The Troubled Creation of Van Halen’s ‘Amsterdam’
The ingredients that went into Van Halen’s 10th album, Balance, were also the ingredients that went into their split with Sammy Hagar.
If fans didn’t know something was wrong by the time their fourth LP with the singer arrived in 1995, many later learned that its contents were evidence that all was not well within the group.
Hagar and guitarist Eddie Van Halen seemed at odds about almost everything, but near the top of the list were the lyrics Hagar wrote for Balance. Newly sober, Van Halen wanted a new approach to the band and more thought-provoking songs. But Hagar was determined to hold onto the party atmosphere.
The song “Amsterdam” became something of a key battleground in their battle of wills. While Van Halen had composed a complex but smooth power groove, Hagar decided that lyrics like “Wham, bam, oh, Amsterdam … stone you like nothing else can” signified where he wanted to be. The singer said he wasn’t just riffing; his intention was to depict how the Netherlands' capital city felt to a visiting outsider.
Listen to Van Halen's ‘Amsterdam’ - Naughty Version
Van Halen recalled that Hagar was “especially irritated” at the guitarist’s sudden interest in his words. “Sammy would say, ‘You never complained about the lyrics before!’” the guitarist told Guitar World in 1996. “Well, I wasn't sober before, and I wasn't even listening to the lyrics! It's not like I suddenly wanted Sammy to be my puppet or anything, but once in a while I would take issue with a specific lyric or line. For example, I always hated the words ‘wham, bam, Amsterdam,’ from Balance, because they were all about smoking pot – they were just stupid. Lyrics should plant some sort of seed for thought, or at least be a little more metamorphical [sic].”
In 2011, Hagar argued that his general approach was more appropriate to the band. “The record was big,” he told A.V. Club of Balance. “We always sold 4 or 5 million records, no matter what we did.” But he asserted that aspects of the album “showed the darkness of Van Halen,” which “wasn’t what Van Halen fans wanted.”
However unhappy it made one or other members, “Amsterdam” was completed with the “wham bam” lyrics and released as the fourth of 12 tracks on Balance – which, like the band's previous three albums with Hagar, went to No. 1. Just a few days later, Van Halen flew to Amsterdam to play a secret show as part of a European promotional tour. It was the first time in nine years that Eddie and Alex Van Halen had performed in the city where they were born, and anticipation was high. So, they took a camera crew with them to record the proceedings and decided to shoot a video for “Amsterdam” at the same time.
Watch Van Halen's 'Amsterdam’ Official Video
Michel Schinkel was president of the Dutch Van Halen fan club at the time and became involved in helping Warner Music invite the 150 club members to the secret show on Jan. 27. In a report for Van Halen News Desk in 2015, he recalled spending time with the band before it played, and -- besides a brief incident where Alex Van Halen upset Hagar by smoking near the singer, who wanted to protect his voice -- everyone seemed enjoy himself.
The show marked a number of firsts for the band: It was the group's first live radio performance, Eddie’s first show sober and the first time any of the songs from Balance were performed live. The last song they played was “Amsterdam.” “The secret gig was a good preview of the upcoming Balance tour," Schinkel recalled. "Everyone there had a great time, including the band. Looking back after all those years, I still remember this one-hour show as the most impressive one I ever saw.”
So far, so good, but the world around Van Halen was changing as quickly as relations within the band itself. When the travelogue-style video for “Amsterdam” was delivered to MTV in April, the network rejected it, claiming the references to drugs – particularly the line “Score me some panama red” – meant it couldn’t be broadcast. The band submitted an alternative version with adjusted lyrics – “Score me some stuff for my head” – but MTV still refused to play it.
Watch Van Halen Perform ‘Amsterdam’ Live in Amsterdam
“That was bullshit,” Hagar said in the 2007 book Everybody Wants Some: The Van Halen Saga. “They said the the drug connotations kept them from playing it. That’s a pile of crap, because they’ve got rap bands singing about anything they want.” Despite the lack of MTV support, “Amsterdam” reached No. 9 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
If the thought of MTV moving on without Van Halen was pause for thought, the upcoming revelation of Van Halen moving on without Hagar was even more so. Speaking after the dust settled, Eddie addressed the suggestion that some of the songs on Balance lacked a certain “harmonic movement,” telling Guitar World: “It also depends on the dynamics the people you've been working with. ‘Wham, bam, Amsterdam’ wasn't my fault! Blame the music on me, but not that other stuff.”