Few rock bands epitomize ‘80s excess like Van Halen. The hard-partying band formed in Pasadena in 1974 — and it’s had ups and downs ever since.
This month, Van Halen released its first album ("A Different Kind of Truth") with original vocalist David Lee Roth in almost 30 years. Much of the music was written but never released when the band was playing in backyards, seedy clubs and even the bar at the Pasadena Hilton in 1975.
Van Halen, the name the band had just adopted about a year earlier, was forging its heavy rock reputation with original material at backyard beer bashes across the Pasadena area.
Doug Anderson spent a lot of time in those backyards drinking beer and playing in many of his own bands.
“What else do you do on a Friday or Saturday night? Well there’s [a] party, you go for the chicks and maybe get some beers,” remembers Anderson in the workshop of his amplifier and guitar repair shop in Altadena.
“And the band, sometimes they were too loud. That’s where [the nickname] ‘Van Headache’ came from.”
Anderson also runs the unofficial “Van Halen Museum” from the shop. It includes some of Eddie Van Halen’s old guitars, walls of concert flyers and snapshots — and piles of unreleased live and studio recordings from the mid-‘70s.
“They really played as much as they could anywhere and everywhere. In those days they really worked hard. It wasn’t an easy gig,” says Anderson.
“They started writing songs and getting really good at it.”
For its first album with vocalist Roth since the Reagan administration, Van Halen tapped into its reservoir of material accumulated in the years before its explosive 1978 breakthrough. Some songs get new arrangements and lyrics; others like “Bullethead” barely stray from their garage rock origins:
“They were highly developed as a band by that time,” says Ian Christe, the author of “Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga.”
“I think it’s a common practice among all artists that your workshop is filled with pieces and something’s just not right with a certain Pinocchio or whatever sitting around,” says Christe.
“And then one day Geppetto pulls out the right carving tool and notches out and eyebrow and all the sudden, that’s Pinocchio!”
Another resurrected number called “Outta Space” is based on a tune that originally appeared on a 1976 demo tape produced by Gene Simmons of Kiss. Shortly after cutting that demo, singer David Lee Roth was interviewed on L.A. rock station KROQ.
“Well, we were playing one night and some of the fellas from Kiss came down to see the band, who you brought along,” he told local music impresario and DJ Rodney Bingenheimer, who dragged Simmons to see the band in Hollywood.
“And a couple days later, we were in New York City doing a little recording down at Electric Lady Land studios, so what we have here is one helluva demo tape,” says Roth excitedly, introducing what would be Van Halen’s major rock radio debut: a demo version of “Runnin’ with the Devil,” which went on to become the thumping opener of the band’s debut album.
“This is the first radio play we’ve ever gotten, but we’re proud to be on the ROQ of Los Angeles,” says Roth. The KROQ appearance is one of many Van Halen bootlegs that have circulated among collectors for decades.
Writer Christe says dipping into a reserve of older material became common practice for Van Halen early on. As the band’s popularity soared, so did the demand for more shows and more new material. The unreleased old stuff became new stuff, and helped the band keep pace.
“All of those first six David Lee Roth albums are considered classics and they released one a year between 1978 and 1984 while playing like 250 massive arena concerts a year,” says Christe.
Rolling Stone says the latest Van Halen album “A Different Kind of Truth,” half of which is based on old demos, is Van Halen’s best new album in 28 years.
Others have been less kind — including old band acquaintance Doug Anderson.
“They should have brought it out a long time ago when they were still good, when they were on fire,” says Anderson.
Former vocalist Sammy Hagar, who replaced Roth in 1985, complained recently in an interview that revisiting old material is something you do “in your old age if you can’t come up with fresh stuff.”
Van Halen biographer Christe disagrees.
“The chemistry they put together in the 1970s just wasn’t naturally going [to] pick up again,” says Christe.
“To go back and pick up all the nuances and prompts from those old cassettes? It must have worked some kind of mystical, historic mojo on the band!”
And who needs “fresh” when the little cover band from Pasadena still has a guitar case full of vintage rockers waiting to be unleashed.
This week, Van Halen launches its first U.S. arena tour since 2007. The band will play shows across California this summer — but no backyard keg parties are currently scheduled.