So you thought you knew Van Halen? I did. But I had no clue they’ve been around in some form since 1971, or that the brothers basically hated David Lee Roth but let him in because it was cheaper than renting his P.A. week after week, or that even after Dave joined they were the house band at Gazzarri’s for over two years before they got a break.
Greg Renoff devotes his entire book, "Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal," to their formative years and nearly every page is a revelation. Reading it is like finding some lost demo tape every bit as awesome as "Fair Warning," or stumbling on a bitchen Camaro time machine kegger where Jeff Spicoli shows up with his hand in the back pocket of Kim Kelly’s bell bottom jeans.
We have so much to discuss with author Greg Renoff. But before we get to the book, we must, must, must discuss Van Halen 2015.
What do you think about this recent reunion? It’s hard for me to see Diamond Dave this way.
I just had a conversation with a musician who worked with Dave for a number of years during his solo career. He said that Roth is a guy with very wide ranging interests, from origami to cattle herding with dogs, and as a result, one thing that suffers is his vocal performances because Dave doesn’t give singing as a technical matter the attention it deserves. In other words, because David Lee Roth isn’t a boring simple-minded guy who only likes to do one thing, he doesn’t always perform as well as he could as a vocalist. I thought that provided good food for thought, especially since DLR’s early live performances during this album cycle weren’t great out of the gate and he has improved as the band has played more shows.
I wrote a grad school paper about the personality dynamics of Van Halen and how I thought Michael Anthony was the secret key to the band’s appeal. That solid blue-collar working man who holds the foundation down so the other guys can all be flamboyant. I don’t know if the band works without Mike for me.
I think VH fans, at least those who came of age as fans from the 70s-90s, understand Anthony’s contributions to the band’s success were substantial, to say the least. He didn’t write the songs or end up on the cover of the magazines, but he was the guy, for instance, who was always spot-on with his background vocals in a live setting while Roth was jumping around and swigging JD. That made a big difference when it came to making Van Halen sound good back in the day. And Templeman also doubled Anthony’s background vocals in the studio because clearly he understood that he had a certain sound that made a difference on their records. So for me, yes, I do miss Anthony, even though I am glad VH is a going concern these days.
You think Mike’ll ever be back?
I think Wolf is a talented musician who is in an impossible position because of the messy situation with Anthony. Regardless, he’s handled everything with maturity and class and for however long his Dad wants him in VH, Wolf will be in VH, regardless of former members or what anyone else thinks.
Why did you decide to focus "Van Halen Rising" on the early years?
I’m a fanatical Van Halen fan who happens to be a historian by training. So I think I was pretty attuned to what was known and not known about the band’s past. I’d read just about every book about the band, and it always seemed that while the band’s post-1978 history had been detailed fairly well, VH’s origins and years in L.A. got short shrift. In the meantime, I’d read little mentions in Dave and Eddie’s interviews about these wet-T-shirt contests the band was involved in, the insanely big backyard parties, and about how Ed and Al had a power trio called Genesis way back in 1971 or so. As fans we knew almost nothing about VH’s history prior to 1978. I wanted to know a lot more, and that’s what inspired me. But it all came down to one key question — how did VH develop into a band powerful enough to blow Black Sabbath off the stage in 1978? That could only be answered by looking at their pre-fame years.
Eddie and Alex had Mammoth and Dave had Red Ball Jet. And they really didn’t like each other at all. So how did Van Halen the band ever come together?
I have a whole chapter in the book about “How David Lee Roth joined VH.” But the short answer is two-fold. EVH was not much of a singer, and he was an introvert at heart. He didn’t like fronting Mammoth (which was the band name before it was changed to Van Halen). Roth was confident and talked a good game, so even though his voice wasn’t great, he surely knew how to attract attention and draw a crowd while onstage. In addition, Dave had a PA system that he’d been renting to the brothers, which helped them think it would be cheaper to get him in the band. But when people read the book, they will see that David Lee Roth was very strategic about how he approached trying to join Mammoth. It’s a great untold story.
Van Halen gigged for years before getting any sort of breakthrough. What role did Gene Simmons play in getting them signed?
Gene Simmons will tell you he discovered Van Halen. I’m not sure that’s true, but Simmons did take the entire band to NYC and into Electric Ladyland, where a demo was recorded. In the long run, I’d say that even though KISS’s management passed on VH, the band got a boost from the demo because it was played on KROQ in LA by Rodney Bingenheimer.
How about Ted Templeman?
In late 1977, Van Halen’s media guide offered up a story that implied that Templeman just wandered into the Starwood club one evening earlier that year, was wowed by Van Halen, and signed them. That’s only true in the outlines. The truth is that Marshall Berle, who was booking bands at the Whisky in late 1976, got a tip about Van Halen. He then saw them perform in Pasadena and was blown away. A few months later, Berle, who’d promised to help VH get a record deal, called up his old friend Ted Templeman and said, come check out this band. Templeman told me that before Berle’s call he had no idea there was a band called Van Halen playing regularly in Hollywood. Templeman also said that he knew Berle had good instincts when it came to bands, so he thought it would be worth his time to go to the Starwood. So the truth is that without Berle making that call, Templeman doesn’t show up at the Starwood that night.
In your opinion, what made Van Halen so magic?
It’s hard to boil that down, but let me try. Like many of the great rock bands of the '70s, the creative push and pull between the frontman and the guitarist made the big difference. When he first joined the band in 1973, Roth had a vision for the group to have more of a pop sound. EVH, of course, was a brilliant technician and songwriter. Between those two things, we get the classic Van Halen sound. For kids like me who were born during the Nixon administration, Roth and EVH are our Page and Plant, our Tyler and Perry, our Jagger and Richards.
What’s your favorite / most curious tidbit you discovered about the band?
Early on in my research, I learned that Van Halen, soon after Roth joined in the summer of 1973, was performing “Cold Sweat” by James Brown. This really seemed like something out of left field for a hard rock band like Van Halen, but after I learned more about Roth’s background (he was bussed to a majority-black high school in Pasadena starting in 1970) and musical tastes, it all made perfect sense.
Explain “Backyard Party Band” — how did that work in Southern California in the '70s?
The backyard party phenomenon ran hot in LA in the early 1970s. I think it was part of the Woodstock effect – the early 70s were the golden age of festivals: Isle of Wight, Watkins Glen, Altamont, and so on. I think rock music had really set kids afire and so the obvious thing to do was to try to imitate that on a local level. Parents would leave town, kids would hire a band like Van Halen, make flyers, get some kegs, and things would be off and running.
You mention that Al called the shots because he could hands down whip anybody in the band but that was early on, before Mike Anthony joined. Just for fun – who do you think was tougher in ’75?
Alex was bigger and more physically imposing than his brother. He was also an intimidating guy when he was drunk and not in a good mood. A number of people mentioned that to me. And Michael Anthony told me that when Alex and Ed would get in fistfights, Alex was very careful not to hurt Ed’s hands. Mike Anthony looked like a brawler, but from all accounts, was very nice and easygoing, so I don’t think he was kicking anyone’s ass back then.
From "Van Halen Rising," one gets the notion there is a huge trove of unreleased tracks. What are your five favorite rare VH songs?
Good question. “Believe Me” showed off VH’s prog-rock side. Would have been a great song maybe for the second side of Fair Warning.
I love “Young and Wild” – that was the Kim Fowley, Steven Tetsch penned song, recorded on VH’s Warner Bros demo at the behest of Fowley, who’d told Marshall Berle, Van Halen’s then manager, about VH.
I love the original “House of Pain” from the Simmons demo, complete with the horror movie lyrics.
Also a big fan of “Voodoo Queen” from the WB demo, mostly because of the killer ending that has Anthony and Roth trading screams.
And then “Angel Eyes,” which is Roth’s take on 70s soft rock, like the Eagles. The band recorded in in 1974 on a demo they did at Cherokee Studios. Supposedly it was worked up for Van Halen II too.
Is there more coming? "Women & Children First" to "1984"? Van Hagar?
In theory, I’d be interested in writing another book, but I think that comes down to how well this one sells, and if the other three band members — the Van Halen brothers and Roth -- would be willing to speak to me about their recollections. I think it would be more challenging to do a book about say, 1978-1985, without their participation. But nothing’s set in stone and my mind is open about all of this.