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 owned” and 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.
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.