Today, 25 years after the release of Van Halen’s Balance, our friends at Ultimate Classic Rock host a roundtable discussion about the album. Featuring UCR staff, Mitch Lafon from Rock Talk with Mitch Lafon, and Jeff Hausman from Van Halen News Desk, they tackle five big questions about the album. Read everyone’s answers to question #1, below, and continue to read the rest at UCR.
The fourth and final Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen album, 1995’s Balance, had a rather difficult birth.
The once happy and fully unified band was now arguing in the studio over lyrical direction and more personal issues. By his own admission, it was the first album Eddie Van Halen recorded sober, a positive but also daunting step. It also found the band, perhaps inspired or otherwise influenced by the recent grunge revolution, taking a more serious tone both musically and thematically.
The internal and external interest in a reunion with former singer David Lee Roth also loomed over the project. In his 2011 autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, Hagar said he knew “it was over” for this version of Van Halen, even while they were still working on Balance: “I knew they were trying to get rid of me.”
On the flip side, in a 1998 Guitar World interview, Eddie claimed his newfound clarity merely exposed issues that were already lurking below the surface. “What I did was I took charge of myself, my own life,” he said. “And that freaked people out who used to control me.”
Given that atmosphere, it seems like a miracle Balance got finished at all. But was it worth all that stress? Our roundtable tackles five big questions.
1) What’s your overall take on Balance?
Matthew Wilkening: On first listen way back in 1995, it was obvious something was wrong. In retrospect, it’s an oddly and ironically named album. It seems pretty clear that “balance” was something the group was striving for, rather than actually experiencing. Both Hagar and the Van Halen brothers have spoken about the arguments they had regarding the lyrics, or lack of them, on “Amsterdam,” “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” and “Baluchitherium.” After the occasionally repetitive back-to-basics approach of 1991’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge, it was admirable to see them trying to stretch out both in terms of music and subject matter. There are some high points, but also far more filler than on any prior Van Halen record. For the first time in their career, it didn’t sound like they were on solid footing as a group or anywhere close to being on the same page personally. This was all confirmed with Hagar’s acrimonious departure the following year, which kicked off one of rock’s longest and still-running cold wars.
Michael Christopher: I think it’s unfairly maligned. So much had changed in the musical landscape since For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge came out. The band needed to change things up a bit while retaining their core sound to stay relevant – and they did just that. “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” had enough menace to align with the dour last days of grunge and was a perfect choice for the first single. Its followup, “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You,” has that ear-worm catchiness that could compete with the radio-friendliness of Hootie & the Blowfish and Sheryl Crow dominating the Top 40. We know now how band tensions had gotten between Hagar and the Van Halen brothers, which would certainly explain the amount of filler on Balance, but that strain led to some of the strongest lyrics from Hagar since he had joined. All that said, it is a wildly inconsistent album, and when it’s bad, it really sinks to the depths. From the jarring sequencing of songs to the number of seemingly unfinished ideas, it’s an absolute mess in parts.
Jeff Hausman (Van Halen News Desk): During the entire Sammy Hagar era, Van Halen were my favorite band. The only band I ever liked more was the original Van Halen, but I accepted the change and enjoyed it all. But when Balance came out, I was a bit underwhelmed for the first time. You could almost tell something just wasn’t the same with the members of the band. We found out later that was indeed the case. The whole Balance album and tour cycle felt less fun and less like classic Van Halen than ever before. I still enjoyed it, but something was missing. I know that the fan base overall thinks 5150 and F.U.C.K. were the strongest albums from that era, but the overall consensus was more mixed for OU812 and Balance. In my view, OU812 was right up there with 5150 and F.U.C.K., but Balance felt a bit like leftovers to me.
Mitch Lafon (Rock Talk With Mitch Lafon): I absolutely love this album. I picked up the Japanese import to get the brilliant bonus track “Crossing Over.” Moreover, the video version of “Don’t Tell Me (What Love Can Do)” is in the Top 3 best “Van Hagar” rockers. The album also includes their best power ballads and best mid-tempo songs, “Not Enough” and “Can’t Stop Lovin’ You.” Hopefully, when Hagar tours this summer, he’ll start playing all three. The only thing I hated was the naked kid on the cover (the Japanese cover had one, not two). Note to all bands: Just keep kids off your covers, especially if they’re nude. There’s no need for that under any circumstance.
Other questions answered:
2) What’s the best song on Balance? Overall, how many keepers are on there?
3) What’s the first song you’d cut from Balance? Are there any others you’d replace?
4) If you had to pick one song from this album for David Lee Roth to sing — assuming he’d rewrite lyrics, the arrangement, etc. — what would it be?
5) On a scale of 1-10, how interested would you be in a new Van Halen album with Sammy Hagar on vocals?