Sammy Hagar is reflecting on Van Halen’s 1986 album, “5150”, as it marks its 30th anniversary this week.
Hagar had the unenviable task of stepping into a role vacated by one or rock’s premiere frontmen, David Lee Roth, as the Los Angeles band attempted the rare feat of replacing their lead singer and continuing with wild success.
Following Roth’s departure, the Red Rocker first appeared on Eddie Van Halen’s radar through a shared connection – their auto mechanic, who promptly suggested the guitarist contact Hagar about the open gig, and the two connected in person the next day.
“We started playing music and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really f***ing good,’" Hagar tells Rolling Stone. “The first songs we did were ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Good Enough.’ I was real impressed with Ed and Al and Mike. They were badass. I had no intentions of joining the band, but then I heard this music. I thought I was going to grab Eddie and go, ‘Hey, come do my next record.’ But when I played with the three of them there was such chemistry and it was so exciting. We played until midnight, about 12 hours without stopping. We jammed a blues song and a bunch of others.
“I went to sleep, woke up the next morning and went, ‘Wow, I'm joining that band.’ That's all it was. It was all about the music. I had nothing to do with fame and fortune, none of that. It was so inspiring.”
The pressure for Van Halen to follow the success of their “1984” album – which delivered the group’s only US No. 1 hit in “Jump” – was so intense that the record labels pushed the lineup to change the name to Van Hagar.
“Yeah, that's what (Van Halen’s label) Warner Bros. and Geffen wanted,” explains Hagar. “I was on Geffen then and David Geffen was talking to Mo Ostin about how it could work. They start saying, ‘What if it don't work?’ I'm sure they tossed around the idea of calling it Van Hagar as an experiment just in case Van Halen got back together. We all said, "No." We were so fearless when we realized what we could all do together.”
Hagar says it wsn’t just the band members that knew it would work.
“Everyone around us got goosebumps,” he adds. “It was magical. That doesn't happen every day. Everyone was jaw-dropping, including Mo Ostin when he walked in and went, ‘Well, can we hear something?’ We played ‘Why Can't This Be Love’ live in the studio. Mo just held up his finger and went, ‘I smell money.’ The road was paved from then on. No one doubted it once they heard five minutes of music.”
“5150” delivered Van Halen their first US No. 1 album after the band were denied top spot with “1984” by the juggernaut created by the best-selling album of all-time, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
On its way to selling more than 6 million copies in the States alone, "5150" delivered five singles, including a US Top 5 hit with the lead track, “Why Can’t This Be Love.”
Fans would learn years later that the Red Rocker was actually Van Halen’s second choice to replace Roth: they originally offered the gig to Scandal singer Patty Smyth.
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