Thursday, September 18, 2008

Diamond Dave Vs. Slammin' Sammy - Round One

Anyone who’s been a fan, hardcore or casual, of hard rock legends Van Halen, would probably have a firm opinion on which of the band’s two long term lead singers is their favourite. From most of the opinion’s I’ve read or heard over the years, the majority would come down in favour of ‘Diamond’ David Lee Roth. I’ll go out on a limb and say for mine, Sammy Hagar is my preferred option. Sure Diamond Dave had more style, more flare, more panache, more stage presence, more outrageous humour, more ‘rock star’ charisma, more high kicks, more affability…..but for me it comes down to Sammy Hagar simply being a better vocalist. That said it’s not that I don’t have a lasting appreciation for all that ‘Diamond’ Dave did (and once again does) contribute to one of my all time favourite artists. Rather than focus on what both Roth and Hagar have done for Van Halen, I thought I’d take a closer look at what both did post and pre their tenures with the band. Oh and I’m not forgetting Gary Cherone’s short stint with Van Halen, but I’ll explore more of his career via a future post on Extreme.

In the blue corner, born in Bloomington Indiana in 1955, the hyperactive, flamboyant, high kicking David Lee Roth. During his childhood he was exposed to the music of Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and the like, which would surface later on in his career. Roth moved to Pasadena as a teenager, became hooked on rock music, and soon found himself fronting a hard rock outfit calling themselves Mammoth during 1973, recruited from rival band Red Ball Jets. Within two years Mammoth was extinct, but in its place was Van Halen, comprising Roth on lead vocals, Michael Anthony on bass, and the Van Halen brothers, Eddie on guitar and older brother Alex on drums. During Roth’s residence with the band they went from popular covers band on L.A.’s Sunset Strip to arguably the biggest hard rock/metal band in the world. In all Van Halen released six full length studio albums with Roth at the helm, from 1978’s eponymous debut to 1984’s ‘1984’. They had also become one of the biggest stadium headline acts in the world, with high energy over the top stage antics a trademark, and David Lee Roth was the cornerstone of that act.

Following the runaway mainstream success of the ‘1984’ album (US#2/OZ#11/UK#15) which featured Van Halen’s biggest hit single ‘Jump’ (US#1/OZ#2), the band undertook a sell out world tour during which Roth’s death defying stage antics reached new heights, as did his hamstring stretching high kicks (thank goodness for spandex). But Roth’s personality was always in danger of proving too big for Van Halen. In early 1985 he released the EP ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (US#15/UK#91), which featured Roth doing what Roth does best - having a ball! The first single lifted was a cover of the Beach Boys’ classic ‘California Girls’, featuring backing vocals from Beach Boys’ legend Carl Wilson. The accompanying promo video was simply brilliant, throwing political correctness out the door in favour of tongue in cheek lewdness. The video was an MTV staple, helping to push ‘California Girls’ up to #3 on the U.S. Hot 100 in early ‘85, the song also rocketing to #6 in Australia soon after (UK#60). The follow up single ‘Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody’ was a high energy take on the classic medley arrangement originally recorded by Louis Prima back in 1956 (the song ‘Just A Gigolo’ had originally been a U.S.#1 for Ted Lewis in 1931, whilst ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ harked back to 1921 when it was a U.S.#3 for Marion Harris). Once again the promo video was pure brilliance, with Roth’s sly, mischievous, and at times self effacing humour, shining through. The single was rewarded with a peak position of #12 in the U.S. and #13 in Australia. It was mooted that Roth was trying to raise the finance to produce a full length film around his music.

Throughout the first half of 1985 rumours were also prevalent that Roth was intending to pursue a solo career as a fulltime concern amid on going animosity between he and Eddie in particular. The split from his Van Halen band mates was confirmed during June 1985, leaving Van Halen to carry on as a trio until they could decide on a replacement vocalist for Roth (but that story will be explored further in ‘Round Two’). ‘Diamond’ Dave then made a few calls and soon had a crack line-up of rock talent on duty to record his debut full length solo album ‘Eat ‘Em And Smile’ (US#4/UK#28/OZ#26), including Steve Vai (guitar) and ex-Mr. Big bassist Billy Sheehan. Released in mid ‘86, the album garnered rave reviews from the rock press, yielding the US#16 hit single ‘Yankee Rose’ (OZ#33). Roth imbued every track with his fervent vocal energy, backed by an infectious showmanship which shone through in the promotional videos for the follow up singles ‘Goin’ Crazy!’ (US#66) and ‘That’s Life’ (US#85 - the old Frank Sinatra hit) later in 1986. The album also featured Roth’s take on the old Nashville Teens hit ‘Tobacco Road’. It was a first class response from David Lee Roth to the mammoth success his old band mates in Van Halen were enjoying during the same period with their new album ‘5150’, featuring new front man Sammy Hagar.

Roth’s next album ‘Skyscraper’ (US#6/UK#11/OZ#15) appeared on the musical skyline in January ‘88. The album’s cover featured the singer posing whilst climbing a sheer cliff face (I’m surprised he wasn’t attempting a high kick at the same time). The first single ‘Just Like Paradise’ was one of my favourite tracks of the year, and the high energy track was indicative of the larger than life, almost action blockbuster, feel to the album. ‘Just Like Paradise’ climbed all the way to an altitude of #6 on the U.S. Hot 100, whilst ascending to #27 in Britain and #14 in Australia. The follow up ‘Stand Up’ (US#64/UK#72) didn’t quite manage to find its feet on the charts though.

Prior to the release of Roth’s next album, his sidekicks from the last two sets Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan departed the scene, leaving 1991’s ‘A Little Ain’t Enough’ (US#18/UK#4/OZ#20) lacking some of the instrumental verve of previous efforts. All the same the album went platinum and yielded the hit overseas single ‘A Lil’ Ain’t Enough’ (UK#32/OZ#40). Roth was reportedly disappointed with the overall reception afforded the album, that disappointment no doubt magnified by the fact the Hagar model of Van Halen notched up their third consecutive U.S. #1 album during 1991 with ‘For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge’ (you can decipher the acronym for yourself).

In the ensuing few years Roth relocated to New York City and recruited an all new band for his next album. Personal problems led into the recording of 1994’s ‘Your Filthy Little Mouth’ (UK#28/US#78), produced by the omniscient Nile Rodgers. In April 1993 Roth had been arrested while purchasing $10 worth of marijuana in Washington Square Park (for which he received one year’s probation). No doubt the quality of the album suffered as a result of Roth’s loss of focus (from the arrest not the marijuana), and the only songs lifted from the set that charted were the singles ‘She’s My Machine’ (UK#64), and ‘Night Life’ (UK#72), which had originally been recorded by Willie Nelson of all people. An attempt to break into the lucrative Vegas circuit also received a tepid reception, and it seemed by the mid 90s that ‘Diamond’ Dave had lost some of his sparkle on the American scene, though when confronted by a microphone he was never short of a memorable quote. It was fortuitous then that this coincided with a period when all was not well within the Van Halen camp, leading to a split between Hagar and the group, and an unexpected but welcome reunion between Roth and his former outfit (cue the brown M&Ms!).

At the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards Roth appeared alongside the other three Van Halen members in a show of born again solidarity. They had already recorded a number of new tracks in the months prior, two of which were included on the 1996 Van Halen release ‘Best Of: Volume 1’ (‘Can’t Get This Stuff No More’ and ‘Me Wise Magic’). But the solidarity apparently didn’t extend back stage as Eddie and Dave almost came to blows. Apparently someone let the cat out of the bag regards Van Halen having already hired ex-Extreme frontman Gary Cherone as their new singer.

As is often the way with disgruntled celebrities, Roth penned a warts and all biography in 1997 title ‘Crazy From The Heat’, and a ‘Best Of’ album was released on Rhino Records soon after. In 1998 ‘Diamond’ Dave released his first new album in four years titled ‘DLR Band’ (US#172). It was a stripped down, back to basics sound that focused on kick ass rock with attitude. Critics and Roth fans alike were glowing in their praise for the set, a stark contrast to the reception offered the Cherone led ‘Van Halen III’. That particular disaster led to the prompt dismissal of Cherone from Van Halen, and once again the rumour mill went into overdrive regards Roth’s return to the Van Halen fold. In April 2001 Roth announced that he and Van Halen had indeed recorded some new material in the studio, but any thought of an immediate reunion was put on hold by Eddie Van Halen’s battled with cancer over the ensuing 12 months. Roth got back to his own solo career with 2003’s ‘Diamond Dave’ (US#18), a collection of rock covers echoing some of his classic Van Halen work, that received a warm reception all round. In early 2006 Roth tried his hand as a ‘shock jock’ on radio, and recorded the low key album ‘Strummin’ With The Devil: The Southern Side Of Van Halen’, a bluegrass style tribute to the music of his old band, a strong indicator that Roth still held the band close to his heart.

In January 2007 the announcement most Van Halen fans had been waiting more than 20 years for finally materialised. David Lee Roth would be joining Eddie, Alex and Eddie’s son Wolfgang on an extensive tour. The tour took a while to actually get off the ground, due mainly to Eddie’s ongoing substance abuse issues and subsequent stints in rehab. The tour finally launched in September 2007 and over the next nine months they played 74 sell out shows on their North American tour, with Roth still able to out high kick a Vegas showgirl. A new album and world tour are reportedly in the works, but as with anything Van Halen and Roth related - we’ll believe it when it happens.

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