Van Halen formed in 1974 but emerged in public view with the 1978 release of their self-titled debut album, which quickly established them as the hottest American hard-rock band since Aerosmith. Van Halen reinvigorated hard rock during a period of doldrums by bringing youthful, West Coast bravado and blistering virtuosity to the genre. Much of the latter was provided by Eddie Van Halen, who exhibited blinding speed, control and innovation on the guitar. His two-handed fretboard-tapping was just one technique that he introduced to legions of young guitarists. Counterpointing Eddie’s musical genius was vocalist David Lee Roth, a flamboyant extrovert whose gruff voice, salacious wit and gymnastic moves sparked Van Halen’s live shows. Rounding out the quartet were Alex Van Halen (Eddie’s brother), a thunderous and inventive drummer, and bassist and harmony singer Michael Anthony.
Van Halen came together in Pasadena, California, where all four lived and went to school. Born in the Netherlands, the Van Halen brothers were the sons of a classical musician who relocated the family to Southern California in 1962. Roth’s opthalmologist father moved the family to Pasadena from Indiana. Anthony hailed from Chicago. Members of rival high-school bands, all four of them wound up attending Pasadena City College, where they combined forces as Mammoth and then dropped out to pursue their rock and roll dreams. Eventually, Warner Bros. offered the group a contract. Because there was already another Mammoth, the group renamed itself Van Halen, at Roth’s suggestion.
Released in 1978, Van Halen’s self-titled album opened with a virtuosic blast of energy from Eddie entitled “Eruption.” It included a hard-rock remake of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and such powerhouse originals as “Running with the Devil” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love.” Van Halen peaked at Number 19 but stayed on the charts for more than three years. After 30 years and 11 studio releases—four of which reached Number One—Van Halen remains the band’s top seller, with U.S. sales of more than 10 million. The band’s other blockbuster, 1984, has also surpassed the 10 million mark. To date, Van Halen has sold more than 56 million records in the U.S., which places them among the top 20 best-selling artists of all time.
Van Halen followed up its initial success with a string of dependably hard-rocking albums on a yearly timetable: Van Halen II (1979), Women and Children First (1980), Fair Warning (1981) and Diver Down (1982). In concert, the group delivered its self-described “big rock” with deafening intensity and bacchanalian abandon. Roth derived inspiration from such pre-rock entertainers as Al Jolson and Louis Prima, and the combination of his showmanship and the Van Halen brothers’ musical acumen proved irresistible.
The band hit a pinnacle with 1984, which was issued in that portentous year. The album had little to do with George Orwell’s novel of the same name, except for implicitly debunking its dire prophecies with some of the year’s hardest-rocking party music. 1984 contains three classics—"Jump," “Panama” and “Hot for Teacher"—that became staples of both Van Halen’s live show and MTV. However, interpersonal strains between Roth —who cut a successful solo EP (Crazy from the Heat) and began eying a film career— and his band mates resulted in what Roth later termed a “bitter and ugly divorce” in the wake of their 1984 world tour.
However, Van Halen bounced back strong following Roth’s departure. The group recruited Sammy Hagar, who sang and played guitar. Hagar had started out with the hard-rock group Montrose and had a highly successful solo career. He fit well with Van Halen, with whom he was more personally compatible than his predecessor. In fact, the newly harmonious group scored its first Number One album with 5150, on which Hagar handles lead vocals. It was the first of four consecutive chart-topping studio albums—the others being OU812, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance—from the reconfigured lineup. Even the 1993 double-disc Live: Right Here, Right Now made the Top Five. Meanwhile, the second incarnation of Van Halen often found itself on the singles charts with such hits as “Why Can’t This Be Love” (Number Three), “When It’s Love” (Number Five), “Top of the World” (Number 27) and “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” (Number 30).
Much less successful was Van Halen III (1998), the sole Van Halen album recorded with former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone after Hagar’s ouster in 1996. Despite that commercial lapse, the Van Halen catalog has otherwise displayed remarkable consistency, with all 10 studio albums from the Roth and Hagar eras having been certified multi-platinum (more than one million copies sold). Although the merits of each vocalist’s tenure have been hotly debated, it should be noted that both halves of Van Halen’s career succeeded for different reasons. The first era worked because of the band members’ differences with Roth, while the second half worked because of their similarities with Hagar.