How The ’96 VMAs Cost Van Halen Their Chance At Being More Than ’80s Greats

In 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth quit Van Halen, they were one of the biggest bands in rock and roll. Of their six records, two were certified Diamond, and four certified Platinum, they’d toured the world more than a half dozen times and their songs dominated the charts. Despite their future briefly looking uncertain, the band hired vocalist Sammy Hagar to replace Roth, and Van Halen managed to reinvent themselves, ushering in a new era for the band that would last another 11 years. That is, until Hagar left Van Halen in the summer of 1996 over the direction the band was headed, thanks in part to new management, once again throwing their existence into turmoil.

On Sept. 5, 1996, however, the band shocked the world when they appeared on stage with their original frontman at the MTV VMAs. The excitement in the room was overwhelming, and along with thunderous applause, they also got a standing ovation from the crowd. Immediately, everyone anticipated this was the beginning of a full-fledged reunion, though it turned out that their appearance that night would open old wounds and bring back a lot of animosity between the former bandmates that couldn’t be overcome. The fallout from the event was considerable; so much so that Rolling Stone called it both one of the most outrageous moments in VMA history, and a defining moment in one of the all-time great rock and roll feuds.

So, what exactly happened that night that turned a one-off appearance into a months-long PR nightmare for the band? Let’s take a look at the moment in question.

Dave Being Dave And The VMA Blowback

From the second he set foot on the stage, Roth was beaming with delight. “This is the first time we’ve stood on stage together in over a decade,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. At first, it really did seem like a joyous and pitch-perfect moment — so long as you ignored the surrounding awkwardness. While Diamond Dave waxed philosophical about how much MTV had changed since they were last seen in public together, things seemed to grow increasingly tense the more he hammed it up for the crowd, mugging in the background while Beck gave his acceptance speech for Best Male Video of the year. The longer they were up there, the more distance Eddie Van Halen put between himself and Roth.

Talking to the MTV’s Kurt Loder afterwards, questions about when this apparently reunited Van Halen would be hitting the road were inevitable — and abundant. Eddie Van Halen did his best to try to quiet the excitement, repeatedly bringing up his upcoming hip-replacement surgery, and even mentioning that the band was still auditioning other singers at a press meeting — to which Roth quipped that they wouldn’t “find anyone better than me.”

Later, brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen would elaborate to MTV News in a joint interview that, after talking to the press that night, Roth had cornered him, declaring that “tonight’s about me, man, not your f*cking hip!” The two would almost come to blows, as Eddie Van Halen explained that as his fist was clenched, “all those years were right there.” Instead, he warned Roth that the next time he spoke to him like that, he “better be wearing a cup.”

The two brothers went on to explain how their appearance together felt like an embarrassment to the band, reminding them why they’d kicked him out 11 years prior. They called Roth’s antics during Beck’s acceptance speech “disrespectful,” (even though it’s worth noting that Beck didn’t seem to mind) and reiterated that the plan had been to generate buzz for their upcoming greatest hits record, Best Of Volume 1, which had two new songs that Roth had recorded vocals for. Any further involvement with Roth would be developed with a “baby steps” mentality, and his behavior on stage that night clearly stopped those baby steps right in their tracks — though that wasn’t immediately clear to Roth, it seems.

About a month after the VMAs, Roth went on Howard Stern’s radio show to promote Best Of Volume 1 and painted his reconciliation with Van Halen as a warmhearted affair, even speculating on whether he’d be singing Sammy Hagar songs if they were to go on tour.

The three other members of Van Halen had once again explained that they’d gone out of their way to try and temper Roth’s expectations from the beginning. Eddie Van Halen described their former singer’s mentality as “we didn’t even have a song yet and you’re pulling a hamstring getting ready for a tour,” and the whole problem came about because Roth “only hears what he wants to hear.”

In an interview with Guitar World later that same year, Eddie Van Halen elaborated on the entire ordeal, starting with his reconciliation with Roth, and the two songs that they’d worked on together for the Best Of Volume I album. By his account, things were going well, until that fateful night they appeared together at the VMAs, which he described as “two minutes on stage and a half-assed standing ovation and he turned right back into the Dave I hated.”

Roth responded to the entire ordeal by circulating an open letter to the press near the end of 1996.

I told Edward [Van Halen] at the time that I didn’t think it was a good idea for the band to go to [the VMAs] half-cocked; and that I didn’t want to imply by our presence there that we were ‘back’ if it was just a quickie for old time’s sake. It sickens me that the ‘reunion’ as seen on MTV was nothing more than a publicity stunt. If I am guilty of anything, I’m guilty of denial. I was an unwitting participant in this deception.

A Lost Era Of In-Fighting

Of course, Van Halen would tour the world again, just not in a way that anyone expected. Before all this drama began to unfold, the band had indeed been auditioning new singers for their upcoming album Van Halen III, and had hired former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone before their appearance on the VMAs that year — which does explain some of that on-stage tension.

All the bad press and public feuding aside, their tour supporting Van Halen III was well-received the following year, but while the album was certified Gold, its success paled when compared to their records, a reminder of the band’s once-considerable popularity. Cherone amicably parted ways with the band after three years, citing the ubiquitous “creative differences.”

In the years since, personality clashes and on-again, off-again relationships have taken center stage. Despite the second, very public, break-up with Roth, it was rumored that he had written some songs with Eddie and Alex Van Halen between 2000 and 2001, though there was never an official statement on the matter. Van Halen was also on hiatus at the time, with Eddie Van Halen dealing with both a divorce and cancer surgery. Hagar had his own reunion drama with Van Halen in 2004, teaming up for a tour to support another greatest hits album, though he’d later say, “What happened on that reunion tour in ’04 was some of the most miserable, back-stabbing dark crap I’ve ever been involved with my whole life.”

Hagar also recounted the experience in his memoir, Red: My Uncensored Life In Rock, when he implied that Eddie Van Halen was lost in a deep state of addiction during the tour. Which Van Halen said was “embellished” and an instance of Hagar “painting a picture of something that never happened” in a Billboard magazine interview. Though, in the same breath, he also acknowledged being an “angry drunk” at the time.

The 2004 tour also marked the end of original bass player Michael Anthony’s time with the band due to (what else?) in-fighting. In that same 2015 interview, Van Halen vented about Anthony, as well, dissing his abilities as a bass player. Anthony has continued working with Hagar (who came to his defense when Van Halen spoke out about Anthony) in the years following his break from Van Halen.

What It Is And What Might Have Been

Down to just Eddie and Alex Van Halen from the original band, Roth, at long last, officially re-joined Van Halen for a world tour in 2007, 11 years after their disastrous appearance on the VMAs, this time bringing Eddie’s then 16-year-old-son, Wolfgang, along for the ride as bass player. Roth and the band toured again in 2012 to support the release of their album, A Different Kind Of Truth (which consisted of a number of reworked demos from the ’70s and ’80s) and in 2015, with much success and little fanfare.

While the relationship seems to still work when it comes to the business of touring, it’s hard to imagine Roth and Van Halen coming together to create all new music anytime soon, with Eddie Van Halen telling Billboard,“It’s hard, because there are four people in this band, and three of us like rock’n’roll. And one of us likes dance music […] And that used to kind of work, but now Dave doesn’t want to come to the table.”

Whether that hurdle can ever be cleared is ultimately up to Roth and the current incarnation of Van Halen, two entities who so clearly need each other — a realization that they have been much slower to grasp than the general public has. While plenty of great bands are still capable of churning out reliable mid-level hits for their adoring fans in their silver era, Van Halen has spent the 20 years since the 1996 VMAs breaking up, reuniting, and living almost exclusively off of their past hits, and only seeming to make headlines when talking badly about one-another. Would that have been the case had the band and Roth been able to make things work back then? We’ll never know, but it’s a frustrating thing to ponder when you look back.

This is an updated version of a post that originally ran in August 2016.