Despite Van Halen's mysterious midsummer tour cancellations, the band still is scheduled to play KC on Tuesday. It will be the band’s second show in Kansas City in more than four years. Its previous show was also at Sprint Center, in October 2007. That tour was famous for reuniting lead singer David Lee Roth with the band for the first time in more than 20 years.
It was a reunion tour except the band Roth rejoined wasn’t the original version of Van Halen. In 2006, founding bassist Michael Anthony was replaced permanently by 15-year-old Wolfgang Van Halen, son of guitarist Eddie Van Halen and nephew of drummer Alex Van Halen.
That was just one of several lineup changes Van Halen the band has been through since 1985, when Roth departed. He was replaced initially by Sammy Hagar, who was eventually replaced by Gary Cherone. After several years, he was replaced by Hagar, who was ousted again in 2005.
The best-known and longest-standing version of Van Halen goes back to its founding days in the mid-1970s: the Van Halen brothers, Roth and Anthony. That lineup lasted 11 years and produced six albums with sales that exceeded 34 million in the United States alone. Few bands survive 40 years, much less sustain the original lineup. Even without Anthony, fans who drop $50 to $150 on tickets to the Tuesday show are getting the three most integral parts of the band. And though it’s not the same, that’s better than nothing, some fans say.
“Obviously, the band is not the same without Michael Anthony; (he) was an incredible bass player,” said Mike Alexander, a guitarist in a few local bands, including Hipshot Killer. “However, after many listens to ‘A Different Kind of Truth’ (the latest album) and reading some of the recent interviews, Wolfgang is OK with me.”
Van Halen fans are accustomed to adjusting to, and getting OK with, new members and lineup changes. The Hagar years were successful commercially, but that version of the band has been dubbed Van Hagar, often facetiously.
The Cherone years have been dismissed as unfortunate.
“Wolfie can play and sing well,” said Kriss Ward, drummer for the local rock band Federation of Horsepower, “but the kid just looks nervous as hell and stays out of Dave’s and Dad’s way while they have to make up for his lack of stage presence, which they’re missing without Mike.”
Living with loss
Diehard Van Halen fans haven’t been alone in sustaining personnel changes and dealing with what’s missing from one of their favorite bands. Some of the biggest bands in history have had to adjust to the loss or departure of a founding or integral member. Few have done it more often than the Rolling Stones.
The trinity of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts has been together since 1963; guitarist Ronnie Wood has been an official member since 1976. But the Stones have navigated several major lineup changes over the last 40-plus years, and in the midst of those changes, have made some of their best music.
The Stones fired founding member Brian Jones in June 1969; he died a few weeks later. His replacement, Mick Taylor, spent five years with the Stones before quitting. He was replaced by Wood. In 1992, Bill Wyman, the band’s bassist since 1963, quit the band. None of that change caused any commercial damage. According to Billboard magazine, the band posted four of the nine highest-grossing tours in history from 1994 to 2007, including the 2005-07 Bigger Bang Tour, which grossed more than half a billion dollars and drew more than 4 million fans.
The Stones’ lineup changes were significant, but none was as large as the loss AC/DC endured. In 1980, Bon Scott, its lead singer since 1974, died just before the band started recording what would become its best-selling record, “Back in Black.” Several weeks after his death, the band replaced Scott with Brian Johnson, recorded the album and vaulted into a 150-show world tour.
Scott has been canonized since his death (and rightfully so), but AC/DC would flourish after him. Since 1980: nine platinum albums and 10 tours, including the 2008-10 Black Ice Tour, which comprised 168 shows, drew about 5 million fans and grossed nearly $450 million. Two of those were sold-out shows at the Sprint Center.
Losing a lead singer typically means the end of the band or the start of a commercial decline: Queen did not go on without Freddie Mercury (though it now may tour with a hologram of Freddie). The Band couldn’t rekindle its fire after Robbie Robertson called it quits. There was no Joy Division after Ian Curtis died, nor a Nirvana after Kurt Cobain died.
INXS used reality TV to find a singer to replace Michael Hutchence, without significant consequence. Black Sabbath has endured for decades while enlisting several singers to take over when Ozzy Osbourne was fired or out of commission, including Ronnie James Dio, Tony Martin and Ian Gillian.
The classic rock world is rife with bands using replacement singers, with mixed results. Journey and Styx have been getting along for years with replacements for Dennis DeYoung and Steve Perry. Journey has been helped by a quirky wave of nostalgia for its overwrought arena rock. Its 2008 album “Revelation,” with current lead singer Arnel Pinada, has been certified platinum — 1 million sold. The band is headlining a show at Livestrong Sporting Park on Aug. 31, a venue that holds up to 25,000 fans.
Then there is Genesis, which evolved from a classical, folk and progressive-rock band led by Peter Gabriel, guitarist Steve Hackett and drummer Phil Collins to a mainstream radio-friendly trio led by Collins that ended up being much more commercially successful. In March 2011, Collins, 61, announced he was retiring from music.
End of the line
Van Halen comes to town without Anthony, who was not one of its marquee members but was a significant part of the band’s personality going back to its earliest days. Departures like his have torpedoed or adversely affected other bands. The Who proceeded without Keith Moon, who died in 1978, but were never the same without him. Though the members were still in their early or mid-30s, Led Zeppelin would not go on without drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980.
R.E.M. would go on without drummer Bill Berry, who quit the band in 1997 after surviving a ruptured brain aneurism, but his departure significantly changed the band and its music, and not for the better. In 2011, the other three members of R.E.M. officially called it quits. Conversely, Metallica has survived the ouster of lead guitarist Dave Mustaine, the death of bassist Cliff Burton and the resignation of Jason Newsted, Burton’s successor.
Death, retirements or, in the case of Van Halen, bitter feuds change the makeup of a band. In some cases, it kills the band. But the songs don’t die or go away. Nor does the demand for the songs to be played and heard. But loyalty to a band is forged in something beyond the songs. It comes from an attachment to the personalities. Any variations or substitutions can feel like a compromise and the replacement can feel like a surrogate.
Witness the Smashing Pumpkins, now down to sole founding member Billy Corgan — a solo act with a supporting band, basically. If it were only about the music, we’d all watch tribute bands in smaller venues for less money.
Van Halen comes to town not merely as a heritage band reliving its glory days, but as a band with a new album. The setlist has been light on new songs (three) and heavy on the hits. Reviews have barely mentioned Wolfgang or Anthony, if at all. Most focus on Eddie and his guitar wizardry, on David Lee Roth and his voice and his leg kicks, which aren’t what they used to be, and on songs that can still rock an arena. In other words, nothing stays the same, but some things do.
“It’s unfortunate that they just can’t give the people what they want with a full-blown reunion but I’m still going,” said Keenan Nichols, who plays lead guitar for the Architects. “Eddie Van Halen is like the Michael Jordan of guitar world. He changed the game forever. It’s something you’ve got to see.”