Did Van Halen Bite Off Too Much With ‘OU812’? Our Writers Devour Five Questions
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:
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.
What’s the best song on the album?
Renoff: “Source of Infection.” It carries forth the Van Halen boogie tradition that stretches back to “I’m the One” on Van Halen. Nobody does power shuffles better than Ed and Alex Van Halen.
Wilkening: "Cabo Wabo." At seven minutes-plus, It's the band's first real epic (none of their previous tracks with Roth or Hagar had ever broken the six-minute mark), and they confidently wander into some pretty deep Physical Graffiti territory.
Hausman: I’d have to go with “Cabo Wabo,” not because I like it musically more than the other songs, but because it’s been a bit life-changing -- it inspired my friends and I to visit that “sleepy little town south of the border” many years ago. Since then, I’ve learned that the lyric “You go there once, you’ll be there twice” is a huge understatement. It’s more like, “You go there once, you’ll be there a whole bunch of times!” My wife and I go down to Hagar’s Birthday Bash regularly because we love the town and all the great people we’ve met down there and keep in touch with.
Wardlaw: "Black and Blue." Eddie could do a lot with a good raunchy riff, as he demonstrated on this record with that song and "Poundcake" on the For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge album that followed. Each time that Van Halen put out an album, you were always anticipating the first sampling of new music that you would get and "Black and Blue" was a particularly satisfying dosage.
Rivadavia: "Sucker in a 3 Piece" is my personal favorite, because it's so heavy, Eddie pulls out all the shredding stops, Hagar sounds convincingly pissed, plus the message is central to rock 'n' roll culture: Screw the establishment, do it your way, rebel, rebel, rebel. "Finish What Ya Started" is another contender, with that poppin', badass, acoustic lick and those irresistible choruses, as is "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired)," again because it's guitar-heavy. I see a theme here. Heck, I even like the synth-driven numbers and ballads on OU812 better than the ones on 5150.
Christopher: If it weren’t for the ham-fisted, god-awful lyrics, “Black and Blue” would be a slam dunk. So, it’s “Mine All Mine.” Such a great opener for the record, and unlike anything Van Halen had done at that point, both lyrically and musically. It showed how much growth they had undergone in those two respects but were still able to call back to some of the things that turned fans on in the first place, in this case the scorching guitar work by Eddie.
Kielty: “Black And Blue” has the best of Hagar’s classic swagger, another dose of “Where did that come from?” genius from Eddie and the most solid of rock-solid sexy rhythms; but Michael Anthony’s backing vocals (as is often the case) just adds that dose of extra magic.
Smith: I’m partial to “Black and Blue.” The lyrics are sophomore-year poetry about rough sex that could’ve just as easily been written by a nerdy virgin wanting to impress his friends. I’d still rather hear Sammy Hagar sing this song than some quasi-deep commentary on the state of the world. Eddie’s riff is a super-distorted Southern California version of the blues, which is to say a smudgy photocopy of the real thing without a shred of authenticity, but when placed in the context of Alex’s groove, it sounds like he wrote it on his porch, drinkin’ bathtub hootch after an afternoon of whittlin’ sticks. It’s filthy, all around. I love it.
Gottlieb: If you want Van Halen, “Source of Infection.” The track that should have opened the LP has Hagar and Eddie trying to recreate the fun and glory of “Running With the Devil.” It almost works -- the guitar break is the closest the new lineup gets to the old lineup (it’s basically a “Hot for Teacher” rewrite). If you want Van Hagar, “Feels So Good.” That keyboard patch defines Eddie’s sound in the late ’80s; the vocal does exactly what Hagar does best with a power ballad, which is split the difference between Journey and Phil Collins.
If you had to drop one song from the track listing, what would it be?
Renoff: Probably “Mine All Mine.” It’s the weakest track ever to open a Roth or Hagar Van Halen album. I don’t hear much of a hook. The best thing about it is the luminous background harmonies — a Van Halen trademark that fell on hard times after Anthony’s departure.
Wilkening: One of the two overly generic riff-rockers. It's close, but let's keep "Source of Infection" and ditch "A.F.U. (Naturally Wired.)" As Hagar confessed in his 2012 autobiography Red: My Uncensored Life in Rock, on his third album in as many years, his lyric-writing tank was on "E."
Hausman: That’s a no-brainer, I’d drop “A Apolitical Blues” because it doesn’t do much for me. But in their defense, they did drop it from the cassette version. I'd hate to drop anything else from the album.
Wardlaw: That's a hard choice. Nothing really feels like filler to me on this album. But if I had to pull one off, I guess I'd yank "Cabo Wabo." It seems like a safe bet that Hagar would have thrown that one on a solo album anyway eventually, right?
Rivadavia: Can I drop the cover of "A Apolitical Blues"? If not, I have a hard time choosing between "Cabo Wabo," "Feels So Good" and "Black and Blue." Years ago, it would have been the latter, without question, but now I'm old enough to love the blues. "Cabo Wabo" still does nothing for me, but its subject has become so tied to Van Hagar history, I have a hard time making it disappear, along with so many interesting stories. And even though you could consider "Feels So Good" as the lesser of the big pop looks ("When It's Love" is the better of the two) and "Source of Infection" as the least interesting head-banger, I don't dislike either one enough to ax them.
Christopher: “A Apolitical Blues” is like shooting the proverbial fish in a barrel here, but it’s a throwaway, nonsense track they did for fun. It’s akin to “Happy Trails” on Diver Down, but without the humor.
Kielty: There's nothing wrong with “A Apolitical Blues” per se, but when the argument rages about the value of covers on an album, and then you factor in that the album is suffering from a little lack of identity, it’s difficult not to conclude that adding a cover is cheating. You can’t unhear it, but I’ve always wondered if OU812 would have felt more like a unit to me if I hadn’t known there was a cover version on it.
Smith: “Source of Infection” is absolute nonsense; the idea that Hagar gets credit for writing “lyrics” for the song is laughable, since he obviously made the thing up on the spot. Still, the song will melt you if you stand too close to the speakers. I’d chuck “When It’s Love.” It’s the biggest hit on the record, but the chorus grates on me like fingernails down a mile of chalkboards. “How do I know when it’s love? / I can’t tell you, but it lasts forever ... It’s just something you feel together.” That’s … helpful, I suppose. It’s generic, by-the-numbers commercial rock, the kind of thing that bands that ape Van Halen should be writing, not the mighty ones themselves.
Gottlieb: If “Black and Blue” didn’t have those great harmonies, it would get the ax. So the dishonor goes to “Sucker in a 3 Piece.” The sounds too much like a solo Hagar song. Of course, it's got a nice guitar solo because, well, they are all nice.
Where does OU812 land on your “Van Hagar” album rankings?
Renoff: 1. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge , 2. OU812, 3. Balance, 4. 5150. I know it’s fashionable to trash the sonics of OU812, but I love the sound the brilliant Donn Landee got on the guitar-driven tracks like “Black and Blue,” “A.F.U.” and “A Apolitical Blues.”
Wilkening: 5150 is clearly the best, with the band's new chemistry sparking some true magic. OU812 is a slight but noticeable step down, still interesting and highly enjoyable for the wide range it covers. Carnal Knowledge isn't a big dip from there, but it's much more homogeneous -- at this point the band is basically operating as an extremely souped-up version of the Sammy Hagar band. If your best friend walked into the room looking as disjointed and down as most of Balance sounds, your immediate reaction would be "What the hell happened to you?"
Hausman: OU812 has always been my favorite album they did with Hagar. In fact, it wasn’t until I started (Van Halen fan magazine) The Inside that I learned I was in the minority. That magazine and the internet have shown us that 5150 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge are the most popular albums with Hagar. My personal rankings: OU812 barely beats 5150, which barely beats Carnal Knowledge Unfortunately, Balance, for the most part, sounds like leftovers from the three previous albums to me.
Wardlaw: Depending on the day, I can put either 5150 or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in the top spot. Song-for-song, 5150 is probably the better record, but sonically I love For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge more. I think the songs on 5150 as a whole have aged better than Carnal Knowledge, which leads me to put 5150 in the top slot most of the time. OU812 sits at number three and Balance is at number four.
Rivadavia: It ranks number one! But by only a hair over Carnal Knowledge, and if you ask me this again next year, I may have finally flipped sides on this one. In any case, those are the two Van Hagar albums I really love. I made my issues with 5150 abundantly clear above, and Balance is simply too uneven -- as compromised by filler as Diver Down (though not even as good), and definitely the weakest of the four.
Christopher: Van Halen truly rose to the occasion on 5150, delivering confidently under the pressure of it being their first album without Roth. Balance has always been an underrated, black sheep of an LP for the group, but not only is it one of their best sounding, production-wise, there are some gems among the deeper cuts -- "Aftershock" and "Feelin'" for example. OU812 may be their most diverse musically, but it's also heavily dated for over-embracing some of the sounds from the era. Carnal Knowledge suffered from trying to hard to be heavier, too many producers with different ideas and embarrassingly juvenile (even more than usual) lyrics by Hagar.
Kielty: Third, after 5150 (a brave and confident reinvention with plenty of potential for the future) and Carnal Knowledge (which also has its moments but doesn’t resolve the doubts presented by OU812). Balance comes last for its astonishing lack of that very value – if you didn’t know they’d already given up on each other, you wouldn’t be surprised to learn it.
Smith: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is their best record with Hagar; there’s a deep nastiness to that album, a dense thicket of sound that takes a while to sort through, but when you get it, it knocks you over. 5150 and OU812 are party records; I only choose 5150 higher for personal reasons, where I was in my adolescence when it came out. Balance is the sound of a band teetering. “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” is the worst song the Van Hagar lineup ever committed to tape, and that includes “Inside,” the last track on 5150, which held that title for nearly a decade.
Gottlieb: Van Hagar fell off a bit (or a lot) with each successive album. 5150 stands at the top; Balance cowers at the bottom, with OU812 at two and For Unlawful Carnal coming in third.
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?
Renoff: 1. OU812, 2. Goodbye, 3. Skyscraper. Goodbye’s a pretty forgettable record, but “Eagles Fly” is a great song. Ed played bass on the album, which also is a redeeming quality in my mind. Skyscraper’s a sonic atrocity. Way too many overdubs and keyboards in the mix. Sure Roth got a hit single with “Just Like Paradise,” but does it stand up next to anything on Eat ‘Em? Roth made two huge mistakes in the '80s - quitting Van Halen and firing producer Ted Templeman. He made another big one in the '90s, when he fired his manager, Pete Angelus.
Wilkening: OU812, Goodbye, Skyscraper -- but it's close, particularly for the gold and silver medals. Roth should have ignored the keyboard success his former bandmates were having and stuck closer to the Eat 'Em and Smile sound at least one more time to better establish his solo career. Goodbye is way better than it had to be, but the real fun is imagining if he could have instead brought some of those songs -- maybe "Eagles Fly," "Privacy" and "Returning Home" -- into the OU812 sessions.
Hausman: OU812 is the clear champ to me among these three albums. I don’t like it as much as their early albums, but nothing’s as good as that stuff, so why compare it to that? It’s great stuff, it's different and it was sure a fun time to live through. I’d put Roth’s Skyscraper in second place. He wasn’t trying to write another Eat 'Em and Smile, and instead took some risk with some really cool out-there stuff like “Skyscraper,” “Hina," and “Damn Good”, which was like a beautiful ode to his Van Halen days. "Just Like Paradise" is catchy, and "Two Fools a Minute” is fun, rounding out five really good songs. I’d put I Never Said Goodbye in last place. It just feels like your average Sammy Hagar solo album -- but without any really mediocre songs, which plagued his pre-Van Halen days, but also without any of his more impressive solo stuff, which mostly came after his decade in Van Halen. With this album, he was becoming a better songwriter after a year with Van Halen, but wasn’t as good as he’d become by the time he split with the band. I think that the two best things that ever happened to Hagar were when he joined Van Halen, which changed everything for him, and also when he left Van Halen, because that motivated him like nothing before. It lit a fire under his ass that is still burning.
Wardlaw: OU812 is at the top of my list and probably has the best set of songs out of the three albums. I Never Said Goodbye lands the second slot with the killer one-two opening combo of "When the Hammer Falls" and "Hands and Knees." As far as Roth, while I like moments on Skyscraper, I'm more of an Eat 'Em and Smile guy, so I listen to that record the least out of the three we're discussing here today.
Rivadavia: I was among those who favored Eat 'Em and Smile over 5150, and it wasn't even close. Still isn't. So OU812 was definitely the response to that surprising turn of events, swinging the balance in the opposite direction and stomping all over the occasionally great but more often dull or downright bad Skyscraper. So, when it comes to ranking these three, I'd go with OU812 as the clear No. 1, Skyscraper at No. 2 because I still love "Hot Dog and a Shake" and "Hina" and I Never Said Goodbye at No. 3 because, while I'm fairly certain it's overall better than Skyscraper, I'm not sure I ever listened to it all the way through.
Christopher: OU812 comes out on top. Van Halen were firing on all cylinders, getting along personally, professionally and excited about the music they were making. Skyscraper is a distant second, where Roth threw away the plot and decided he was going to experiment, losing his band’s interest in the process and confusing fans. I Never Said Goodbye, despite being not much more than a contractual obligation to Geffen Records, has its moments, but not enough to make it very memorable.
Kielty: Looking strictly from a Van Halen perspective, Skyscraper comes first, with some great songs, great attitude (even in the covers) and all the Roth energy you could ask for. OU812 is next, forgiving the technical “difficult second album” status and embracing its intent. I Never Said Goodbye has more left-field creativity than the other two but is obviously a bit less Van Halen. In terms of artistry, though, I’d rank them exactly the opposite way round.
Smith: I’d go 1) I Never Said Goodbye, 2) OU812, 3) Skyscraper. I Never Said Goodbye is just a clutch of really good rock songs; I’d dare say there’s not a weak one one in the bunch. My favorite Sammy Hagar song (“Back Into You”) is on there, as are “Give to Live” and “Eagles Fly,” which are among his best. I love that album. When you get past the single (“Just Like Paradise”) and a couple other solid tunes (“Hot Dog and a Shake,” for one), Skyscraper fizzles. I also take off points for wasting Billy Sheehan on thumpa-thumpa root-note bass playing and for the resulting breakup of the Eat ‘Em and Smile band, which should’ve had years of great rock ‘n’ roll records in them.
Gottlieb: Skyscraper gets a bad rap because of the singles: fluffy “Just Like Paradise” and keyboard-heavy “Stand Up.” But every other track on Skyscraper has magic -- revisit the cool instrumental break in opener “Knucklebones” and the very Van Halen shuffle of closer “Two Fools a Minute.” For an album Hagar rushed to market under contractual obligation, I Never Said Goodbye has some solid stuff. But it also proves how average he is without Ed’s guitar and the guy’s harmonies. OU812 fits right between Skyscraper and I Never Said Goodbye.
See Rock’s Epic Fails: Van Halen Edition