If there’s one thing the biggest bands have in common, it’s that they spend a long time working hard for next to nothing before they break big. Often times, they get a big break that turns out to be a bust. Mona Best could not get the Beatles past Liverpool. The Stones lived in a slum relying on shoplifting to eat before Andrew Loog Oldham found them. Led Zeppelin might be an exception, but they began as Jimmy Page’s attempt to rebuild the Yardbirds with John Paul Jones.
Van Halen’s dues-paying phase lasted almost eight years in which the band began in high school as The Trojan Rubber Company, becoming Genesis (a name they gave up upon the release of Nursery Cryme by the British band Genesis), then Mammoth, which they had to drop after another local band filed a cease-and-desist order.
Greg Renoff recounts Van Halen’s journey from the biggest backyard band in Pasadena to the band that single-handedly rescued hard rock. The band is clearly the Van Halen brothers with everyone else along for the ride. But the band as you know it (whether the original version, Van Hagar, the Gary Cherone version, or the current line-up with Wolfgang on bass) would not have existed if the son of an Encino doctor hadn’t decided to become a rock star the night the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan. Eddie and Alex were hardcore musicians, the sons of two Dutch musicians who made them learn piano. But it was Dave Roth who came up with the stage presence and the image. Eddie Van Halen could play Clapton and Deep Purple better than Clapton and Ritchie Blackmore, but he was no lead singer. The brothers ran through a series of bass players before settling on Matt Stone. But it was Roth, who blew his first auditions with the band, who came up with the banter with the audience. He was Diamond Dave long before he learned to actually sing.
And that almost derailed the band. Roth couldn’t sing. When the band finally signed with Warner Brothers, producer Ted Templeman actually thought about asking newly solo Sammy Hagar to come in and take over. Roth took voice lessons and managed to come up with that signature sound.
Much of Van Halen’s signature sound came about between their discovery by KISS’s Gene Simmons and the release of Van Halen. Eddie’s hammer-on/pull-off technique happened as the band prepared to record their debut album. The other piece that came late in their pre-recording phase was the bass and tenor voice of Michael Anthony. Bassist Stone was on his way out, and the newly named Van Halen (Roth’s idea), the band heard Anthony’s fat bass and tenor voice as lead vocalist for his own band. It did not take much to convince Anthony to join the up-and-coming Van Halen.
Where author Renoff fails is in the final chapters in describing Van Halen’s first tour as a major act. The epilogue is full of tales of Van Halen blowing acts like Journey, Montrose (now sans Hagar), and Black Sabbath off the stage. The Black Sabbath vignettes might be a book unto themselves. When Van Halen opened for Sabbath in 1977, Sabbath gave its management one order to try and stay afloat with a deteriorating Ozzy Osbourne in his waning days with the band. Go find an LA bar band to open. The idea was to have a group of nobodies who couldn’t hold their own open for the legendary band. They picked Van Halen, who had been honing their stage show and skills together and separately since 1967, all them starting as teenagers. By tour’s end, Ozzy’s days were numbered, and Van Halen would have three weeks to record Van Halen II before heading back out as a headlining act.
But the tales of Van Halen blowing Journey away get to be a bit much. Still, it’s one of the most interesting origin stories in rock and roll.