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.
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.