When Sammy Hagar Played His First Van Halen Concert
The city of Shreveport, La., bore witness on March 27, 1986 to the very first public performance of Van Halen MKII. The group was sometimes nicknamed “Van Hagar” in reference to new front man Sammy Hagar, who had controversially replaced David Lee Roth just a few months prior.
The night and the tour turned out to be a gigantic success, though Hagar later told UCR's Matt Wardlaw it was "stupid" that the new lineup "rebelled against our pasts" by featuring so much of Van Hagar's as-yet unheard debut album 5150, rather than more familiar songs from their respective catalogs.
But Roth's split with Van Halen had led to plenty of headlines as public sparring continued between both parties, sparking perhaps the biggest rock and roll feud since Paul McCartney took on the remaining Beatles.
So, the pressure was on as this new edition of Van Halen stood before the court of public opinion inside Hirsch Memorial Coliseum.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the ten-odd-thousand ticket-buyers in attendance on that Thursday night proved to be heavily partisan toward Sammy Hagar, with many fans donning t-shirts or hoisting banners depicting Roth’s name or photo circled and crossed out – similar to the 55 mph speed-limit sign from the video for Hagar's recent solo hit. The band clearly basked in the audience’s show of unwavering support: Hagar was reportedly so bold as to sport a “Dave Who?” shirt at one point.
In reality, as he told Wardlaw in 2014, Hagar was actually "a wreck" before the show, because 5150 would be arriving just days before the concert. "It was fucked up. I mean, we were excited and we knew how good we were. But we had made the commitment that we weren’t going to play any of the old material," Hagar said. "[Unfortunately] our album didn’t get out yet. It was supposed to be out for a week before we did our first show. But they went ahead and booked a show which sold out in five minutes – every show did – and the album wasn’t out. All they heard was the single, 'Why Can’t This Be Love.'"
Even at this late moment, the set list was still in flux. "I remember during the last week of rehearsal that we decided to do "You Really Got Me,’ ‘I Can’t Drive 55,’ ‘One Way to Rock’ and ‘Jump’ – two of mine and two of theirs and ‘Jump’ was going to be the encore and I was going to bring a guy up to sing. I wasn’t going to sing it myself," he said.
"It was stupid – even though it worked and we were extremely successful," Hagar added. "We had our first No. 1 album, and we certainly had the biggest tour of the year. But it was stupid that we rebelled against our pasts. But you know, when you’re rich and famous rock stars and young and really in the middle of it, you make some stupid mistakes and ironically you get away with it half the time, which makes you even stupider – I’m talking about myself now – because it worked."
Thankfully, Hagar said, this lineup didn't make their debut during the era of instant feedback via Facebook and Twitter. "There was no internet then, so we didn’t have to sit and read about it. But truthfully, it was really scary to say 'Wow, we’re going to walk out there and play the 5150 record' and this is sold out," Hagar said. "These people are expecting some old Van Halen and some old Sammy Hagar, because that’s who sold it out. But it worked and I just remember opening up with ‘You Really Got Me’ and it was like the frikkin’ barricade went down and it was like 'Okay, the nerves are gone.' But I was a wreck, man, I was really a wreck. I thought 'Man, this could bomb.'"
Hagar also decided to perform without a traditional microphone stand as well, instead using a headset-based system. That and the fact that his guitar-playing duties had been reduced from his solo days – a natural result of sharing the stage with Eddie Van Halen – left him even more vulnerable.
"They had just invented that headset microphone and just two guys were using it back then, Peter Gabriel and myself," Hagar said. "I was walking out there without a microphone, you know, naked, hands in the air. I came out there running all over the place and people are looking around going 'Who the fuck is singing? Where’s that voice coming from?' Because I had that little headset mic and it was a new invention. Not that many people had seen it, except for some of my fans from the previous tour.
"It was pretty damn intense," Hagar added, "and if you look at an early live video of Van Halen, nobody was even near each other. We were flying all over the place and we were running from one end of the stage to the other, jumping off of shit. [Laughs.] Man, I’m surprised we could even play our instruments, doing what we were doing!"
Regardless, the night was by all accounts a huge success. By the time Van Halen took their bows and exited stage left that night, the revamped lineup was on its way to achieving the impossible: shutting up David Lee Roth. Despite his own solo band’s considerable success, Roth was left scrambling for colorful jabs and excuses to deflect his former band’s superior record sales and tour receipts.
On one hot night in Louisiana, all those years ago, America’s greatest hard rock band enjoyed the first evidence of a second lease on life.
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