When David Lee Roth Wouldn’t Let Van Halen Quit
A dark cloud loomed over a car on the road from LAX to Pasadena in November 1976. Among those inside were David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen and Alex Van Halen, and they believed they’d just missed out on their one chance of making the big time.
Days earlier, the future of Van Halen had seemed as bright as the California sun: The band had been taken on by Kiss star Gene Simmons, who’d paid for and produced the recording of their first demo tape. Simmons had been blown away when he saw a Van Halen performance at the Starwood club in Los Angeles, after having bean invited to attend by KROQ DJ Rodney Bingenheimer.
“I was thinking, ‘My fucking God, listen to these guys,’” Simmons told the Los Angeles Times in 2020. “As soon as Eddie started playing, the thing that struck me right away was that the guy was amazingly fast and light on touch. … Eddie was just swimming over that fretboard, and I couldn’t believe the control he had. Everybody’s head just turned around like Linda Blair in The Exorcist: ‘What is that?’”
He went backstage after the show and offered to sign Van Halen to his Man of 1,000 Faces company, saying he’d fund the recording of a demo tape. Simmons was true to his word: The band tracked at least 10 songs in New York and then presented the recording to Kiss bandmate Paul Stanley and manager Bill Aucoin. “Everybody shrugged their shoulders and went, ‘So what?’” Simmons said in Paul Branigan’s Eddie Van Halen memoir Unchained. “And I’m going, ‘You’re killing me! Whaddya mean, “So what?’”
At the time, Simmons wasn’t aware of the truth – that his colleagues knew Van Halen was great but didn’t want him to have anything to do with them. “Gene is often more concerned – and this is just part of his personality – with Gene, and it wasn’t going to be to our benefit for him to run off and get involved with something else,” Stanley admitted later. “Were Van Halen undeniable? Absolutely. Were they fabulous? Yeah. Did they have what it took? Absolutely. But we had to take care of Kiss, and the way to protect Kiss at that time was to pull the reins in on Gene. It’s that simple.”
After telling them the bad news – and after telling Aucoin: “You’re gonna eat those words” – Simmons gave them money for flights home and vowed that, if they still needed help to get a record deal when the next Kiss tour finished, he’d “do it all again” with them. Soon afterward, Roth and the Van Halen brothers were in that car on the road to Pasadena.
“As Edward said later, ‘Here we are, totally bummed out because we thought this was our one shot to make it – and it didn’t pan out. It didn’t work,’” Greg Renoff wrote in his 2015 book Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal. “Roth, like the others, understood that at that moment Kiss was America's most popular group. If Gene fucking Simmons couldn’t get them a record deal, how would they ever get one?”
In addition, Renoff said Roth feared he’d let his bandmates down. He knew some people held – and shared – the opinion that his vocal skills were no match for Eddie’s guitar talent. On top of that, Aucoin had pointed out Roth’s visual similarity to Jim Dandy of Black Oak Arkansas as an example of how the band didn’t match current expectations. Roth admitted that, because he “didn’t know what the Van Halens were thinking at the time,” he wondered if he might be looking for a new gig soon.
That’s when some of his larger-than-life stage persona lit up the car. “Roth swung around in his seat,” Renoff wrote. “With his voice raised, he said, ‘Look, don’t think for a second that this is over! This is how it’s gonna be. We are really going to go into recording studios. We really are going to be a big name.’ … The Van Halen brothers shook their heads. ‘We had our big break and we lost it!’ one of them said to Roth. ‘No, no, no! That’s not what this is. This is just a flicker of what’s eventually going to be a lot more.’
His attitude at least steadied the line, and the group’s thoughts soon turned to making the most of the situation. Eddie recalled that they had the demo but they “didn’t know where in the hell to take it. We didn’t know anyone.” But Roth had an idea of his own: He contacted Bingenheimer, made much of the DJ’s Kiss connection, and offered the chance to premiere Van Halen’s future classic “Runnin’ with the Devil,” one of the tracks from the demo live on air.
He was Bingenheimer’s guest on KROQ on Dec. 14, 1976. “Roth, ever the shrewd promoter, lavished praise on the DJ, giving him all the credit for bringing ‘some of the fellas from Kiss’ to the Starwood,” Renoff wrote. “Roth then recounted their New York trip and recording session – without mentioning Aucoin’s verdict – saying, ‘What we have here is one hell of a demo tape.’ And just like that, Van Halen got its first real airplay.”
Close friend David Swantek, who was in the car on that fateful journey, said he’d always remember the moment when Roth spoke up. He said it proved Roth “was really the driving force that kept them going, even though they had all the talent, to be honest about it. … That’s the thing about David Roth and Van Halen. They knew where they were going, even back then. They really had a fix on it.”
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