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20 Years Ago: Van Halen Reunite With David Lee Roth on MTV

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When host Dennis Miller announced reunited members of Van Halen, the crowd at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards went crazy. Little did they know how crazy the relationships between David Lee Roth and his estranged bandmates still were, even after a decade apart.

Earlier in the year, Sammy Hagar – Van Halen’s singer since Roth split – left the group under circumstances that remain unclear. That meant guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen and bassist Michael Anthony were without a frontman as the band worked to record a few new tracks for Van Halen’s first greatest hits compilation.

Because the collection would include selections from Roth’s 1974-85 tenure in the band, Warner Bros. Records contacted the singer to notify him of the forthcoming release. This prompted Roth to call Eddie for the first time in years, and the two agreed to put aside hurt feelings and attempt recording a couple tracks together. Reportedly, Van Halen didn’t tell the other two guys before showing up with Roth at 5150 Studios in June. But everything went well enough, and the foursome recorded two new songs: “Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t Get This Stuff No More.”

Even though the three existing Van Halen members hadn’t made any plans to bring Roth back into the fold on a permanent basis, all four guys agreed to promote the Best Of – Volume 1 album by “reuniting” on the VMA broadcast on Sept. 4, 1996. After making their entrance, and getting a huge reaction, Anthony and the Van Halen brothers appeared more interested in getting to the business of presenting the Best Male Video while Roth seemed to relish the moment. The friction between an embarrassed Eddie and a grandstanding Roth was palpable, with the former even physically pulling the latter away from the mic.

“We walk out onstage and the place goes ballistic, nuclear, off the map,” Roth reflected in his Crazy From the Heat autobiography. “Well, I see those smiles … so I go to work. It’s not something I think about. For me this is natural, this is freewheeling. … And of course I interjected a few things besides the plain old banal libretto that’s being read on a cue card.”

Those interjections included both recognizing that it had been more than a decade since those four men had shared a stage and commentary about the violent nature of MTV videos in the mid-’90s. But what Van Halen said really bothered him was Roth’s attention-seeking hip-swiveling during Beck’s acceptance speech (though Beck said he wasn’t bothered).

The bad blood between Van Halen and Roth continued backstage, with the two arguing about the guitarist talking about his hip-replacement surgery and the singer taking opportunities to make the event about himself. A fistfight was narrowly avoided. By the time they did a post-show interview with MTV’s Kurt Loder, the tension escalated, with everyone but Roth downplaying his future in the band.

Indeed, it would be a short-lived reunion. The Best Of album hit the top of the album chart after it came out in October and the two new Roth-fronted tunes were released as singles – although the band scrapped plans to film a video for “Me Wise Magic.” Before long, former Extreme vocalist Gary Cherone was announced as Van Halen’s next singer (an agreement Cherone later claimed was made before the MTV reunion).

Roth and the Van Halen brothers would eventually reunite, tour and record together again – more than a decade later in 2007. However, by that time, Anthony had been kicked out of the band in favor of Eddie’s son Wolfgang, dashing some fans’ hopes for a full reunion.

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