Van Halen had just debuted a new lead singer when their old one released his first full-length solo album on July 7, 1986. The two factions would trade body blows for the balance of the year.
David Lee Roth‘s Eat ‘Em and Smile became a Top 5 Billboard hit, after the Sammy Hagar-led Van Halen’s 5150 soared to No. 1. Roth’s old band had already reached No. 3 with the synthy “Why Can’t This Be Love?” “Yankee Rose” likewise preceded Eat ‘Em and Smile, giving Roth his third career Top 20 solo smash, while Van Halen’s “Dreams” then just missed at No. 22.
“Love Walks In,” another Hagar ballad, nearly broke the Top 20, as Roth released four more singles from his solo debut LP – but nothing from Eat ‘Em and Smile got any higher than “Goin’ Crazy!” at No. 66.
The reconstituted Van Halen seemed to have won the battle: Roth officially added a keyboardist for the follow up, 1988’s Skyscraper, and his commercial fortunes continued to fade. But did the buying public make the right decision in the first place?
Decades later, how do these critical first moments in their post classic-era journey hold up? Is there a way to blend the two projects into a cohesive whole that best represents an era when Van Halen first fractured into separate camps? Should anyone even try?
We turned to our panel of experts to decide.
1) When they first came out, which album did you like better and why? Have your feelings changed over the years? Which one stands the test of time better and why?
Gary Graff: 5150 hands down – then, and now. This was war, and Van Halen came in locked, loaded and ready for battle. Not that Roth didn’t, but his songs weren’t nearly as good or as fully fleshed out, and Eat ‘Em and Smile is more about attitude than performance. 5150 sounds like the next step in Van Halen’s evolution. Though not as quirky as Roth, Sammy Hagar complemented and added to what we already loved about the band. Eat ‘Em, except in rare cases, comes off like Roth trying to remind listeners he was in Van Halen, and save for a couple of tracks such as “Yankee Rose” and “Going Crazy,” has not aged well.
Jed Gottlieb: For me, it was all about who was first to market, at least in the beginning. I loved 5150 so much just because it came out first. But Roth swaggered in with so much cheek and charm on Eat ‘Em and Smile that his solo debut quickly chipped away 5150’s market share. I will always think 5150 is better than it actually is because of the power of nostalgia. But I know how good Eat ‘Em and Smile is. It’s a masterpiece of hooks, humor, opaque wisdom and guitar stunts.
Rob Smith: I was Team 5150 all the way. I thought the joining of forces between Sammy Hagar and three-quarters of Van Halen was a perfect fit, a real AOR supergroup, and the songs were so, so strong. Also, I was 15 going on 16, my friends were getting driver’s licenses and 5150 sounded awesome coming out of our crappy car stereos. That said, I think Eat ‘Em and Smile sounds better today; Van Halen really bought into the whole thin, compressed ‘80s production for that record, while Roth and Ted Templeman’s mix sounds fuller and deeper. The songs on 5150 still resonate with me, but Eat ‘Em is the more pleasurable listening experience now.
Michael Christopher: Eat ‘Em and Smile, because it sounded more straight-ahead rock in the vein of early Van Halen in addition to having such a presence on MTV. When 5150 was released, there were no videos to go along with it, other than the Blue Angels version of “Dreams,” which was only out for a week at first to coincide with the 4th of July holiday and felt like a blatant attempt to steal the thunder away from Roth’s album as it hit stores. The opening vignettes that went along with “Goin’ Crazy” and “Yankee Rose” were hilarious to my youthful brain, and seeing how visual his band was performance-wise had me hooked. My feelings have definitely shifted over the years, and I now look at them as two very separate works with their own merits, instead of competing titles. Whereas when I was younger I was more into the whole “Sammy vs. Dave” soap opera, I grew more into a Van Halen fan and focused on the entirety of their output, one where 5150 is one of the best in their second act. Now I view the records as much more evenly matched for what they are, though sonically they remain polar opposites.
Matthew Wilkening: I’ll always wonder what a Roth-fronted follow up to 1984 would have sounded like, but in 1986 my thoughts were, “This is great! We get two awesome albums instead of one.” I liked them both, and it was fascinating what different approaches they took. In retrospect, Roth’s two Vegas covers are very skippable and the 5150 drum sound has not aged well. It’s not exactly right to say there’s filler on 5150, but over time it’s clear that there’s a stratification between the very best songs (the four singles and the title track, basically) and the rest of the album. Hagar and Van Halen won the boxing match pretty easily overall, but Roth edged them out in this first round.
2) Using the current versions (not switching singers, for example), make your best 10-song playlist from these two albums.
Graff: In alphabetical order, I’d go with: “Best of Both Worlds,” “Bump and Grind,” “Dreams,” “5150,” “Going Crazy,” “Good Enough,” “Ladies’ Night in Buffalo,” “Summer Nights,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Yankee Rose.”
Gottlieb: As someone who has thought about this more than any normal person should, I want to reflexively say everything Roth did tops Sammy’s work, but that’s untrue. The Sophie’s choice of catchy, bombastic and flamboyant rock has me drafting “Yankee Rose,” “Shyboy,” “Ladies’ Nite In Buffalo?,” “Goin’ Crazy!,” “Tobacco Road,” “Elephant Gun” and “Big Trouble” from Dave and “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Summer Nights,” and “Best of Both Worlds” from Sam. I will say “5150” is my first alternate and “Bump and Grind” is my second.
Smith: “Yankee Rose” (best album-opener on either record); “Shyboy” (gotta follow “Yankee Rose”); “Why Can’t This Be Love” (bad-ass first single); “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?” (bring the room down a bit before you hit ’em with …); “Summer Nights” (best side-closer on either record); “Best of Both Worlds” (need that riff to open Side 2); “Love Walks In” (gotta follow “Best of Both Worlds”); “Elephant Gun” (shot of adrenaline after the power ballad); “Dreams” (bury this nugget on Side 2 to keep people listening); and “Bump and Grind” (nice send-off, “see ya next time” track).
Christopher: “Good Enough,” “Shy Boy,” “Get Up,” “Bump and Grind,” “Best of Both Worlds,” “Yankee Rose,” “Summer Nights,” “Elephant Gun,” ‘Why Can’t This Be Love” and “Big Trouble.”
Wilkening: I’ve got four songs from 5150 and six from Eat ‘Em and Smile: “Best of Both Worlds,” “5150,” “Why Can’t This Be Love,” Dreams, “Yankee Rose,” “Ladies’ Nite in Buffalo?,” “Tobacco Road,” “Elephant Gun,” “Big Trouble” and “Bump and Grind.” This would not be a very cohesive album, so I would suggest using the Tattoo You fast/slow sequencing method as opposed to trying to mix these two very different styles together on one album side.
3) Do you think David Lee Roth made a mistake by not including a more keyboard-friendly song along the lines of “Jump” or “I’ll Wait” on the album? Do you think the fact that 5150 was a much bigger hit made him change his sound for Skyscraper?
Graff: A provocative question. David was in a precarious position as he went solo. The Clown Prince of Rock ‘n’ Roll schtick was a nice hook but not necessarily something to hang his hat on moving forward. One thing he had to do on Eat ‘Em was establish that he could still rock, but with the personality and attitude that had served him so well in Van Halen and on the Crazy From the Heat EP. He also had to differentiate himself from Van Halen, which was continuing the keyboard trajectory from 1984. A delicate balance and no-win scenario in a way, but his first solo album was going to court plenty of attention no matter what, so he had kind of a “gimme” situation.
Gottlieb: I can’t be called a mistake because the LP has so much charm and magic without those keyboards. I guess he might have sold more albums if Skyscraper and “Just Like Paradise” came first. Clearly he recorded “Just Like Paradise” to try and hit the Top 40, but it doesn’t sound like a response to 5150. Sure, Skyscraper has more keys but a lot of those keys are concentrated on the title track, one of his least commercial songs. Roth on his own wasn’t built to have a long career in the mainstream. He loves being famous, but not enough to make whole records that pander to pop radio.
Smith: The context of Eat ‘Em and Smile was really to out-Van Halen Van Halen, and by that I mean first-album/second-album/Fair Warning Van Halen – guitar-forward stuff. If you gotta use keyboards (and he did), you mix them really low, to underpin the showcase of Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan. And I cannot imagine Roth let Brett Tuggle set his luggage down in the band for Skyscraper just for commercial purposes, but maybe I’m wrong. Why would you put Sheehan in a corner like he did? There’s no real answer. I’m still pissed at Roth; we should’ve had four or five more records from the Eat ‘Em and Smile band.
Christopher: It wasn’t a mistake at all. Dave wanted to appeal to the hardcore, old school Van Halen fans, the ones who were maybe a little bit “meh” on the keyboards found on 1984. He leaned hard into the humor and in-your-face guitar histrionics that made his period in Van Halen stand out. I’m sure he had an inkling as to where his former outfit was headed musically and didn’t want to be perceived as trying to keep up with them, but rather look to what worked in the past. Skyscraper was a mistake with the shift to keyboards. It felt like a desperate and almost instantly dated attempt to maintain pace with Van Halen because of how well 5150 did, resulting in a dramatic misstep in direction that would cost him Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan and begin a marked career downturn.
Wilkening: If anything, he should have gone harder and dropped the two Vegas-style covers, to draw more of a distinction between himself and his former band. It’s hard not to think Skyscraper‘s poppy, less flashy sound was a calculated reaction to 5150‘s success, but of course we don’t know that. It’s also impossible not to wish Billy Sheehan and Steve Vai had stayed for a few more albums, and to wonder if sticking to more aggressive hard rock would have been the right move for Roth, as his former bandmates got more and more conventional. It’s great when people try new things, but Eat ‘Em and Smile II might have been the best way to solidify his image and following. Plus I want to hear it!
4) Assuming the music remains exactly as it is, which Eat ‘Em and Smile song would you most like to hear Hagar sing? Which would be the worst match?
Graff: I’m betting Sammy could wrap his pipes around “Tobacco Road” and give that one a solid ride. It’s been a proven fail-safe for so many other singers, and his voice has the husk and, yes, smoke to make a memorable version. Keep him as far away from “I’m Easy” and “That’s Life” as you can: One thing Sammy’s not is a cabaret song-and-dance man, and his particular brand of camp is entirely different than David’s.
Gottlieb: “Bump and Grind” would fit Hagar nicely. It’s simple, hard and fits his vocal cadence well. It’s actually the most Van Hagar tune on the record, almost like a b-side to “Poundcake.” Hagar is neither funky nor inscrutable, so the idea of him telling a tall tale like “Big Trouble” seems absurd.
Smith: I don’t want to hear Sammy Hagar sing any song from Eat ‘Em and Smile. Gun to my head, so to speak, maybe “Elephant Gun,” because it’s one of those manic Van Halen shuffles, and Hagar proved he could do one of those with “Get Up.” The worst Sammy/Eat ‘Em match would probably be either “That’s Life” or “I’m Easy,” because they’re crazy-kitschy, Borscht-Belt garbage, which is not Sammy’s thing – or at least wasn’t back then. Then again, put enough tequila in his belly, and he’d probably try an Allan Sherman tune, if he knows one.
Christopher: Probably “Bump and Grind.” It’s a hard rocker and lyrically the closest to something Sammy would come up with. “Shake it slowly and do that bump and grind”: Come on, he’d love to sink his teeth into that! Figuring out the worst match is difficult because Sammy can pretty much sing anything. That said, “That’s Life” is a little bit too campy, with the background singers and the whole Vegas feel to it. He probably wouldn’t be comfortable there.
Wilkening: He could hit “Tobacco Road” out of the park for sure and, of course, his performance would be more earnest with less winking. It would be funny to hear him try “Big Trouble,” mainly because he’d stop halfway through and ask “what the hell is this guy rambling about, and where can I get some of what he’s smoking?” You’d have to assume he would want no part of “That’s Life” or “I’m Easy,” and good for him on that count.
5) Assuming the music remains exactly as it is, which 5150 song would you most like to hear Roth sing? Which would be the worst match?
Graff: I think in general it’s easier to fit David into the 5150 songs than Sammy into Eat ‘Em and Smile. Lyrically “Best of Both Worlds” is the best fit for him, as he’s no stranger a cocksure heavy rock song. And as mellow isn’t David’s forte, “Dreams” and “Love Walks In” would be absolute train wrecks with him.
Gottlieb: “Summer Nights” fits Roth’s vibe perfectly. It sits right between Van Halen’s “Beautiful Girls” and standout solo track “Damn Good.” The idea of Roth singing “Dreams,” of singing “standin’ on broken dreams, never losin’ sight – well, just spread your wings,” is so wrong it hurts my head to even consider it.
Smith: The best 5150 track for him to take on is “Get Up,” for the same reason I think “Elephant Gun” might work with Sammy – that amphetamine shuffle is the strongest bridge between the two albums. The worst match? I think he’d fall asleep during “Love Walks In” (though I love the song), and snap a vocal cord trying to sing “Dreams” – flip a coin between those two.
Christopher: “Summer Nights” is the most Dave-esque track on the record. It’s got the “let’s party” vibe that so many classic Van Halen songs had with him in the band, and I would’ve loved to hear what his spin on it would turn out to be. The worst match, by far, is “Why Can’t This Be Love.” Thematically it’s just not in his wheelhouse; lyrically, musically – were Dave still in the group, nothing remotely close to it gets made.
Wilkening: Obviously the two that really should be avoided, except for unintentional comedy, are “Dreams” and “Love Walks In.” “Get Up” and “5150” aren’t designed for his voice either, but he could probably do something with the rest of the songs. “Best of Both Worlds” or “Summer Nights” might be the best fit, as much as he’d hate the lyrics.
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