’s best days are clearly behind them if they have to always use old song ideas.” I dunno. Then again, I haven’t written any hits, so…

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  7. we just couldn’t swallow “California Girls”

    As I’m sure DLR himself could tell you, the real question is not whether you can swallow California girls, but whether California girls can swallow. :-)

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  8. Believe it or not, I wasn’t a Van halen fan growing up. I did like their debut but that was it. I kinda thought they sucked, to be honest. So, Roth gets the boot and Hagar enters and I dug Hagar’s “55” song and I owned the VOA album so my Van Halen worshipping friend bought 5150 and I loved it from go. Of course, after playing 5150 to death, I couldn’t help going back and checking their earlier stuff out and viola! – I became a fan of the DLR era as well.
    Today I love both versions and I don’t think neither ever made a bad record. The only crap album VH ever made was III with poor ole Gary Cherone frontning.
    I’d give 5150 a 9/10 within the wink of an eye. I’d give OU812 the same and FUCK and Balance an 8/10.

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    1. I was really excited for FUCK. But I found a lot of sameness to the songs. I found a LOT of bad bad lyrics. Spanked…my God. Sammy the poet indeed.

      Anyway, regardless, I love the discussion this has generated. I have truly enjoyed this! I do not intend to be “controversial” per se, I just calls ’em like I sees ’em! And I like to do so with colourful metaphors! And my opinion changes annually. Just like I intend to revisit some Kiss albums, who knows? Maybe in 2 years I’ll want to do the same with 5150.

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      1. Hehe. I thought Spanked has a pretty cool lyric. But English is not my native tongue so I guess lyrics doesn’t really get under my skin the same way it might do for you. Unless they are really really bad. But those lyrics are often written by non English speaking artists.

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        1. Well, it’s also a matter of taste too right? You write in English much better than 99% of Blabbermouth. That’s the truth.

          For all I know, maybe your Swedish is terrible! LOL

          I used to not care about lyrics, at all. Then I got my heart broken for the first time and suddenly I really started getting into the words too.

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  9. Like others have posted here, I consider this the only Van Hagar album that I enjoy (if just a little bit, and not in the last several years!). I still remember reading Sammy’s book and him describing how Warner Brothers label execs only heard cash registers ringing and dollar signs flashing the first time they heard tracks from “5150” in rehearsal. They assumed the drama was over, and the green was just gonna flow…

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  10. Cool review and kudos to Deke above for his words too…

    My take on 5150 goes like this, a lot of the negativity surrounding this record (including those here in the comments section) still seem to focus on the image (or lack thereof), and the stage antics Sam in particular brought to the performances, trying to achieve the impossible task of replacing the entertainment factor left behind by Diamond Dave.

    Here DownUnder we weren’t exposed to the same level of MTV onslaught as our fellow overseas fans (certainly not in my part of the world that’s fer sure), so being spared the Live debut of Why Can’t This Be Love was probably a good thing, instead getting to hear the record as intended, on the turntable and LOUD! \m/

    5150 was and remains one of my fave listens of the 80’s! An album moving away from the circus and showy Roth era and into a modern 80’s was an album worth exploring (okay, so they stumbled finding their way live for a bit but the plastic sounded ace!), but an album of its time, a MOMENT! Thought most the tunes were fantastic regardless of being products of their time, but agree the highlights are indeed the magnificent Summer Nights and 5150 the title track, both remain constants on my own stereo to this day!

    Would love to get Mike’s reviews for OU812, even if it lacks the nostalgic value of 5150 I agree OU812 the stronger record! 5150; Good album good times which was looking back, probably what the band intended all along ;)

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    1. OU812 and the double live album(s) are the only VH I have yet to review! So I will definitely get there. OU812 I have played so often I could review it in my sleep.

      My copy of OU812 is interesting. I have a second CD, a 3″ CD single for FInish What Ya Started with a remix version on it. The remix sounds extremely similar to the original, but I don’t know anything about it. I bought the 3″ CD in my store for $2, it had no case or anything. So I stuck it in my OU812 so I’d have a place to store it.

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      1. Interesting.

        Ya know sadly the only 1 tune from OU812 I never liked from release date even, was Finish What Ya Started. I know it was a fan fave and a nice departure for the band but thought it just too Hagar solo-like bland and IMO had no place on a VH record :( Still, would be interesting to read what else came with that 3″

        Poor production issues aside, I otherwise felt OU812 as good as 5150 but to be fair that realization was some time after the fact probably during the 90’s. Ed is just insane on that album and Hagar has really settled in.

        Have you read Popoff’s interview with Hagar regarding the album? Ye Old Metal OU812 is now only available as a Popoff $1 Ebook but is a great read about the songwriting for OU812 and band in general coming off the back of the 5150 record :)

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      2. Nice one Mike, hit play only today first track on the vinyl being the exceptional Mine All Mine, all class! Really looking forward to yer OU812 review thoughts and your usual assortment of scans and naturally… WIRED! \m/

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        1. Hope you like what I came up with Wardy. Not sure when it will be posted yet but within the next 10 days I reckon.

          (My creative process requires a incubation period for proof reads and re-writes.)

          Like the 5150 review it should be nostalgic and humourous and honest!

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  11. For me, this album brings a lot of memories of my college days with the songs a constant accompaniment to studying, hunched over my notebooks. To chill out moments on top of the roof, driving back to the city with the top down, and just about anywhere I could lug my Hitachi cassette player. I was blown away by this album. I liked very much the keyboard led songs – there was harmony that I could sing along. I was blown away too by the Live MTV footage of Van Hagar. This album, along with the other great ones by other artists of the time, defined the 80’s for me. How I wish I could go back in time and rock all over again to 5150!!!

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  12. I will have you to know those were my shoes and Sammy didn’t have me throw them up on stage. I just did it and they so happened to get spray painted. It was not set up

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    1. I don’t think Craig assumed it was set up. His comment is more that David Lee Roth gets panties and bras but Sammy gets shoes. It’s more a comment about Dave vs. Sammy, who Craig doesn’t like nearly as much. Cheers!

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