Photo by David McGough
This week is a special time in Van Halen history. It was 30 years ago this week that the band topped Billboard’s LP charts for the first time, with 5150! The album sat in the Number One position for 3 weeks straight.
In a new interview, Sammy Hagar shares some interesting stories from the making of the classic album. Before we get to what Sammy had to say, let us examine that moment in history…
As the band began recording 5150, Ted Templeman was out of the picture for the first time. Eddie decided to produce the album himself with Van Halen engineer, Donn Landee, at the 5150 studio. But already troubled by the uncertainty surrounding the loss of Roth, Warner Bros. banged its iron fist and refused their boys full creative latitude.
A search began for a producer from a top-shelf list of candidates, including Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, Tina Turner’s private synthmaster Rupert Hines, and Quincy Jones. The band chose Mick Jones, an acquaintance of Sammy’s, whose radio candy, while creative leader of Foreigner, had sold millions. Pop metal like Def Leppard had seized the day from the lightweight rockers, but Foreigner’s Agent Provocateur album still went double platinum in 1985.
Here’s an except of Sammy’s new interview with Team Rock:
“I wasn’t a big drinker,” he says, “but the whole time we were making that record, everybody [in the band] had a beer, constantly, except me. Ed would say, ‘I gotta take a piss.’ He’d come back with two beers – one for him and one for Al. And Al would do the same, only sometimes he’d bring two or three beers for himself and one for Ed. Ed would drink all day and night. I just wished I could play that great sober.”
Hagar could tolerate the drinking. What he couldn’t do was let the band finish the album without the aid of a recognized producer. It was too important for that.
“I felt that Donn Landee was just an engineer,” Hagar says. “And Ed wasn’t a strong leader who would produce a record. So I said, ‘We need a producer. How about Mick Jones?’ The guys said, ‘Sure.’ We were a very diplomatic band.”
Mick Jones, the guitarist and founding member of Foreigner, had known Hagar since the 70s, when Montrose had toured with Jones’ former band, Spooky Tooth. He had co-produced many of Foreigner’s biggest albums, including the multi-platinum 4. “I thought Mick was a great songwriter, and would help us hone our songs,” says Hagar.
Jones was in LA when Hagar contacted him. Immediately, he agreed to go up to 5150 to hear some music and talk with the band.
“Sammy picked me up,” Jones says today, “and as we were driving up to the studio I said, ‘What should I expect up there?’ He said, ‘Mick, you and I have been around awhile. But let me tell you, this is something else. Hold tight and enjoy the ride!’”
The first track the band played for Jones was frenetic heavy-metal blow out Get Up. That was all it took for him to sign up as producer. “I’ve never heard anything like that I my life,” he told them. “It sounds like four guys fighting inside the speaker cabinets, beating the shit out of each other. I’m in.”
Hagar’s instinct was right. A proven hitmaker, Jones bought his wisdom to bear on Van Halen’s new songs. He helped turn Why Can’t This Be Love from a lengthy jam into a bona fide hit-in-waiting. He encouraged the band to develop an Eddie Van Halen keyboard riff into the barrelling Dreams, coaxing out one of Hagar’s greatest ever vocal performances in the process. “I was able to push Sammy to new heights,” says Jones. “Literally. He was singing so high that he was hyperventilating. He almost passed out.”
Jones took a different approach with Eddie, just letting him do his thing. “There’s not much I could have done to improve Eddie’s performances,” he says. “He was completely out there – not drug-wise, he just went into this trance state as he played.” In these moments, Jones was reminded of the times he spent with Jimi Hendrix in the late 60s, when Jones was the guitarist for French superstar Johnny Hallyday and Hendrix was the opening act on a European tour. “When I worked with Eddie, it was the first time I’d met a guitar player who had a similar gift, who had that thing running through him from up above,” he says.
As work on the Van Halen album neared completion in December 1985, there was a buzz in the air at 5150. “We all felt,” Hagar says, “that the music we were making was on such a high level, we just didn’t feel like anyone could touch that. There was a quote that was said maybe five times a day: ‘Wait ’til the fans hear this shit.’ We knew.”
But there was one person who wasn’t smiling. From the first day that Mick Jones arrived at 5150, he had sensed animosity from Donn Landee. “Donn had expected he would produce the album,” Jones says. “So there was an atmosphere of resentment between him and me.”
Jones handled this with quintessential British reserve. Until, that is, Landee flipped.
“Donn had a bad moment,” says Jones. “He locked himself in the studio and threatened to burn the tapes. It was a stand-off for almost a day – like one of those situations where somebody’s going to commit suicide. He was very highly strung. But in the end, we talked him down.”
Surprisingly, there were no repercussions for Landee. He cleared the air with Jones, and together they completed the final mix of the album in January 1986. “We had to work fast,” Jones says. “The band had a tour booked.”
On a sunny LA day in February, Mick Jones was driving in a convertible sports car, the top down, the radio tuned to a rock station, when a DJ announced in an excited voice: “Here’s something brand new from Van Halen!” He played Best Of Both Worlds. Jones cranked up the volume. “It sounded amazing,” he says. He was certain that Van Halen had nailed it.
In early March came the first single. Why Can’t This Be Love was an instant hit, rising to Number Two on the US chart. 5150 itself was released on March 24. It was an out-of the-box success. “The album went platinum in one week,” Hagar says. “It was the fastest million-selling record in Warners’ history.”
The reconfigured Van Halen kicked off their first tour on March 27 in Shreveport, Louisiana. The first song they played was Hagar’s 1982 solo hit, There’s Only One Way To Rock. Coming from Van Halen, it was a powerful statement of unity.
A few weeks later, before a show in Atlanta, Georgia, the four members of Van Halen were summoned to their manager’s hotel suite for a meeting. Champagne was poured, and the band were told the record was at Number One.
“We fuckin’ partied!” Hagar says. “It was such a high. None of us had ever had a number one.”
The band’s choice of singer was vindicated by the world at large when the “Van Hagar” lineup knocked Whitney Houston out of the top spot, and 5150 became Van Halen’s first number one album, and certified platinum soon after. “Why Can’t This Be Love?” hit #3 on Billboard, and two other songs charted in the Top 40 without the benefit of music videos. The album soared on the high end of the Billboard chart for a year and three months.
It was 5150 time!