Van Halen’s ‘5150’ Vs. David Lee Roth’s ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ – Great Rock Debates
Rock and roll history is rife with intra-band family feuds, but perhaps none received quite as much publicity or caused a bigger fan base rift than Van Halen’s ugly divorce from singer David Lee Roth in 1985. Certainly, this was the battle royal of ‘80’s hard rock! After all, no other American band did quite as much as the Roth-fronted Van Halen to set the template later aspired to by future generations of bands. It therefore stands to reason that the debate over which of the first albums released by these warring factions — the Sammy Hagar-fronted Van Halen and hastily assembled David Lee Roth band — is better continues to polarize hard rock fans to this day. We asked two writers to each argue one side of this debate, and here’s what they had to say:
‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ is Better Than ‘5150’
by Eduardo Rivadavia
Here’s the thing you have to understand about this argument: no one — or at least no one who actually cared about Van Halen prior to ‘Jump’’s unprecedented crossover into the pop charts — sided with Roth when his departure from the band became official that summer. Between the undoubtedly amusing but unnervingly kitsch cover tunes heard on Roth’s 1985 solo EP, ‘Crazy from the Heat,’ and the singer’s sheer egotistical overexposure, most Van Halen fans (including yours truly) were nearly as fed up with Diamond Dave’s antics as Eddie, Alex and Michael. “Good riddance,” we said!
But when the newly minted “Van Hagar” unveiled their first collaboration, ‘5150,’ in March of 1986, its synthesizer-drenched, thoroughly modern contents veered so radically from Van Halen’s beloved old blueprint that diehard fans couldn’t help but question their loyalty. And when the surprisingly formidable David Lee Roth band (complete with a guitar hero of its own in the inimitable Steve Vai), surprised most everyone that July by appealing to that nostalgic VH aesthetic with ‘Eat ‘em and Smile,’ the battle lines were formally drawn.
Sure, ‘Eat ‘em and Smile,’ also boasted a sugary sweet single in ‘Goin’ Crazy!’ (still better than ‘Dreams’!) and another pair of insufferable classic pop covers (‘I’m Easy,’ ‘That’s Life’), but it also packed a wealth of electrifying, athletic rockers in ‘Yankee Rose,’ ‘Shyboy’ and ‘Elephant Gun’ — all of them bursting with the sort of fleet-fingered guitar showboating and larger-than-life personalities Van Halen fans were hungering for. Heck, even the Roth band’s rare true experiments — namely the sultry cult favorite ‘Ladies Nite in Buffalo?’ — fared better than Van Hagar’s wholesale departure into synth-rock (not to mention the pointless avant-garde filler that was ‘Inside’).
So while ‘Eat ‘em and Smile’ is anything but perfect, you have to admit, wherever you stand on the still far-from-settled Roth vs. Hagar debate, that the red-hot parts of ‘Eat ‘em and Smile’ share a lot more in common with ‘Unchained’ than anything found on the calculated, cold and clinical ‘5150.’
‘5150’ is Better Than ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’
by Matt Wardlaw
David Lee Roth is never at a loss for words — and he chose them well when taking stock of his vocal arch-nemesis Sammy Hagar’s work in comparison to his own. As the pair were preparing to launch an unlikely co-headlining tour in 2002, Roth quipped, “Sam throws a party. I am the party.”
But which party was better? In 1986, both Van Halen and Roth were at a crucial crossroads as they prepared their first post-breakup releases. Roth appeared to have one clear advantage — he was moving forward with the recognizable multi-platinum voice, which can be a big hole for a band to fill.
But most bands don’t have the luxury of having Eddie Van Halen in their arsenal. Since he was clearly established as one of the genre’s most important guitar players, there was little doubt that there would be interested eyes and ears waiting to hear what he and his bandmates would do next in the recording studio.
No question, the choice of Hagar as Van Halen’s new singer caused more than a few fans to scratch their heads. Remember, this was an era where vocalist swaps weren’t quite as common as today’s practice of finding a clone of your current singer on YouTube. But as Hagar — who had built a formidable resume of work both solo and with Montrose — would prove with his debut on ‘5150,’ his presence gave Van Halen the necessary tools to satisfy in a whole new way.
Of course, Van Halen had begun to explore more melodic pastures with the ‘1984’ album, bringing keyboards prominently into the mix on songs like ‘I’ll Wait’ and ‘Jump.’ But they were now able to take those ideas even further on ‘5150′ with songs like ‘Why Can’t This Be Love’ and ‘Dreams.’ There was even — yikes! — a power balled, ‘Love Walks In.’
Hagar also helped the band to score their first-ever No. 1 album (the first of several) with ‘5150.’ Many can lament that Van Halen with Roth was more of a “party” band, but future tequila billionaire Hagar certainly brought his own good times into the mix. Van Hagar concerts often felt like close and personal — okay, maybe drunken — family reunions.
David Lee Roth is the party? Fair enough — but Hagar brought songwriting consistency and more importantly expanded range to Van Halen. Most of ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile’ depended on old tricks to succeed, and sometimes relied too heavily on flash and Roth’s personality instead of substance. As his 1988 follow-up ‘Skyscraper‘ proved even more clearly, even if you assemble the absolute best army of players — and Bissonette, Sheehan and Vai certainly fit that description — a strong songwriting chemistry needs to be in place in order to achieve career longevity.
But there’s no need to look ahead. Song for song, ‘5150’ is ultimately a better album than ‘Eat ‘Em and Smile.’ Against all odds, lightning struck twice for Van Halen as the combination of Hagar, Eddie and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony built a collaborative brotherhood that in 1986 felt pretty special. Today, even though that partnership is regrettably long fractured, ‘5150’ still holds up.