Author/Van Halen historian Greg Renoff sat down for in-depth interview at the site of Van Halen’s classic early recordings – Sunset Sound Recorders in Hollywood.
Renoff, the author of Van Halen Rising: How A Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal and Ted Templeman: A Platinum Producer’s Life in Music, had plenty of stories to tell regarding Van Halen’s ascent to stardom in the mid to late 70s and Ted Templeman, the man who produced the band’s first six albums. He was joined by the host of the Sunset Sound Recorders YouTube channel Drew Dempsey and studio owner Paul Camarata.
Renoff relayed Templeman’s thoughts on the one-of-a-kind chemistry and loyalty between David Lee Roth, Eddie and Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. Renoff recalled the story of Van Halen being rejected by KISS manager Bill Aucoin after Gene Simmons produced their demo in hopes of landing them a record deal.
“What ends up happening is that Van Halen auditioned for Bill Aucoin in New York at SIR [Studios in New York City] using KISS’s equipment,” said Renoff. “That’s when Aucoin famously has them in his office on Madison Avenue and says, ‘Ya know what boys, I don’t think there’s any commercial potential here at all. I don’t see any commercial potential. Ya know, if you guys got rid of your singer. He’s saying this right to [Dave’s] face.’ Roth talks about how he’s having his shoe signed. [continues] ‘If you guys maybe wanna just switch out your singer and maybe we’ll do something but I don’t see it happening.’ And that was it.”
Despite the rejection, the band forged on. Roth took the band’s demo tape and pitched it to popular Los Angeles disc jockey Rodney Binghenheimer, who played the band’s music on the radio. Binghenheimer then helped Van Halen secure gigs at the Starwood nightclub on the Sunset Strip where Ted Templeman saw the band performing. Soon after, he was producing the band’s 1978 debut. Even then, there were those who had reservations about Roth’s ability as a vocalist.
“I think it was definitely, or probably known to the brothers [Eddie and Alex] that there were people in the industry that had seen Van Halen and thought Roth was the weakest link of the group but, that being said, I think they were loyal to each other,” said Renoff.
Renoff added that Templeman had his own concerns regarding Roth’s vocals but realized that replacing him would have been a big mistake once he discovered his strengths.
“Ted said that when he would go out to Roth’s house and watch their rehearsals he said, ‘Ya know Dave was super smart and I realized there were things I could do to help accentuate his strengths,'” said Renoff. “He said, ‘The lyrics and the sense of humor, it’s not just a matter of pulling something out of a band and then plugging something [else] back in.’ One of the things Ted said to me a number of times is, ‘If I had pulled Dave out of that band in 1978 I would have made the biggest mistake in rock history. I would have destroyed arguably one of the best bands in the world, I would have destroyed it by doing that.”
Renoff also offered up some interesting Van Halen song reveals along the way, including the cowbell sound on the Fair Warning track “Hear About It Later” which was recorded outside of the Sunset Sound Recorders building.
“[Van Halen engineer] Donn Landee said, ‘Ya know the cowbell on ‘Hear About It Later’? We recorded that cowbell out there in the brick courtyard,'” said Renoff. “He said that they had recorded the cowbell in the room [inside] with Alex. I don’t know which studio they did it in but he said, ‘We wanted to see if we could make it sound louder.’ He said that it reverberated off the bricks and it sounded really, really great.”