During the late 1970s, a California rock band managed to rise to superstardom during a time when disco reigned and punk was ushering in a new musical direction. The quartet Van Halen became known for their high-energy music and rowdy lifestyles. Then, in 1985, the wave came crashing down with the departure of the group’s lead singer during the high water mark of success left by the album 1984. David Lee Roth left Van Halen, leaving countless fans wondering why.
How Van Halen Came to Be
The group’s origins can be traced back to 1972 when Eddie Van Halen (guitar/vocals) and his brother Alex Van Halen (drums) formed the three-piece band Genesis with Mark Stone (bass). Within a short period of time, the trio was joined by David Lee Roth (vocals), an unsuccessful frontman who they had been renting sound equipment from. In 1974, Snake’s bassist and lead vocalist Michael Anthony was auditioned to replace Stone.
The group decided to change their name once they discovered that Genesis was already in use. For a while, they jammed under the name moniker Mammoth before finally adopting Alex and Eddie’s surname, Van Halen. During the mid-1970s the band grew a loyal fanbase through constant playing and self-promotion. Their growing popularity produced an encounter with Gene Simmons (Bassist and vocalist for the band KISS) in 1976 but failed to produce a deal with his record label Casablanca.
Van Halen Gets a Recording Contract
The band’s luck, and that of rock fans worldwide, changed in 1977. Warner Brother’s Mo Ostin and record producer Ted Templeman caught a show at the Starwood, and within a week offered Van Halen a recording contract with Ostin’s label. The quartet found themselves in Sunset Sound Recorders Studio weeks later as they recorded the tracks for their first album. Rock, which found itself struggling against a disco scene that was in full swing, was about to get a well-needed infusion of attitude and energy.
Their album Van Halen (1978) took the rock world by storm. It became one of the most successful debut albums in the genre. This was followed by a successful tour that saw the band’s popularity grow due to the energetic on-stage persona of Roth and ear-shattering playing of Eddie. They built upon their success with the follow-up album Van Halen II (1979) and tour, which found them becoming a headline act with a hit single “Dance The Night Away.”
Image, Sound, and Hedonism
The diverging visions of David and Eddie were beginning to show before the release of Women and Children First (1980), as touched upon by Helmut Newton in Greg Renoff’s article discussing Newton’s photoshoot with the group in December 1979. David was focusing on the band’s image and presentation, while Eddie was concentrating on their sound. The upcoming album would be the first to feature songs written exclusively by the quartet. Fans would be treated to more studio overdubs as well as a heavier sound.
The band was also continuing down the road of hedonism that marks the downfall of many rockers. Noel Monk was Van Halen’s manager from 1979 through 1985, and his 2017 book “Runnin’ With the Devil” confirms to readers the group’s consumption of large quantities of alcohol and drugs (both prescription and street). The book’s cover image showing the band drowning themselves with alcohol says it all. This wasn’t the only excess the band was dealing with, however.
Eddie Van Halen Marries Valerie Bertinelli
Success in the rock world comes along with an army of groupies, and the boys in the band were active enough to require frequent trips to the doctor to treat things like the clap. It was during the support tour for Women and Children First that Eddie met Valerie Bertinelli. The guitarist was married the following year, and he began to focus less on groupies and more on his family (their son Wolfgang would later become the bassist for Van Halen). David continued his promiscuous ways, as indicated by his desire to “protect his penis” through paternity insurance.
While the third album was not as successful as the first two, it did produce two singles that became concert regulars. “And the Cradle Will Rock…” and “Everybody Wants Some!” help to maintain Van Halen at the top of the hard rock pile while the band continued to sellout on the road. A continuous cycle of touring, recording and partying was beginning to take its toll on the members. Tensions continued to build on the inside while outside demands began to present new hurdles to overcome.
Diver Down: the Beginning of the End
Fair Warning (1981) started out of the gate much slower than previous offerings from the band. While fans eventually purchased over 2-million copies, they were given a darker album that lacked the California-fun single that could be found on the first three studio recordings. Synthesizers were introduced, highlighting Eddie’s continued interest in pushing the band into new directions. All of the band members have stated that it was during this time period that things began to become difficult in the studio and on stage.
Pressures from the World tour that followed were not alleviated. The band was soon back in the studio to record Diver Down (1982). Creative frustration within the band was evident, with nearly half of the songs representing covers. It is telling that Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman” was the albums most popular track. This song did, however, break the band into the MTV video market and expand their fanbase.
The Relationship Continues to Strain
It is during this time that Eddie began to question the future of Van Halen. His frustration allegedly went so far that he asked to join KISS in 1982 (a moment that neither Eddie or KISS’ Paul Stanley recall, but Gene Simmons claims is true). One thing that is confirmed, Eddie’s construction of his home studio in 1983 allowed him to create music on his own. It only served to further strain his relationship with Roth. This growing distance between members is cited as one of the main reasons that David Lee Roth quit Van Halen.
1984: David’s Coda
Van Halen’s 1984 (1984) produced multiple MTV hits and sold over 10-million copies, launching the band into super-stardom. A monstrous world tour capped off what should have been the start of even greater success. But it didn’t. Instead, it marked the end of the Roth-era when David left the band.
The Reason David Lee Roth Left Van Halen
The group was tired and needed time off. Roth had a movie in the works and was feeling unhappy with the band’s direction. When approached Eddie about doing the musical score, Van Halen declined. During a meeting with Eddie, he expressed that he could no longer work with the group.
His bandmates were frustrated by the idea of having to wait while David worked on his own projects. They were also upset with Roth’s attitude towards male fans on the Monsters of Rock tour. While it may be unclear who’s to blame, one thing is certain. David Lee Roth left Van Halen and fans were left wondering what might have been.