Van Halen vs. Van Hagar

Everybody else has an opinion on this. Why shouldn't I? Who was the better and more authentic singer for Van Halen, David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar?

I first heard Van Halen in the early '80s when I was a pre-teen. At the time, I was heavily involved in the Christian religion, so I wasn't particularly enamored. At some point, I saw this notorious performance video of David Lee Roth on stage in pants that had no seat in them. I thought it was trashy and sinful. Even then though, I could feel the pull of pop hooks, and all the other boys at school were listening to them. After I grew up more, I started to appreciate the musicality and very high level of instrumental expertise of Van Halen.

I was vaguely aware of David Lee Roth having left Van Halen because it was the talk of my peers and my older sister. I thought I wouldn't miss him, but of course he engaged in his usual show boating in a solo career. "Van Hagar" then formed when the band recruited Sammy Hagar, a successful solo artist known for his hit "I Can't Drive 55," and soon was releasing very radio friendly singles that interested me. They were catchy and featured the synth that I liked and a more grown-up, masculine guitar sound. To be fair, I ended up listening to the later Van Halen albums with Sammy Hagar on cassette before listening to the full albums from the DLR era.

Years later, I went through all of Van Halen's music catalog and I think I can take some positions on the debate. Both guys are fairly good singers with big ranges, though I certainly think most people would analyze Hagar to be a slightly better all around singer. David Lee Roth could be argued to have a more pleasing timbre in the mid-range but that's a matter of opinion. On lyrics, both have some clever lyrics but if you compare song to song I think you will find that Hagar has slightly more grown-up lyrics, even though Van Halen has pretty much always had sex-driven lyrics that are shallow as well as a few other, usually simple topics. That's the 80s metal scene for you.

Personality as a band leader is where the debate gets interesting. Both guys are outrageous showmen. DLR is known for his sense of humor and his strutting style and acrobatic dancing. Sammy Hagar showed that he was also capable of this, but it seemed like it was an imitation of DLR. I assume he felt that the VH fans expected this type of thing. To his credit, he could deliver. Heavy metal music videos and documentaries during the 80s typically featured shots of the lead singer stretching before a live performance. It was one of the cliches of the era. I don't know if this started with DLR but he was seen doing this and raising high kicks during the concert and it was much copied by many lead singers. There is footage of both guys demonstrating amazing lower body flexibility. I find this hilarious. I think some of the copying though, is why many people came to call Sammy Hagar a "poseur."

Also watch this video of a sound check and you will start to get an idea of why some people dislike Sammy Hagar.

As for whether or not this is deserved, I think this opinion constitutes more a misreading of David Lee Roth than Sammy Hagar. Both of these guys are big showoffs. For some reason the DLR fans seem to have had this idea that he was authentically "bad." You see, in the 1970s and 80s, listening to heavy metal was associated with a particular class of individual, or I suppose you could say subculture. These were the tough ("tuff") white guys that grew up in poverty or in working class families. They started smoking at 12 and possibly drinking. They sat in the back of the class and misbehaved and ended up in detention. They bought the black heavy metal concert t-shirts and cut the sleeves off them, got kicked out of school for having a switchblade and a bad attitude. They wore biker apparel, grew their hair long, and generally rebelled against authority. Such kids barely exist now.

In the late 80s when heavy metal bands ("hair metal" or "glam metal") took over the Billboard Hot 100, even the solid middle class and upper middle class kids started dressing in an imitation of this. Heavy metal was masculine and trashy. I once read an article that asked if the popularity of metal music, clothing, and hair styles now meant that it was cool to be white trash.

The tuff kids that listened to metal expected their heroes to be like them. A few were. But the problem was that a lot of them were just musically gifted performers, many with solid middle to upper middle class upbringings. A few were even rich kids. David Lee Roth's father was a doctor. In contrast, Sammy Hagar's father worked in a steel mill, which seems much more authentic. Sammy also has identified as a heavy metal musician since early in his career. He has never been associated with show tunes or pop jazz like DLR. Just on biography, it would appear that the DLR fans have gotten their authenticity reversed.

Dave does have a bad attitude at times, and he got in trouble in school, but he also was artistically gifted (see his Twitter account for some of his drawings), highly intelligent, and musically trained. In an interview with Joe Rogan, he explained his early success and that of Van Halen as following from classical training and mentioned competing for first chair saxophone in high school. He was a BAND GEEK, lol. And (wait for it), Dave took dance lessons. His Van Halen bandmates were mostly similar. Both Alex and Edward had been given classical piano lessons when they were young. Their father had been a successful jazz musician. These were people who grew up in enlightened families, not trailer parks. DLR fans from this age group mistakenly thought he was one of them. Maybe he was in spirit, but not in reality. He is a very different type of guy.

Here is an interview in which Dave talks about being a band geek and how important playing saxophone was to his early musical career.

In this age of tolerance (even if it is sometimes ironically enforced tolerance), the real destruction of DLR's image must have come when rumors that he sometimes preferred male groupies came out (pun intended). He has never disputed it and it was confirmed by Edward Van Halen, who said he wasn't bothered by it. I realize young people have difficulty understanding the significance of this compared to the image of the band in the early to mid-80s when DLR was the lead singer. Homosexuality was not socially acceptable at that time, and even less so in the trailer parks and poor white neighborhoods that were the hard core fan base of metal bands like Van Halen. It must have burned down their world to find out that DLR was not straight. I find this hilarious, but then I've never had much liking for completely masculine "toughness" or trashy people anyway. Schadenfreude. I can empathize somewhat with poverty but not with bad behavior.

My point being that DLR fans had the wrong idea about what kind of guy he is. As his records have shown, he is not above show tunes. Dave was from a rich family. David Lee Roth has more in common with Freddie Mercury than the tough white kids from the trailer park. Hysterical.

Here is a video in which Dave references a musical play, West Side Story. Dave is into show tunes.
Basically what I'm saying is that while Sammy Hagar is a rather obvious performer playing a role, and therefore could be considered a poseur if you measure authenticity, the same was true of David Lee Roth all along, and I would argue even more so. They are both actors playing a part and what you are seeing is calculated, carefully constructed entertainment, and they are both very good at it. This really is true of many of the tough guys of heavy metal, especially some of the 21st century metal bands. They get up on the stage roaring angry lyrics, barking rage into the microphone, and then you find out they went to a boarding school or something.

Just to clean up a few details, we could also mention that Sammy Hagar is a pretty good guitarist, even to the point of being able to solo quite well. In any other band, Sammy Hagar is capable of playing lead guitar and has done so in the past. There are plenty of YouTube videos to cover his skills. This gives him another advantage over David Lee Roth.

Basically, my conclusion is that both guys are pretty talented, but I personally favor Sammy over Dave. If we were to restrict the discussion to live performance, I think it might go to Dave, but that is pretty close too. I personally think Sammy is even more authentic than Dave, although it is a testament to Dave's ability that he was able to fool his fans into believing he was something that he wasn't.

Sammy Hagar for the win but Dave has some great songs too.


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