Van Halen Album History: The Stories Behind All 12 Records
Van Halen's studio output consists of 12 albums.
Between 1978 and 1984, the band put out six records that showcased the groundbreaking guitar work of Eddie Van Halen, the leering, innuendo-laced lyrics of David Lee Roth and the muscular rhythm section of bassist Michael Anthony and drummer Alex Van Halen. Roth left for a solo career after the mammoth 1984 and was replaced by Sammy Hagar.
Roth's departure allowed Van Halen to redefine themselves with their new singer, heading into a synth-heavy, radio-friendly sound. But after four albums, all of which went to No. 1, they parted ways. Extreme's Gary Cherone took over for one album, and then there was a nearly 14-year hiatus before Roth returned for one last LP in 2012.
Below we recap Van Halen's Album History: The Stories Behind All 12 Records. You'll also find links to read more about each LP.
'Van Halen' (1978)
Van Halen's debut cut against the grain of punk and disco, which were dominating the musical landscape in the mid-'70s, by taking everything great about hard rock and giving more of it. They had the requisite dynamic between singer David Lee Roth and guitarist Eddie Van Halen, but they went several notches higher, with Roth adding a degree of Vegas-y camp to his horndog lyrics while Van Halen practically redefined the sound of the electric guitar.
Read More: How Van Halen's Debut Changed Rock History
'Van Halen II' (1979)
Like many young bands of the day, Van Halen's instant success put them in a bind, $2 million in debt and a label demand for a quick follow-up. Fortunately, they had a few songs left over from their demo ("Bottoms Up!," "Outta Love Again" and "D.O.A.") and were able to work up a cover of Betty Everett's "You're No Good" and write new six originals. One of the new tracks, "Dance the Night Away," became their first single to make the Top 20.
Read More: How Van Halen's Streak Continued With 'Van Halen II'
'Women and Children First' (1980)
With the formula established on their first two records, Van Halen began tinkering on Women and Children First. Always in search of new sounds, Eddie Van Halen continued playing around with guitars and effects pedals; the LP also featured his first studio experiments with keyboards, which would prove much more successful a few years later. Meanwhile, Roth upset his bandmates by hiring Helmut Newton to shoot the cover photo, which seemed to focus more on the singer before a different photographer was brought in.
Read More: How Van Halen Used Tension to Build 'Women and Children First'
'Fair Warning' (1981)
Fair Warning was where the fundamental differences between Van Halen's two creative forces began to reveal themselves on record. Eddie Van Halen's desire to move in new directions ran up against Roth's insistence to keep the good times rolling. To combat this, the guitarist would often go back into the studio late at night and re-record his parts to his liking. "The fucked-up thing was, no one even noticed," Van Halen said years later. "That's how uninvolved they were on a musical level."
Read More: When Van Halen Became Dark and Aggressive on 'Fair Warning'
'Diver Down' (1982)
Needing a break, Van Halen recorded a stop-gap version of Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman." But the song became a surprise hit, and Warner Bros. rushed the band back into the studio. Short on material, they fashioned Diver Down out of five cover songs, three brief instrumentals and four new songs. It not only led to criticism that Van Halen were running out of ideas, but it also prompted Eddie Van Halen to build a home studio so he could create music whenever he wanted to.
Read More: Defending Van Halen's Much Maligned 'Diver Down'
The opening synthesizer strains of "Jump" ushered in a new era for Van Halen. But 1984 wasn't a total retooling of their sound - there was still plenty of driving rock to be found, particularly in hits like "Panama" and "Hot for Teacher" - but it was nonetheless clear that Eddie Van Halen was looking ahead. The record led to a split between the guitarist and Roth, who soon left the band for a solo career.
Read More: A Look Back at Van Halen's '1984'
The arrival of Sammy Hagar could have meant the end for Van Halen if fans weren't willing to adjust to the new singer. But the success of 5150, with Foreigner's Mick Jones serving as co-producer on the No. 1 album, proved they didn't lose any of 1984's momentum. The album helped shape the sound of mainstream rock for the next few years.
Read More: When Van Halen Started the Sammy Hagar Era With '5150'
OU812 proved 5150 was no fluke, repeating its predecessor's No. 1 peak and giving Van Halen a Top 5 smash with the soaring power ballad "When It's Love." Even though the album is remembered for its keyboard-heavy sound, the band also made room for more traditional VH fare like "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)," the bluesy "Finish What Ya Started" and a cover of Little Feat's "A Apolitical Blues."
Read More: Revisiting Van Halen's Monster 'OU812' Album
'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge' (1991)
On For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, Van Halen entered the '90s with a cleaner approach than found on the previous two records. Andy Johns (whose long career stretched back to Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones) produced, but the record took more than a year to make; Hagar later said he and Eddie Van Halen were spending more time racing cars than working on music. The time spent on the album paid off in the end. The album was their third consecutive chart-topper and spawned six singles at rock radio, three of which - "Poundcake," "Runaround" and "Top of the World" - reached No. 1.
Read More: How Van Halen Reached Back on 'For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge'
In the four years between For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and Balance, alternative rock and hip-hop became the dominant radio force. While Van Halen didn't deliberately alter their sound to keep up, the album's first single, "Don't Tell Me (What Love Can Do)," didn't sound totally out of step with the times. "It wasn’t what Van Halen fans wanted," Hagar said. "It showed the darkness of Van Halen, and basically the end of the band." The singer wasn't exaggerating: He left a year later.
Read More: Why 'Balance' Didn't Seem Like Van Halen's Last Sammy Hagar Album
'Van Halen III' (1998)
Van Halen recruited Extreme singer Gary Cherone to replace Hagar, and with him came a change in the way they wrote. For the first time, Eddie Van Halen was writing to pre-composed lyrics; before, Roth and Hagar would pen words to the guitarist's music. The result, III, was met with middling response. Cherone was given the lion's share of blame, but too much of the material lacked the focus of the band's best work. The Cherone era disintegrated as Van Halen tried to make a second album.
Read More: The Troubled History of Van Halen's 'III' With Gary Cherone
'A Different Kind of Truth' (2012)
After the Cherone debacle and an ill-fated reunion tour with Hagar, Van Halen made peace with Roth. In 2007 they went on a U.S. tour - with Eddie Van Halen's son Wolfgang replacing bassist Michael Anthony - but it took five years for a new album to be released. Arriving in 2012, A Different Kind of Truth saw the band reaching way back into their archives for material; some songs originated from demos recorded before their debut album even came out. It turned out to be the last Van Halen album released before Eddie's death in October 2020.
Read More: Why Looking Back Worked on Van Halen's 'Different Kind of Truth'