Van Halen needed a hit.
Turbulence within the group was extremely high during the recording of 1995’s Balance. Among numerous other personal issues, Van Halen was on the verge of splitting up with second lead singer Sammy Hagar, and the studio sessions were yielding some pretty dark music.
Producer Bruce Fairbairn wasn’t hearing anything near Top 40-ready. He asked Eddie Van Halen if the guitarist had any “pop ditties” lying about that he could offer the record company when came calling looking for a track to push out to radio.
“I had a ton of tapes so, at first, I was just going to go through them to see if I had anything,” Van Halen told Guitar World in 1997. “But I was just too lazy to dig through them all. Instead, I just decided it would be easier to write a new tune from scratch, and ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’ was the result. I played it for [Fairbairn] and he said, ‘Great.’ I think it was one of the last things we recorded for Balance.”
Released March 14, 1995, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” was the third single from the album and ended up being unquestionably the most pop-oriented track recorded during Sammy Hagar’s four-album tenure with Van Halen. Nothing else comes close. From the glossy acoustic guitar tones to the mawkish “ooooh, ooooh, ooooh” backing vocals, it’s no surprise that this is one of the least popular Van Halen songs among hardcore fans.
Casual listeners were the exact opposite, however, as the song became the biggest hit from Balance. In fact, it was the only single off the LP to crack the Top 40, peaking at No. 30 in early June 1995, while becoming a staple of mix tapes exchanged between lovers and played at weddings of sentimental couples.
Listen to Van Halen Perform ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’
Unfortunately, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” joins the ranks of “Every Breath You Take” by the Police and “The One I Love” by R.E.M. among songs that sound meaningful affection on the surface, but are revealed as something much different upon closer inspection. In this case, Hagar took the approach of writing a song from his recent ex-wife Betsy’s point of view: They went through protracted divorce proceedings where he was trying to move on with his new girlfriend Kari, while his former flame wouldn’t let him go.
“Well fell in love,” Hagar said about his relationship with Kari in his memoir Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock. “I kept calling Betsy every few days. She did not understand that I was gone for good. She would tell me to take my time and come home when I was ready.”
The video for the track belies the meaning behind it, as Van Halen perform in a non-descript living room inter-cut with a montage of scenes related to love. There are two homeless people embracing on the street, a boy playing in a yard with is dog, parents welcoming their soldier son home, and a woman cradling and feeding what appears to be a baby but turns out to be a monkey. Beavis and Butthead, while not quite savaging it, were a bit suspicious of the clip. After starting off by saying the obligatory “Van Halen kicks ass!” they quickly shift to, “Uh … uhh … uh – oh boy.”
Eddie Van Halen was unapologetic about the sugary sweetness of the tune – or any others that were perceived that way. “I just go with whatever comes out. I can’t help the fact that I’ve written ‘Can’t Stop Lovin’ You’ or ‘Jump.’ Don’t blame me,” he told Guitar World in 1996, with a laugh. “Actually, if I could deliberately sit down and write a pop hit, all my songs would be pop hits! Let’s put it this way: I play what I like to hear. And sometimes I like to hear something poppy, and sometimes I don’t.”
At one point toward the end of the track, Hagar calls out, “Hey Ray, what you said is true.” This was a nod to Ray Charles, who had a hit in 1962 with the similarly titled “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” written by country singer Don Gibson. The two songs weren’t actually related, though hundreds of artists ended up covering “I Can’t Stop Loving You” – from Elvis Presley and Van Morrison to Bryan Adams.
Despite becoming one of Van Halen’s biggest hits, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” was left off live setlists both during the Gary Cherone-era and when the group reunited with Hagar for an ill-fated tour in 2004.
See Rock’s Epic Fails: Van Halen Edition