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David Lee Roth vs. Sammy Hagar: 80s style vs. 90s substance

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Van Halen revolutionized guitar rock when they emerged in 1978. The band developed a fanatical fan base centered on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar and singer David Lee Roth’s antics. Roth became the template for hard rock front men. Over time, the bombastic lead singer became a caricature and infighting drove him out of the band. Van Halen replaced Roth with veteran rocker Sammy Hagar. Hagar was more down to earth and helped reinvent the band. However, fans have debated for decades which singer was superior. In the end, Hagar kept Van Halen relevant, vibrant, and successful while Roth’s career took a downturn despite attempts to recapture the old magic.

Van Halen released six albums with David Lee Roth between 1978 and 1984. Van Halen and 1984 both went diamond while the least successful of the other four went double platinum. Front man David Lee Roth was the face of the band and fans adored him. Van Halen reflected Roth, which led to the reputation as a wild party band. By 1984, Van Halen peaked, they scored their only #1 single with “Jump”, and Roth was on top of the world.

Inner turmoil ripped the band asunder and Van Halen fired Roth in 1985. They contacted Sammy Hagar to fill the vacancy. Hagar was reticent at first. He was a solo artist and was not sure if he wished to relinquish control or split the money four ways. Also, the Red Rocker was concerned over Van Halen’s image. He seemed to feel Roth’s Van Halen was cheesy.

Despite the misgivings, Hagar joined Van Halen. The “Sam Halen” incarnation released four studio albums. The least successful went triple platinum. Hagar brought a slight change of musical style to the band. He infused pop sensibilities, mature themes, and his rhythm guitar. As a result, Hagar filled out Van Halen’s sound and deepened their lyrical content.

Hagar kept Van Halen relevant while Roth sputtered out. Roth’s first two solo albums attempted to emulate Van Halen. He was simply copying his old band. The singer captured lightning in a bottle with Eat ‘Em and Smile in 1986. His next two solo albums went gold, but subsequent releases tanked. Roth became a punch line and a symbol of 1980s excess by the early 1990s. It is probable that Van Halen would have followed suit had he remained with the band. When Roth rejoined the band in 2007, Van Halen moved into the same category as Poison. They became a nostalgia act.

Hagar kept Van Halen relevant. In fact, Hagar albums continued to chart after leaving Van Halen in 1996. In 2009, he formed the super group Chickenfoot and attained a gold record. The follow up reached #9 on the charts. Although rock music is not the force it used to be, Sammy Hagar remains relevant in hard rock circles. There is little doubt that had he remained with Van Halen, the band would still be a top act today.

David Lee Roth was a pop phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. Sammy Hagar is a timeless artist. Roth’s career sputtered as 80s hard rock and metal collapsed under its own excess. Van Halen remained popular and relevant until Hagar left the act. Roth rejoined Van Halen, but could not recapture the old magic. On the other hand, Hagar remains relevant in rock circles. If Roth remained with Van Halen, they would have collapsed and never made the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Had Hagar remained with Van Halen, they would still be platinum artists today.



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