There was a time when Van Halen seemed to represent the spirit of rock music worldwide.
Ranked 20th on the list of best-selling artists in the U.S., with 56 million albums sold in the country and 30 million more around the planet, it would once have been sacrilege to suggest that the band could be forgotten. But now, five years after Gene Simmons took the “rock is dead” debate mainstream, it seems at least possible that time may have come for younger generations.
Can you imagine a time when iconic frontman David Lee Roth would go unrecognized by fans of rock music? That’s just what happened when he crashed a bachelor party in May. On hearing his own music blasting out of a hotel room, he knocked the door and said, “We heard some Van Halen here and my name’s David Lee Roth and I’m right across the hallway.” He was met only with blank looks – and one of the revelers, appearing to think Roth was an elderly man stating a complaint, apologized about the noise. (Granted, Roth’s new close-cropped hairdo and designer suit look may have thrown the youngsters off a bit.)
Can you imagine a time when iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen would go unrecognized by fans of heavy music? That’s just what happened when he attended a Tool show in October. A fan asked Eddie for a photo – but not in the usual way. Instead, he wanted Eddie to snap a photo. “A guy asked my dad if he could take a picture of him with the stage behind him, having no idea who he just asked,” Eddie’s son Wolfgang Van Halen said, “and that was my favorite moment from the Tool show last night.”
Can you imagine a time when a rising star of the pop world would say she’d never even heard of Van Halen? That’s just what happened in December, when Billie Eilish – then 17 years old – was asked on TV if she could name any of the band’s songs. “Who?” she replied, confused.
To be fair, Van Halen haven’t done much to keep themselves in the public eye. While Kiss have always striven to stay visible, such that their farewell tour remains the subject of mainstream headlines, and the Who’s return to the studio has done the same for them (notably, the opening song of their new album is titled “All This Music Must Fade” although it nearly featured a rap section), Van Halen haven’t been seen much in recent years.
Their last studio album, A Different Kind of Truth, came out in 2012. It was their first since 1998’s III, and their only other studio release of the 21st century was four new tracks recorded for 2004’s Best of Both Worlds compilation. They last toured in 2015.
Eddie Van Halen has previously discussed the existence of an extensive archive of songs the group wrote but didn’t finish, and he and his drumming brother Alex reportedly spend a lot of time recording together in the guitarist’s home studio.
Still, unlike many to most of their peers, who always unearth some new unreleased material to sell each holiday season, Van Halen clearly does not prioritize catalog expansion. To this date, the group has never released a box set featuring unreleased material, an expanded edition of one of their studio albums, or even a longform live concert video featuring Roth as their frontman.
In September 2019, Roth said he believed the band was “finished,” citing repeated failed attempts to regroup and saying he’d “inherited the band.” He added: “Van Halen isn’t gonna be coming back in the fashion that you know. And that being said, Eddie’s got his own story to tell. Not mine to tell it.” Interestingly enough, Roth later confirmed that he’d open for Kiss during 2020.
Responding to the Eilish incident, Wolfgang noted: “If you haven’t heard of @billieeilish, go check her out. She’s cool. If you haven’t heard of @VanHalen, go check them out. They’re cool too. Music is supposed to bring us together, not divide us. Listen to what you want and don’t shame others for not knowing what you like.” It’s worth bearing that argument in mind.
So, are Van Halen fading? If they are, they’re entitled to a relatively large entry in the book of rock history. But then, seven decades after the rock ’n’ roll revolution, there’s enough evidence to demonstrate that history happens in cycles. It’s easy to imagine them re-lighting the fire with ease if the mood strikes them. Even the Beatles were out of fashion for a while.
Perhaps Roth got ahead of himself in trying to push the band’s music into the trance world with a remix of “Jump” in the spring of 2019 – but if, at some point in the future, perhaps the far future, someone discovers a recording of “Runnin’ with the Devil” or “Hot for Teacher” or “Panama” and decides to put a current twist on it, then maybe Van Halen could happen all over again. And that’s to say nothing of holograms…
Think You Know Van Halen?