Inside Van Halen's Messy Band Breakups

Drugs, alcohol, seething resentment, and artistic differences have all played their parts in the demise of some of the greatest rock bands in history. In the case of Van Halen, these elements, sometimes alone and sometimes in tandem, have led to more than one breakup across different iterations of the legendary rock band. The first split occurred at the height of success for Van Halen's initial roster of members — singer David Lee Roth, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and drummer Alex Van Halen. The album "1984" was a monster hit for the band, but behind the scenes, things were crumbling.

"By '84, Van Halen, the band I loved and helped guide to fruition, was on life support, though not many people realized it," the band's manager at the time, Noel Monk, wrote in "Runnin' with the Devil: A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen." "Even as '1984' racked up sales and critical acclaim, and while the band was playing one sold-out show after another, the foundation on which the band had been constructed was beginning to come apart," he later added.

The first breakup

It was 1984 — the year and the album — when things between Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth erupted. "I wanted to quit," Eddie told People in 1986. "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." Roth constantly belittled the institution of marriage in front of Eddie and his then-wife, actor Valerie Bertnelli, and wouldn't allow the members' wives backstage. Eddie and Roth also clashed musically. Eddie had begun incorporating synthesizers into the Van Halen sound, which Roth hated. "Hey, man, you're a guitar hero — nobody wants to see your dead ass playing keyboards," Eddie recalled Roth telling him (via Rolling Stone).

The final straw for the rest of the band was Roth's focus on his 1985 solo EP "Crazy From the Heat" and a related film (that never got off the ground) rather than a follow-up to the band's hit record. When the band confronted Roth that year, he admitted he planned on moving on. "I can't work with you guys anymore," he allegedly told Eddie. "I want to do my movie. Maybe when I'm done, we'll get back together." "I ain't waiting on your ass," Eddie responded. "See you later. Good luck." After the breakup, Roth and the band fought it out in the music press for a few months. 

Sammy Hagar's entrance and exit

Sammy Hagar joined the band in 1985, and this new version of Van Halen saw its first effort — "5150" — shoot to No. 1 the next year. Hagar and the rest of the band seemed to click. Eddie Van Halen told Rolling Stone that the first time they practiced together, they "all hugged and kissed." "They're great guys," Hagar told People in 1986. "And they really kick some ass as musicians."

Eleven years later, in June 1996, Eddie forced Hagar out of Van Halen. By then, Eddie and Hagar were at odds due to creative differences and power politics. "Eddie Van Halen wanted to be in total control," bassist Michael Anthony recalled in the foreword to Hagar's autobiography "Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock." "Al [Alex Van Halen] was going along with everything Ed did. Ed took the reins and was just looking for a pawn or puppet." Hagar wasn't happy that the band wanted to do a greatest hits album and that the other members had secretly been recording with David Lee Roth. "A band has a greatest hits album after they have nowhere else to go," he told the Associated Press in July 1996.

A brief reunion with Roth ...

In June 1996, the original members of Van Halen recorded two new songs for an upcoming greatest hits album "Best of — Volume 1," and that September they appeared together at the MTV VMA Awards as presenters, per "Edward Van Halen: A Definitive Biography." It didn't go well. On stage, Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth tussled over the microphone, and backstage things escalated to the point Eddie threatened Roth with physical violence after Roth berated him for mentioning to the press he was about to undergo hip replacement surgery. Roth leaned in close to Eddie and told him, "Tonight is about me," with either spit or sweat hitting Eddie's face, which set him off.

Less than a month later, Roth, after learning Van Halen had been working with a new singer for months, lashed out in an open letter sent to media outlets. He complained that he'd been duped into appearing with the rest of Van Halen at the MTV event and that he believed the band had reunited. He blamed Eddie. "If I am guilty of anything, I'm guilty of denial," he wrote (via "Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal.") "I wanted to believe it just as much as anyone else." Roth did admit the other members hadn't promised him anything.

... that was extremely short lived

The rest of Van Halen responded in a five-paragraph statement to clarify why they didn't want David Lee Roth back. "We parted company with David Lee Roth 11 years ago for many reasons," Eddie and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony wrote (via the Los Angeles Daily News.) "In his open letter of Oct. 2, we were reminded of some of them." The singer that David Lee Roth complained about was Gary Cherone, the former lead singer for Extreme.

Cherone's tenure with the band was short-lived due to poor record sales and a lack of fan support for the singer, per Britannica. Cherone recorded one record with the band ("Van Halen III"), toured in support of the album, and began working with the group on a second album before leaving in 1999, per Rolling Stone. "We came back in '99 and we were writing stuff," Cherone told the outlet. "Umm ... to keep things general, things started to get a little dysfunctional. I think that some in the camp sensed my frustration. I knew the end was near. ... I think Eddie started drinking a bit. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't going in the right direction."

Comings and goings

In a 1999 interview with the El Paso Times, Sammy Hagar said he didn't "wish any ill" on Gary Cherone but called the band's output with the Extreme vocalist "karaoke night." Five years later, Hagar was back with Van Halen after being dormant following Cherone's departure. Doctors diagnosed Eddie Van Halen with tongue cancer in 2000, which went into remission in 2002, per People.

In 2002, Michael Anthony joined Hagar and David Lee Roth on several legs of the two singers' tour. In 2004, Hagar rejoined the band to record three songs for the greatest-hits record "The Best of Both Worlds." The Van Halen brothers didn't want Anthony to be involved, but Hagar refused to join without the bass player, according to "Eruption: Conversations with Eddie Van Halen." "I think the rift between Michael and the brothers came when Michael joined Sammy," Cherone told Rolling Stone. "The brothers are pretty territorial. 'You're either with us, or against us'." The tour did well, but Eddie's alcohol dependence and Hagar's promotion of his Cabo Wabo tequila brand on tour again ripped the band apart. Hagar was out, and so was Anthony. The band replaced the bass player with Eddie's son Wolfgang in 2006. The final Van Halen concert was in October 2015. Five years later, in October 2020, Eddie died from complications from throat cancer.

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