80s Idols

Backyard Parties and Unbridled Genius: The Story of How Van Halen Came to Be

Let’s step back in time and reminisce about those carefree days when the world didn’t know the band that would later be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Before They Were Legends

In the early ‘70s, Eddie and Alex Van Halen were just kids in Broken Combs, Eddie on piano and Alex on saxophone. Their small one-bedroom house became their rehearsal space, with a snare, cymbal, and their first drums. They evolved into Genesis.

Getting busted for pot led to Eddie leaving Marshall Junior High School, but their backyard gigs eventually led them to Hollywood. Dave Lee Roth joined the band, which changed names multiple times until finally settling on Van Halen.

Alex Van Halen recalls auditions at various clubs and their initial reluctance to include Roth, who had a loud and confident persona but needed improvement in singing. Michael Anthony joined after a PA mishap at a show, and they quickly bonded.

Early Performances

Pasadena couldn’t contain the rising force of Van Halen. They transitioned from infamous ‘keg’ parties to booking shows beyond their hometown. Flash bombs, car horns triggered by Alex, and Edward’s Echoplex antics were staples in their performances. They even conquered venues like the Handlebar Saloon, a small joint with a stage the size of a kitchen table, packing it with fans. 

Despite pressure to conform, Van Halen remained true to their Southern California spirit and defied limitations with a rebellious attitude that echoed the sentiment of their fans: “No, you can’t stop us.”

Hollywood Beckons and the Breakthrough

Bill Gazzari, the owner of a renowned club, Gazarri’s, hosted a Battle Of The Bands Showcase, and Van Halen’s audition caught his attention. Over the years, they progressed from opening acts to headlining at Gazarri’s. Their journey continued with a move to The Starwood, another famous Hollywood venue. Gene Simmons from Kiss was one of the early believers in their talent, and he offered to help them secure a deal.

Eventually, Van Halen signed with Warner Bros: “We had an attorney, and he cut the worst deal for us you could imagine.”

During the recording of their first album, self-titled, songs like Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love were born in minutes – Ed had the music, Dave sang, and Ted fine-tuned. Harmony, a signature Van Halen trait, set them apart from other metal bands, and their fast-paced studio work contrasted with lengthy overdubs by bands like Toto. And voilà – No. 19 on the Billboard pop music charts and over 10 million copies sold in the States.

Platinum Albums, Chart-Topping Hits, and Changing Lineups

Between 1980 and 1982, the band unleashed four more albums – Van Halen II, Women and Children First, Fair Warning, and Diver Down. Each of these records achieved multi-platinum status and confirmed Van Halen’s place as one of the era’s most triumphant rock acts. 

In 1984, the pinnacle of their success arrived with the eponymous album 1984. This record boasted US sales of 10 million copies, as well as delivered four chart-topping singles.

A year later, Roth left the band to pursue a solo career, and Sammy Hagar, the former lead vocalist of Montrose, took his place. With Hagar, Van Halen achieved four multi-platinum albums, each hitting number one in the US – 5150, OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, and Balance. After Hagar’s departure in 1996, Gary Cherone of Extreme briefly joined the band for the less successful Van Halen III. A reunion with Hagar in 2003 led to a world tour and the Best of Both Worlds collection. 

Curious about more lineup rollercoaster moments? Brace yourself! In 2005, Hagar made his exit, and Roth made a grand comeback. Then, Eddie’s son, Wolfgang Van Halen, took up the bass guitar.

In 2012, they released their final studio album, A Different Kind of Truth.

The Legacy and the American Dream

The enduring debate among Van Halen fans: Roth’s pre-1985 era or the Hagar-dominated Van Hagar years from ‘85 to ‘96? Well, it seems a bit unnecessary. Each frontman brought their unique strengths and quirks to the table, but both shared the stage with the legendary Eddie Van Halen. So, is it really worth dissecting?

In hindsight, as we look back at those famous videos and read new evaluations of the band, some might label them as part of the stereotypical ‘80s rock scene or find humour in their playful album titles. But doing so would be a grave disservice. In reality, Van Halen is a classic story of how dedication, hard work, and passion for music led to both success and the creation of some fantastic tunes.

“If you want to be a rock star or just be famous, then run down the street naked, you’ll make the news or something. But if you want music to be your livelihood, then play, play, play and play!” Eddie Van Halen

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