So David Lee Roth is back with Eddie and Alex Van Halen, meaning three-quarters of the classic Van Halen lineup is together again — Michael Anthony got turfed out in favor of Eddie’s son Wolfgang, who one has to admit imitates Anthony’s background vocals pretty effectively. (BTW, remember when Anthony chugging quarts of Jack Daniels on stage seemed cool instead of like the world’s worst PSA?) The reformed band just played a gig at Cafe Wha? in Manhattan for a who’s who of NYC music writers. A tour is imminent, as is a new album.
That new album, though, might not be very new. We knew it included “She’s the Woman,” a song from the famous 1976 Gene Simmons demos. (Van Halen played it at Cafe Wha.) Now we discover that “Tattoo,” the first video, is a dead ringer for “Down in Flames,” a song known from 1977 live shows. I’ve been listening to these songs for years, and there are lot more committed Van Halen fans than me. It’ll be very interesting to listen to the new album and see what else proves familiar.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this. Every classic Van Halen release has at least one song from the Simmons demo or the Warner Brothers demos recorded in 1977. But the world’s changed. In 1984, only crazies who bought expensive bootleg records knew that “House of Pain” dated back to 1976. Today, all of those demos are on YouTube. If Van Halen tries to pass material from the Ford and Carter administrations off as new (and we don’t yet know that they’ll do that), anyone faintly curious will figure out the truth.
Heck, it would probably be smarter to ‘fess up that the new material dates back to when Van Halen were the kings of LA, making music that Robert Christgau snarked “belongs on an aircraft carrier.” (I join Chuck Klosterman as thinking that’s actually high praise.) “She’s the Woman” isn’t “On Fire” or “DOA,” but it’s still pretty good, and there’s plenty of other material from those demos that longtime fans would love — and that a lot of them would love more than actual new songs.
Which is where it gets dangerous.
Curious about Van Halen’s new album, I came across this Rolling Stone article in which Sammy Hagar gossips about what his old band has been up to, including allegations of demo-mining. What caught my eye was this comment from a reader:
Personally, I don’t want “new” and “modern” VH. I want songs like the OLD VH. New songs but with old VH sound. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be true VH. Why bands think they have to UPDATE their music is a real shame. If you’re a real fan of a band then you don’t want them to GROW and do stuff differently. It’s like fixing something that isn’t broke and I call that RUINING it.
Beware of these fans. They’re the ones who want to know why Woody Allen can’t just make Sleeper again, why Clint Eastwood doesn’t keep taunting punks about how many bullets he has left, the ones who will feel horribly betrayed when J.K. Rowling’s next book isn’t about a teenaged wizard. They’re the Annie Wilkeses of fandom, and their favored role for you is a sort of high-end factory worker. They might make you rich, but they’ll definitely make you miserable.