How David Lee Roth Really Left Van Halen
Like the histories of all great rock bands, Van Halen’s past includes some landmark dates. For example, on Feb. 10, 1978, Van Halen’s game-changing debut album was released. On May 29, 1983, Van Halen performed in front of 375,000 fans at the massive US Festival. And on April 1, 1985, singer David Lee Roth shocked the rock world by announcing that he was leaving Van Halen to pursue a solo career.
But as it turns out, this last event didn't really happen on that date or transpire in that manner. With few notable exceptions, this mythical account of Roth’s exit has been presented as gospel truth (including, to be honest, this site), perhaps because the idea of Roth springing this news on April Fools’ Day makes for a great story.
While David Lee Roth did leave the band in 1985, nobody outside of the inner circle knew what the future held for Roth and Van Halen on that April day. Here’s how the world really learned that Roth had left Van Halen.
Van Halen had barely concluded their most successful year when Diamond Dave announced that he’d be releasing Crazy From the Heat, a four-song solo EP of cover songs. In a reflection of the group’s internal tensions, Roth spoke frankly to the press about what his solo work augured for the future of Van Halen. In January 1985 he told Billboard, “Since my very first days in with the band 11 years ago, I have always had the feeling that one day I would wake up in a cold hotel, all the rooms would be empty and I would be stuck by a phone with a busy signal. From the first day. Nothing has changed.” The article’s headline? “Van Halen’s Roth: Maybe It’s Over.”
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In the weeks that followed his EP’s release, he struck a more measured public tone. In February, the Indianapolis News quoted David Lee Roth as saying, “We’ll be going back in the studio and start arguing again and we all look forward to that. ... We have a lot of respect for each other and get along quite well, actually.” Roth later added that even though the group hadn’t started recording, he’d “heard some great music coming out of Ed’s studio.”
Behind the scenes, however, relations between Roth and the rest of the band had hit a nadir. Sometime in March, Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen met at Roth’s Pasadena mansion to discuss the future of the band.
Though it’s unclear exactly what subjects they covered, it seems likely they talked about the timeline for a follow-up to 1984 and a subsequent tour. According to Roth, Eddie Van Halen suggested that after years of grueling world tours, the quartet might support its next LP with a scaled-down schedule of stadium shows, something that Roth later termed a potential “ripoff” for fans.
A more contentious issue concerned Roth’s vision for his proposed Crazy From the Heat film, one that would feature Roth in the starring role. When Roth asked Eddie if he’d be willing to score the movie, Eddie declined. Van Halen told Rolling Stone in 1986 that at that point the discussion came to a grinding halt, with Roth declaring, “I can’t work with you guys anymore. I want to do my movie. Maybe when I’m done, we'll get back together.” After a hug and some tears, the two parted.
Despite these irreconcilable differences, the public was none the wiser at this juncture that Van Halen might actually break up. Indeed, the first of April came and went without any public comment about the band’s status from Roth or any member of Van Halen.
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Perhaps the first clear sense that Van Halen fans got that the band as they’d known it could come to an end came in the heat of the summer.
On July 4, Rolling Stone reported that “Van Halen is on permanent hold. Eddie, who’s rumored to be scouting around for a new lead singer, is writing songs with Patty Smyth and planning to collaborate with Pete Townsend. As for David Lee Roth, he intends to pursue an acting career full time and is developing his own movie.”
Roth, at least when it came to making a definitive statement about the future of Van Halen, remained silent. Eddie, too, had yet to say anything about Van Halen’s lineup to the press.
Then in mid-August, Eddie delivered the bad news in the pages of Rolling Stone. “The band as you know it is over,” he said. “Dave left to be a movie star.” Confirming that Roth had suggested to Eddie that the guitarist should compose music for Crazy From the Heat, Eddie added, “He even had the balls to ask if I’d write the score for him.” Eddie then made clear that he’d moved on. “I’m looking for a new lead singer ... it’s weird that it’s over. Twelve years of my life putting up with his bulls–.”
At this point, the rock world knew the truth. Van Halen, a band that had risen to the pinnacle of rock success in 1984, had broken up.
In late September, Eddie Van Halen performed at the Farm Aid benefit concert with Sammy Hagar as his new partner-in-crime, making clear that Van Halen would continue. For Roth, his ambitions to become a movie star faced a roadblock when CBS Productions, which had made the deal for the film, backed out in March 1986.
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Perhaps understandably, Eddie and the rest of the band would remain embittered about the split even as Van Halen’s first album without Roth, 5150, sat at the top of the charts. In June 1986, Eddie explained to People that tensions with Roth had gotten so bad over the years that he’d wanted to depart Van Halen, even though the music the pair created was fabulous. “I wanted to quit," he said. "One thing about Roth, he’s not half the singer Sammy is, but he is creative. I'm not slagging him about the music. Onstage he was fine. It was offstage that he made having a human relationship impossible.”
David Lee Roth, in contrast, remained reflective. “I've known those guys for the last 10 years,” he said to People. “But like a relationship with a woman, some things just don't work out.”
Roth’s analogy here is spot-on. Much like a divorced couple that can’t fully call it quits, Roth and the rest of Van Halen tried to work together in 1996 and 2000. Only in 2007 did Roth and the Van Halen brothers (by this time, bassist Michael Anthony had been unceremoniously forced out of the band and replaced by Eddie’s son Wolfgang) once again make common cause under the banner of Van Halen. But if the future’s any guide, that could change at any given moment.
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