Greatest Un-Hits: Nerf Herder’s “Van Halen” (1996)

In 1996, after a decade and a half of high but rapidly diminishing record sales and influence, Van Halen was suddenly a hot band again, and it was because of, and this almost never happens, a greatest hits compilation. It’s tough business, and usually involves aggressive, embarrassing levels of PR, to get fans of a popular band to repurchase songs they already own. That’s why greatest hits albums have those requisite, and usually mediocre “two new tracks” added on to the end. These new tracks were what got Van Halen into a lot of trouble and media attention.

A brief primer on the Van Halen scandal: David Lee Roth left the band in 1985 for a solo career that only briefly materialized. The band then got Sammy Hagar, a great rock singer, but not quite as edgy or hard as Roth had been at the band’s peak. Van Halen sold more albums with Hagar than they ever did with Roth, but there was always an open nostalgia among fans for Roth. In 1996, Eddie Van Halen wanted to compile a greatest hits record; Hagar didn’t. So Van Halen recruited Roth to sing on the two new tracks for the album, “Can’t Get This Stuff No More” and “Me Wise Magic.” Hagar then quit or was fired, depending on whom you ask. Roth then appeared with the band in a surprise, epic appearance on the MTV Video Music Awards, where Roth made an ass of himself and he and Eddie Van Halen nearly came to blows. Roth was then out of the band, although according to Eddie, he was never officially back in.

It was probably the biggest music story of 1996. Any sort of popular culture that expressed the Van Halen fanbase’s disappointment and frustration would certainly garner some major attention for its rage, humor, and catharsis. And that song should have been “Van Halen” by the California alternapoppunk band Nerf Herder. The band’s Weezer-esque power pop sound was actually big at the time, but the subject matter of this song, detailing a fan go from hearing “Van Halen I / it was the best damn record I ever ownedand admiring EVH’s “two-hand tapping guitar technique” to ultimately wailing “Sammy Hagar / is this what you wanted? / Dave lost his hairline / But you lost your cool, buddy” to ultimately “I’ll never buy your lousy records again.” And not many people did buy Van Halen’s records again, certainly not the only post-switchup album, 1998’s Van Halen III, with lead singer Gary Cherone.

Nerf Herder – Van Halen

But not many people bought “Van Halen” records either. It only made it to #34 on the alternative rock chart. Were people just sick of the Van Halen mess? Didn’t want to be reminded of their fandom gone to seed? Might as well jump.

  • Anonymous

    The one thing I remember about this song: The record label bought commercial time on selected radio stations that were playing the song, and the orders for the commercial were this:

    1) Opening tag over music

    2) Play song for one minute and 30 seconds

    3) Closing tag over music.

    Needless to say, it was a waste of money.

  • EightE1

    Hagar sings on “Humans Being.” The two Roth tracks on the Greatest Hits were “Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t Get This Stuff No More.”

  • Allen Lulu

    By my calculations, Van Hagar sold about 16 million units in the US spread across 4 albums (unless you are including the live album and that brings the total to 19M sold). Whereas Wikipedia reports 34 million units moved for Van Halen from the first album to 1984. With 10 Million units sold for the first AND the last Roth albums alone. They had massively diminishing returns with Hagar. Never hit the 2 mil low of Fair Warning, but never selling more than 6 million and that was for the first album after Roth.

  • jefito

    You act like they sold 10 million out of the gate, which isn’t true — both of those records have always been major catalog sellers. The Hagar records haven’t had the same sort of lasting hold on AOR fiends, but they were very popular in their own right at the time; in fact, they each went to Number One on the charts — something the band never did with Roth — and spun off plenty of Top 40 hits. “Massively diminishing returns” isn’t true.

  • Brian Boone

    Indeed, you are right. They are all so forgettable, I forgot.

  • Allen Lulu

    Fair enough. I was kind of hoping you’d miss that after I posted. ;) But, the fact remains that the slide from 5150 to Balance (which I believe is a superior record) is vast. On the other hand VH continued to soar upward with Roth and, I would hedge a bet that the debut record is really the lasting tribute. I mean, I don’t think there are people excitedly downloading Diver Down. All of that said, other mitigating factors come into play as well, like the 80s and 90s being a time of vertical marketing and concentrated branding, cross marketing (remember the Right Now Pepsi Clear campaign?).
    But, what I was really reacting to was the comment that they sold more than the “ever did with Roth”. This is just not true. 1984 was a monster. And the previous record wasn’t a slouch, either. And there is something to be said for catalog sales as well. I’m not too sure that anyone is out there dying to hear ou812 these days or Poundcake.
    By the time 5150 was released the VH brand was massive. They would have sold millions of records if Gary Cherone was their front man at the time. They had built up a shitload of currency with 1984 and the previous decade of guitar godding. Brian sort of made it sound like with Roth they were barely getting by.

     Hey, maybe I’m wrong. Fact is, these are two completely different bands. 

  • Brian Boone

    They really only got good once Wolfgang joined the band.