Van Halen‘s “Right Now” betrayed the urgency of its title, instead taking a very long time to reach the public.
Released in February 1992 as the final single from the previous year’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, the piano-based call to action proved to be one of the most enduring songs from the band’s Sammy Hagar era.
But Eddie Van Halen first came up with the idea nearly a decade earlier, while David Lee Roth was still in the group. “I wrote that back in ’83, before I wrote ‘Jump,'” Van Halen told Fuzz in 1998. “It didn’t come out until ’92 cause nobody wanted anything to do with it.”
Van Halen snuck an early instrumental version of the track onto his score for the 1984 movie The Wild Life, but it would be seven years and three more Van Halen albums before he and Hagar hit on a winning combination of music and lyrics.
It could have happened sooner, if Van Halen had stuck to his original plan of recording an album with multiple singers instead of hiring Hagar as Roth’s full-time replacement for 1986’s 5150. “My plan at the time was to get Mike Rutherford, Pete Townshend and Joe Cocker, all of whom I had talked to,” Van Halen told Guitar World in 1996. “I had written ‘Right Now’ back then, and I wanted Joe Cocker to sing on it. It would have been fucking great.”
Hear an Early Version of “Right Now” from the ‘The Wild Life’ Film Score
Instead, the song wound up on the otherwise guitar-focused For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge – and the group almost missed that chance too.
“I was writing those lyrics at the start of the recording process,” Hagar told Ultimate Classic Rock Nights. “Every day I’d walk in the studio and Eddie would be playing this piano part, and he’d be saying ‘Hey, this is a cool part,’ and I’m going, ‘Ah, I ain’t hearing it.’ So we’d move on and start writing all the other songs.”
Hagar was simultaneously trying to coax some music out Van Halen to match a separate set of lyrics and melody. “He’s going, ‘Yeah, I’ll think of something.’ I swear to you it was four months, five months, six months later that he’s in there during a break, playing that piano. …I’m in the other room, singing it in my head – and I go, ‘Holy crap! It works!’ I ran in and sang it to him while he was playing the piano, and it worked. I think it’s one of our most adventurous pieces.”
The next battle was over the song’s now-famous video: “When they presented that, I hated it. I said ‘I am not doing this,'” Hagar told Video Killed the Radio Star in 2012. “I wrote the best lyric I ever wrote in Van Halen, I’m trying to upgrade this band’s image … and they want to put words underneath? Why don’t they use the words I wrote? I actually took off and wouldn’t return people’s phone calls for about a week.”
Watch Van Halen’s ‘Right Now’ Video
After Warner Bros. label boss Mo Ostin applied some pressure, a pneumonia-battling Hagar reluctantly agreed to film his part for the video. But as you might notice from his blank expressions in the finished product, he still didn’t fully commit to the performance.
“I wouldn’t even co-operate. I’m not like that, either. Everybody knows I’m not like that,” Hagar argued. “It’s the first time I pulled a fast one. And look, it was the biggest video we ever had, so it shows you what I know.”
The clip went on to claim three awards including Video of the Year at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Pepsi took notice and approached the band about using the song and mimicking the video for a Super Bowl ad to launch their new Crystal Pepsi drink.
“The only reason we gave Pepsi the music is because they were going to use the song anyway,” Eddie Van Halen explained to Guitar World in 1996. “They would have just recut it with studio musicians. … So we said, ‘Hey wait a minute, we might as well get the money.’ I ain’t that proud, you know. I’m not going to say, ‘No go ahead, rip us off – and keep the money too!”
Watch Crystal Pepsi’s ‘Right Now’ Super Bowl Ad
Pepsi wasn’t alone in trying to capitalize on the popularity of “Right Now.” Time labeled it the “most misused song in GOP politics” in 2011, noting that George W. Bush and John McCain had played it during campaign appearances – despite the fact that one of the messages flashed during the video read “right now oil companies and old men are in control.”
According to Time, visuals of Bush appeared on video screens along with the text “right now, nothing is more expensive than regret” during Van Halen’s 2004 tour performances of the song. After McCain used “Right Now” during the 2008 rally where he introduced Sarah Palin as his running mate, Van Halen management told TMZ that “permission was not sought or granted nor would it have been given.”
Hagar, who was no longer in the band at the time, had a different reaction.
“When I wrote the lyrics to ‘Right Now,’ I intended them to inspire people to not sit around for something they believed in but to go out and get it – to make a change however they needed to,” he said in a statement released at the time (as reported by Songfacts.) Whether it was McCain who used the song or if Obama had chosen to use the song, with the current political climate, the lyrics still have the same meaning, and we all need to do something to make a difference, every action counts.”
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