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.