“Oh, You Ate One Too!”
Released 34 years ago today – May 24th, 1988!
‘OU812′ was the second Van Halen album to feature Sammy Hagar as lead singer. It reached number one on Billboard (the band’s second consecutive #1), sold over 4 million copies in the US and featured six songs that landed on the Billboard Hot 100 and/or the Mainstream Rock Tracks!
Van Halen – OU812
Kinda breaking my own rule here about really reserving this column for albums I think are sterling, fetching or otherwise a personal thrill. But hey, a lot of you out there think ‘OU812‘ is a classic, and frankly as time wears on, it’s sounding better all the time. I mean, I’m starting to miss these guys. Anyway, there are a number of cool comments on the road ahead (some of which are now well-known apocryphal tales) so sit back while lead belter Sammy Hagar sheds some light (a lot of light!) on a big, big corporate rock album from 1988.
For starters, we all know Van Halen was coming off a triumph of a record with ‘5150‘, Sam splitting fans into three camps, those fer Dave, those fer Sam and those fer Van Halen, the latter two camps buying that album as well as ‘OU812‘ in droves. Indeed, ‘OU812‘ felt a bit more cohesive, a bit more produced, a bit more like a properly sequenced album.
“Recording of that album, that’s when things were still great,” begins Sam, setting the mood. “We could do no wrong. And we didn’t stop getting along until the very end. So OU812 was the second record and it was still fantastic. We were coming off the first #1 record Van Halen ever had. We were very prolific and anxious to write and we went in with nothing. We just said, let’s start recording today. We just made a date. We had come off a very lengthy tour for 5150 and Eddie had a bunch of riffs he was jamming around. I had a bunch of lyrics in notebooks that I had been thinking about and writing. And we just put them together and jammed in the studio. It was just complete, simple, magic.”
“A great story here. Ed and Al picked me up from the airport when I flew down to start the record. I flew into town, I got in the car, and Ed and Al go, ‘you know, we kind of stayed up all night last night and we worked on this one little thing and we want to play it for you.’ And I’m going, ‘you fuckers started without me!’ just joking around, because we were all buddy buddies, and they played me it. It was just a piano and drums to the song ‘When It’s Love’. Before the song was over, I was singing, ‘how do I know when it’s love.’ And by the time we played it over and over again, by the time we got to the studio, that song was written and done, lyrics, melody, everything. That’s the kind of magic we had going. And that was the first song we wrote from OU812.”
“Then there was another classic thing that happened on the record. I mean, there’s three great stories for you. We were almost done with the record, but I hadn’t finished my lyrics and vocals. But we were kind of done all the music and I had all my melodies down. I would jam with the band every day, and if I didn’t have lyrics I’d just start humming melodies and stuff, right? So then I went to Cabo San Lucas, I said I’m going to go down there for a couple of weeks. I had a house down there and I had lived there for a time and I’m going to finish up my lyrics. I had all the basic tracks with me. And then I said I’ll come back and we’ll start vocals. So I go down there and I see a guy walking down the street bumping into a barbed wire fence about 4:00 in the morning. And I said to myself, ‘this guy’s doing the Cabo Wabo‘, right? So I went straight home, wrote the lyrics, wrote the melody, called Eddie on the phone. I was so excited, and said ‘Eddie, listen to this,’ and I just said, ‘just think about the song ‘Make It Last’, which is on the Montrose album, one of the first songs I ever wrote. I said think about ‘Make It Last’ and think about this lyric, and I started going, ‘Been to Rome…’ (sings riff), and I wrote that song to ‘Make It Last’, and Eddie goes, ‘oh man, listen to this! Listen to this!’ Me and Al have been working on this thing. He starts playing (sings the riff). So he was working on ‘Make It Last’ as well, and when I came back, my lyrics fit perfectly with the music they had put down. It was another magical moment.” Indeed, one can hear the slow monster strains of ‘Make It Last’ all over that song, one of the record’s casual music tracks as well as one of its more casual lyrics. On the live album it even gets more soupy, combined with ‘You Really Got Me’, stomping and jamming at once, opening up for a nice chorus which pours on Van Halen’s penchant for sun and fun.
Next Sammy recounts the often-told ‘Finish What Ya Started’ tale, that track becoming one of what would really be only two hits off the album, aforementioned oddly darkish non-ballad popster ‘When It’s Love’ being the other. ‘Finish What Ya Started’ continues the live and casual theme to the album, essentially perking along as an unplugged, campfire-vibe track, especially come those arch-Halen vocal harmonies.
“I lived next door to Eddie in Malibu,” explains Hagar. “We had finished all the songs on the record and basically, weren’t looking for any more songs. So I hear Eddie, ‘Sam! Sam.’ My bedroom had a balcony and I opened the window and looked out and I go ‘man, Ed, what the fuck are you doing? It’s 2:00 in the morning!’ He’s got a guitar around his neck, cigarette in his mouth of course. And he’s going ‘listen, come on man I’ve got this cool song idea.’ So, you know, any time anybody’s got a good song idea or some good dope or some good tequila or some good pussy, I will be there, OK? So he had a good song and I had the tequila. And Eddie smokes, so he couldn’t come in; I don’t allow people to smoke in my house, so I said let’s sit outside on the porch. So we’re sitting outside on the porch, on the beach and I took my acoustic guitar and we wrote right on the spot ‘Finish What Ya Started’. I didn’t have the lyrics quite done yet but I went back upstairs after we finished the whole musical idea, about four in the morning and I’m laying there going in my head ‘come on baby, finish what you started’. Because fuck, the guy got me all wound up, takes me downstairs, all this shit, and I’m sitting here in bed with the song running through my head and I jumped up and wrote those lyrics. So I think those are three magical moments on OU812.”
You say you were finished with the album. Would it have been released then without ‘Finish What Ya Started’?
“Yeah, we had the song ‘A Apolitical Blues’ (an obscure Little Feat cover), which became an extra track for it, and we had another song called ‘Numb To The Touch’, which never ever was released, or finished really. If I had to speculate, that song would sound more like a traditional, almost Whitesnake, heavy metal type song. But yeah, it was pretty much a record.”
Dark horse and creative centerpiece to the album however is crack-it-opener ‘Mine All Mine’, a dramatic metaphysical romp, ambitious, slammed by Alex’s singular drum sound, his instinctual choices, a great Sam vocal and lyric, probably my favorite song from all of the Sam years.
“That wasn’t a magical moment, but it was the first time in my life I ever beat myself up, hurt myself, punished myself, practically threw things through windows, trying to write the lyrics,” recounts Hagar. “I knew what I wanted and I had it called ‘Mine All Mine’ from the first opening lick. And I was thinking ‘what is mine all mine?’ I went through it, I rewrote that song lyrically seven times. And it was the last song I did vocals on for the record. I wouldn’t sing it because I was unsure about my lyrics and wasn’t really confident about what I was trying to say. Donn Landee, the engineer, kept saying – because I’m kind of embarrassed singing in front of people when I don’t really know what I’m doing – Donn said, ‘well let’s just get everybody out of here and just you and I work this out.’ And I said, ‘OK, let’s try it’, and I did it seven different times, ripping papers up, drinking tequila all night one night to where I had the worst hangover in the world and I couldn’t even go into the studio to try and write those lyrics. And I’m not like that; I don’t hurt myself very often, only on my birthday. So Donn Landee and I locked ourselves in the studio and I sang the lyrics. And when I was finished, I had sung it for the first time all the way through, and the whole time he had his head down on the console not looking at me because he was trying to give me some space. When I finished, he jumped up came running in with fuckin’ eyes bugging out of his head and said ‘that’s the coolest song you ever wrote.’ And he gave me a big hug and said ‘let me get Ed and everybody in here, they’re going to shit’ and I said, ‘are you sure Donn? Are you sure?’ I was insecure about it because it was kind of a new statement for Van Halen, and kind of for me too. I had never really said something quite that deep. And quite honestly, the band came in, and everybody was going ‘fuck, yeah!’ and it was a winner. That’s the vocal take that was done. It wasn’t like ‘let’s try and do it better.’ The take was just magic. And before it, was a struggle. When I finished with all that I felt like the world was off my shoulders. But earlier on, trying to write that song, I was so hungover, I could even come in. It wasn’t done, and I just didn’t feel good. And I said look, no reason for me to come in. You guys go ahead, because all that was left to do was my vocal. It didn’t really hold the album up necessarily, but it probably did take me 10 days to write those lyrics and to do the vocal.”
“‘Source Of Infection’, that’s the only one,” answers Sam with regard to what tracks on the record he ultimately wasn’t so happy with. “We made a joke out of that song. Eddie and I got a little liquored up in the studio and started goofing off. Alex was down on it, the engineer Donn Landee was down on it, saying ‘come on, you can’t do that!’ All this ‘baby bend over,’ and all this barking, and going ‘Hey! Ow! Alright!’ It was like a spoof on James Brown. We were goofing. Because we were so high on the success of 5150, we knew we could get away with it. And we knew we had enough hits on the record to pretty much do anything. But it was very politically incorrect and personally, Eddie and I both kind of regret it. But it was a pretty bad-ass piece of music. But that’s legal.”
Any other cover versions you considered for this album?
“No, none of us are really cover people, and one song is always enough. The engineer, Donn Landee had been the engineer on the Little Feat song. Ted Templeman produced those songs. At this time we weren’t using Ted Templeman any more, but Donn Landee, we were still using as engineer. And I had mentioned it one day in the studio, I said ‘let’s just get all sloppy and blues-out and try something like ‘A Apolitical Blues’ which was a really underground Little Feat tune. And Donn is going, ‘yeah man! I’ll set up the same way they did it, which was two mikes in the corner of the room, everybody playing live,’ and it’s basically a mono tune, the way we recorded it and the way they did it too, which is just a big room sound. And I sang live and played rhythm guitar on that song. So we played live and Eddie overdubbed the piano part on it. Nothing else was overdubbed.”
“‘A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)“, I thought was just a bad-ass rock ‘n’ roll tune,” explains Hagar on what was one of the record’s filler-ish though smeary and clearly rocking guitar-ish tracks, “and when Eddie first started playing me that riff, I said, this is about walking out on stage. This is the opener for the OU812 tour. It reminded me of a song you would open a show with. Curtain opens and boom. I can picture Eddie playing the harmonic guitar, walking out on stage, into the fire. I think it’s a cool song, just kind of a typical rock ‘n’ roll-on-10 type song, but I think it’s cool.”
Curiously there was no production credit on the album. Sam says this was “because the band pretty much produced the album ourselves. And we weren’t producers, in the sense that we went in with an idea and told everybody what to do and took control. There just wasn’t a producer. That was Van Halen with an engineer. The truth of the matter is, when you’re truly a band, that’s the way to do it. That way no one comes in and says, ‘you know, the latest trend is this, and if you want to have a hit, you should try doing this. There’s this song that was never as hit, but I think it’s a hit, and you guys should cover it.’ That’s what producers do. Most of them. There’s very few great producers out there. Bruce Fairbairn was one of the great producers and he’s not with us anymore. But I recommend bands just go out and do it yourselves.”
The inner sleeve of the original OU812 vinyl version depicted a cryptic hand gesture that eventually became a bond between band and fan. What’s the origin of that?
“Alex Van Halen; this is always his little job, big job really, in the band, is to come up with the covers. Pretty much the whole time I was in the band, we left Alex with that job. Eddie and I got together and wrote the songs, but Alex did the covers. That was really his baby. I always came up with the album titles, except for Balance was not my title. That was the first time I didn’t name a record but I named the rest of them. OU812 was going to be called Bone. But that hand thing, Mikey invented, because you know the old heavy metal sign. It’s very cute, I think. So Mikey used to take his hand, and I would take my hand and put it up next his and we made that symbol at the end of shows, right? And the fans started doing it back to us, so we put it on OU812 record. But Alex came up with the rest. He hated the name Bone, but we were going to use it because we didn’t have a title. But then I saw a delivery truck on the freeway, and its number, the real number of it, on the side of it, its truck number, serial number, was OU812, and I cracked up. And I came in and told the band about it, and they said that’s fuckin’ great. So I thought it was hilarious and said let’s call the record that. And I mean, it was in the 11th hour so that title didn’t have any significance to the cover. Alex had already thought about the monkey, why I don’t know, but we all thought it was funny.”
Finally Sam rounds up the rest of the album tracks, songs that could only be called that because they sit embedded deep in the album, never becoming big Van Halen classics, although given the enormity of the band, nevertheless getting much dutiful radio play over the years.
“‘Black And Blue’… I’m a very sexual type person. If I ever write something like that, it’s usually a true experience. It’s a true experience I happen to have had on the 5150 tour, where I was actually bruised up pretty bad, and in the wrong areas too, man. It took me out of commission for a week or so. But it was a good thing and I thought, what a great phrase: ‘do it to me black and blue.’ It’s kind of a typical, goofy, old-time ’80s rock ‘n’ roll lyric. But my most proud thing about that lyric is the way it rhythmically phrases against the music. Because in Van Halen, when Eddie and Alex get together, there weren’t many holes in the music to sing to. I like to sing in the holes. You don’t sing over the lick; you should sing in holes. Well, there’s never any holes in Van Halen. So lyrically, I was a master on that song and I sang completely… you just listen to it some time. It was like ‘boom, dat, oomph, dat, boom, uh’. If you just took it and made drumbeats out of everything I sang and everything else that was on there, it would sound like a Latino song, it was so rhythmically correct. And lyrically, it’s not easy to do that, to find a word that’s going to fit with what you’re trying to say, and rhymes and rhythms like that. So I think it’s a masterpiece of phrasing if anything.”
“‘Feels So Good’ was kind of stepping out for us. It was in a pop Genesis style. I liked it a lot; nobody else in the band liked it, except maybe Eddie. ‘Sucker In A 3-Piece’ is a little goofy, but I was at the Twin Dolphins in Cabo San Lucas and I saw one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life at poolside with one of the ugliest, fattest, old bald-headed fuckers I’ve ever seen in my life. The point is, I wrote the song when I was down there at the same time I wrote the ‘Cabo Wabo’. But I went to this hotel for lunch, which is a great lunch spot and I’m looking at the pool and I went ‘damn, I wish my wife would look like this chick. She’s got to be the most gorgeous woman on the planet.’ She’s about 23 years old, this guy’s about 60, weighs about 260, smoking cigars, his breath probably smelled like horseshit, and you’re going, ‘how could this be!?’ Well I bet you, this guy is pretty much a suit, probably has a lot of money. And I’m thinking, how can this guy think she’s in love with him? So I wrote that song. It’s a little goofy, but at the end of it, I said in the original version, ‘now swallow it’. And no one would let me do it. I said it, it’s on the tape. If we ever remix it… at the very end there’s this gargle sound, and then I say, ‘now swallow it’. But politically incorrect again, the record company made us take it off.”
“There’s OU812 in a fuckin’ nutshell,” laughs Sam in summary, turning in what has obviously been a hell of a retrospective. “It’s really my pleasure, I don’t mind talking about it, a great record…”