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Alex Van Halen

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BROTHERS Edward and Alex Van Halen were born in Holland and moved with their family to Pasadena, California, as children. Although both were trained as classical pianists, it was pop music that interested them most. Originally, it was Alex who played guitar, and Eddie who played drums. But while Eddie was out delivering newspapers, Alex would practice on his drums, and soon he had superseded his brother's ability. Not to be outdone, Eddie decided to switch to guitar.


Mike and Eddie

After high school, the brothers played in various cover bands, and in the process, rented equipment from an Indiana native named David Lee Roth, who sang in a local band called the Red Ball Jets. As Eddie had never aspired to be a singer, he convinced Roth to join his band, which they then dubbed Mammoth. One particular gig found the band sharing a bill with Snake, which led to a meeting and jam session with Snake's bass player and singer, Michael Anthony. Impressed, the Van Halen brothers and Roth asked Anthony to join their band. In late 1975 or early 1976, the group discovered that there was another band called Mammoth, and while several other names were suggested, the quartet decided to use Eddie and Alex's last name, Van Halen.

From the start, Van Halen enjoyed the blessings of talent and luck. In 1976, Gene Simmons of KISS caught the band playing at a small club and offered to produce demos for them (they had no record deal at the time). Soon after, Warner Brothers' house-producer Ted Templeman who went on to oversee most of Van Halen's albums — saw the band, and convinced label executive Mo Ostin to sign them.

Van Halen's self-titled first album endures as a testament to the group's vision, and set the standard for which a new generation of hard-rocking bands would strive. Although the rhythm section was solid, it was the combination of David Lee Roth's flamboyant, sultry vocals and Eddie Van Halen's guitar playing that gave the record its shape and vast appeal. Roth strutted as much as he sang, his lyrics brimming with libido ("Feel Your Love Tonight"), braggadocio ("Atomic Punk"), and mayhem ("Running With the Devil"). And the metal edge they gave to a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," immediately distanced Van Halen from the sixties supergroups that were still dominating rock radio.


Edddie tapping

Eddie Van Halen became a role model for modern guitarists, regardless of their tastes and preferences. His talent and skill were unquestioned, and he demonstrated a dazzling array of techniques, from simple riffs to extended solos filled with intricate fret work. "Eruption," an instrumental track on the first album, became his calling card as it was transformed into a lengthy showcase during concerts.

Van Halen II sounded subdued in comparison to the debut, but "Dance the Night Away" and "Beautiful Girls" proved the band capable of playing in a less insistent style. Women and Children First (1980) was somewhat experimental, using keyboards and guitars to produce percussive sounds on "And the Cradle Will Rock." Their fourth release, Fair Warning (1981), was another flourish. Vaguely prescient of urban decay and unrest, Van Halen — especially Eddie — played more urgently than on their previous two records. Roth, meanwhile, continued to pen songs like "'Dirty Movies,'" tailor-made for Van Halen's adolescent following. Diver Down followed in 1982, and was a mixed bag: five of its twelve songs were covers, ranging from Martha and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" to the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans standard "Happy Trails." Controversy ensued after the video for "(Oh) Pretty Woman" showed David Lee Roth dressed as an ugly one. While Diver Down wasn't the band's best work, Van Halen was as popular as ever, and headlined one day of the mammoth U.S. Festival concerts in Southern California in 1983.

1984, the album, established Van Halen as the unquestioned leaders of a legion of glam-metal acts. It was a return to form, and it found the band again toying with its sound. "Panama" and "I'll Wait" are still rock-radio staples, but "Jump" was the breakthrough, and Van Halen's first No. 1 single. With a catchy keyboard riff, a dizzying Eddie Van Halen solo, and a lip-synched performance video, Van Halen left hard-rock stardom for the commercial mainstream.

In 1985, David Lee Roth released a solo EP, Crazy From the Heat. Buoyed by the favorable reception to novelty covers of "Just a Gigolo" and "California Girls," he left Van Halen to pursue a solo career. Although Roth drafted some capable musicians to help him, notably guitarist Steve Vai, he quickly discovered that he could not duplicate the creative or commercial prowess of Van Halen. The decline of his solo career left him little more than a reference point for rock-and-roll failure.

The remaining trio of Van Halen considered numerous replacements, and even discussed the idea of a series of temporary singers. Eddie mentioned this to the mechanic working on his Lamborghini, and was told that Sammy Hagar's car happened to be in the shop. Singer-rhythm guitarist Hagar was a veteran of the band Montrose, and had just scored a solo hit with his testosterone-fueled single "I Can't Drive 55." Eddie called Hagar, and arranged for the singer to meet the band. Soon after, Hagar officially replaced Roth.

The "new" Van Halen released 5150 in 1986. Three hit songs — "Why Can't This Be Love," "Best of Both Worlds," and "Love Walks In" — spurred the album, and it became Van Halen's first to top the Billboard charts. Hagar revitalized the band, contributing a fresh, radio-friendly sound beyond his vocals. A pop feel also dominated OU812, released in 1988, and 1991's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge showed further refinement of Hagar-era Van Halen. From the latter, "Right Now" was another ace: in addition to its undeniably catchy chorus, it gained the band enormous MTV exposure thanks to its smart, subtitled video. The song was subsequently used to promote the failed clear cola Crystal Pepsi. Van Halen released a live album in 1993 that included several covers and a couple of older songs, but primarily focused on Hagar's years with the band.


Van Halen, with Sammy

Balance (1995) rounded out Hagar's tenure, and just when it seemed that Van Halen Version 2.0 would go on forever, something happened. A complex series of events involving a possible reunion with David Lee Roth led to Hagar's departure from the band. Hagar maintained that he was dismissed; Edward (no longer wishing to be called Eddie) said that Hagar left. What is certain is that Roth called Edward Van Halen in the spring of 1996 to ask about his representation on a greatest-hits package that was on the drawing board. The two visited, burying any lingering resentment over their split, and Roth was brought back to sing on two new songs for the best-of CD, "Me Wise Magic" and "Can't Get This Stuff No More." He joined the band in New York for a non-performance appearance at the MTV Video Awards in September of 1996, fueling rumors of a complete reunion album and tour, à la KISS's successful return to American arenas that same year.

Roth later claimed that he wasn't responsible for fanning the fires. "I told Edward at that time that I didn't think it was a good idea for the band to go to New York half-cocked; and that I didn't want to imply by our presence that we were 'back' if in fact it was just a quickie for old time's sake," Roth wrote in an open letter soon after. But even the insinuation that Roth was driving a Van Halen reunion was enough to put him on the outs again. Edward Van Halen rebutted Roth vehemently in print, and just a few weeks later, Van Halen drafted its third singer, Gary Cherone, formerly of the band Extreme. The first album with Cherone as lead singer is now expected in the fall of 1997. Meanwhile, Sammy Hagar released his solo album Marching to Mars in March 1997, follwed by Red Voodoo two years later in March 1999.