30 years after the release of Van Halen’s OU812, our friends at Ultimate Classic Rock hosted a roundtable discussion about the album. Featuring UCR staff, along with VHND’s Jeff Hausman, and Van Halen Rising author, Greg Renoff, they tackle five big questions about the album. Read everyone’s answers to question #1, below, and continue to read the rest at UCR.
On May 24, 1988, Van Halen released OU812, the second album of their Sammy Hagar era. It found the band pushing its stylistic boundaries even more than its multi-platinum predecessor, 1986’s 5150.
But did they reach too far? Where does the album rank among the four “Van Hagar” efforts? And how does it compare to former singer David Lee Roth’s own sophomore album from 1988, the keyboard-heavy Skyscraper? Our reporters tackle these and other big questions:
1) What’s your overall take on OU812?
Greg Renoff (author, Van Halen Rising): It’s not an album I listen to frequently, but out of all the Hagar-era albums, it’s probably my second favorite, after For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. I’m a big fan of the boogies — less so of the keyboard-driven tunes like “When It’s Love.”
Matthew Wilkening: OU812 might be a little too diverse for its own good. It’s impressive to see the band reach out into new and diverse territory with songs like “Mine All Mine,” “Feels So Good” and “Finish What Ya Started.” The problem is, two of the songs that are supposed to cover their hard-rock home base — “A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)” and “Source of Infection” — are rather underwhelming. If they were stronger, the whole thing might hold together better, instead of feeling slightly spotty.
Jeff Hausman (Van Halen News Desk and Van Halen Store): To me, OU812 is the most fun, diverse and colorful album they ever recorded with Hagar. It came out during the last week of high school for me, kicking off the summer, and it had everything: the monster guitar riffs of “A.F.U.” and “Sucker in a 3 Piece,” the crazy boogie of “Source of Infection,” the bluesy “Black And Blue,” the country-sounding (surprise!) “Finish What Ya Started” and the popular keyboard tunes “Feels So Good” and “When It’s Love,” and unique stuff like “Mine All Mine” and “Cabo Wabo.” Also, this album might have had the greatest use of Michael Anthony’s epic background vocals, which gave it a really fun, summertime feel.
Matt Wardlaw: It’s kind of the … And Justice For All of Van Halen’s catalog in that the bottom end is sorely missed on this album. That being said, I know that I was curious to hear where Van Halen would go on their second album with Sammy Hagar at the helm. “Black and Blue” offered an exciting preview as the lead single, and looking back now, I’m not sure that the album delivered everything I was expecting as a fan, based on the sleazy grit of that first taste. But I think that the record as a whole holds up pretty well. In retrospect, it feels less intense and more ballad-heavy than 5150 did — I’m sure some longtime fans grumbled when “When It’s Love” (which I like a lot) came around two tracks into the album. But I also like the jam-room fly-on-the-wall vibes that one gets when listening to their take on “A Apolitical Blues,” the Little Feat cover they threw in as a bonus track on the CD version of OU812.
Eduardo Rivadavia: OU812 felt like a reset album. Like Van Halen learning to sound like their old selves, minus Roth, plus Hagar, after the techno-pop overkill of 5150. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar ruled the roost once again, not his synthesizer fetish, and that right there guaranteed an authentic-sounding Van Halen album, in line with the rest of their overall discography. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always defend 5150 for its high-caliber songcraft, but as with Judas Priest’s Turbo or Def Leppard’s Hysteria, I basically find it unlistenable. Or at least they are albums I never want to listen to. OU812 made me a Van Halen fan again.
Michael Christopher: OU812 is the logical musical progression from 5150. They continued to expand their sonic palette with the freedom Hagar gave them to delve into ballads and basic pop, which unfortunately for fans of the Roth era, meant less straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll. It was here that Van Hagar came into their own, fully breaking free of the past and establishing their own identity. Like 5150, though, it’s also one of the most dated in the band’s catalog, due to the production and keyboard-heavy material.
Martin Kielty: An expression of bewildered competence. I’ve always been a fan of hit-or-miss art because it’s dangerous, and OU812 is dangerous because it’s not certain of what it is. The result is some moments of musical joy and others of dirge, although the joy manages to outweigh the dirge often enough to make it successful.
Jed Gottlieb: Van Hagar’s second effort fails where 5150 succeeds. “When It’s Love” can’t match for “Why Can’t This Be Love” as a corny, catchy minor pop-rock masterpiece. The chicken-pickin’ of “Finish What Ya Started” is fun, but the guitar on the 5150 title track is absolutely awesome. “Cabo Wabo” ain’t no “Summer Nights.” And so on. But when compared with Balance, OU812 sounds like Led Zeppelin’s IV. Ultimately, OU812 is both disappointing and deeply underrated. Side A should be Side B and vice versa, Hagar’s rock poetry drips with cheese and still the record can be a blast to listen to.
Rob Smith: I have a lot of good memories tied up with this album. It came out toward the end of my senior year of high school, and it soundtracked the whole summer that followed. As a statement of Van Halen’s art, it’s probably their most varied record — rock songs, ballads, keyboards, loud guitars, a seven-minute track, a country-ish pickin’ tune, all of it. There’s a little bit of everything on there. It also sounds like they were having fun, which, as the ensuing years’ worth of interviews and stories have shown us, might have been the last time they had fun together.
Other questions answered:
2) What’s the best song on the album?
3) If you had to drop one song from the track listing, what would it be?
4) Where does OU812 land on your “Van Hagar” album rankings?
5) 5150 vs. Eat ‘Em and Smile has been debated many times. How would you rank these three albums: OU812, Roth’s 1988 sophomore effort Skyscraper, and Sammy Hagar’s contractually obligated 1987 solo career “farewell” I Never Said Goodbye?