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Up Front on Van Halen Review: Who's the better ex, David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar. Who cares? They're just singers. Guitarist Eddie has been and always will be the best of Van Halen. Need proof? Just listen.

Most fans don't know this, but it was actually David Lee Roth who came up with the notion of using Van Halen as a band name. What was his thinking? "More syllables than 'Roth,' " went the practiced answer, which he invariably followed with guffaws.

A good joke, sure, but if you want to hear the real reason the band has the name it does, forget the old stories and turn your attention to the new album, Van Halen's "Best Of Volume 1" (Warner Bros. 46332, arriving in stores today). All you have to do is hit "play," and as "Eruption" explodes from the speakers, the answer becomes obvious: It's called "Van Halen" because "Edward Van Halen" had too many syllables.

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Simply put, Van Halen is and always has been Edward's band. It isn't just that he is one of the most virtuosic and inventive -- not to mention widely imitated -- guitarists in rock; he's also a songwriter of unusual brilliance, as adept at soaring, sentimental ballads as screaming, full-tilt rockers. It would hardly be an exaggeration to call him one of rock and roll's true originals.

But you wouldn't know that from the controversy currently swirling around the band. First Roth rejoined in order to record a tune or two after Sammy Hagar -- who had been Van Halen's singer since its acrimonious split with Roth in 1985 -- either quit or was fired (stories vary). Then, after inspiring a standing ovation during an unexpected walk-on at the MTV Video Music Awards, the original lineup was once again history, leaving even more bad feelings than before.

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Since then, it has been fan-demonium. Online, Sammy supporters moan that their man didn't deserve the bum's rush, while Rothophiles are outraged that their dreams of a Van Halen reunion have been shattered. About the only thing uniting the two sides is disdain for frontman-apparent Gary Cherone, who until recently sang with Extreme.

Of course, the irony in all of this is that the Hagar/Roth/Cherone controversy treats Van Halen as if the singer -- whoever he might be -- is the band's real star.

But after spending some time with this "Best of," it becomes clear that Van Halen's singer always has played second fiddle to its lead guitarist.

Some might argue that it was the singers who articulated the band's attitude. According to this theory, it was Roth's cocky irreverence that gave the band its sense of cool, and Hagar's blustery conservatism that made Van Halen safe for the mainstream.

But neither singer ever came up with words suggesting anything that wasn't already spelled out in the music.

For all the hormonal posturing Roth poured into "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love," nothing he sang was quite as lustful as the growls Van Halen coaxed from his guitar, nor did the motorcycle fantasy Roth spun in "Panama" convey quite as much locomotion as Van Halen's turbo-charged riffing. Even Roth's most memorable punchlines, such as the brilliant "Have you seen junior's grades?" from "And the Cradle Will Rock," worked largely because of the setup provided by the music.

Lacking Roth's flair for theater, Hagar was seldom considered as quotable. Then again, he didn't have to be; the music, as ever, did most of the work. After all, it wasn't the sentimental power of the words that made "Dreams" such a convincing love song, but the way the music shifted from minor-chord urgency in the verse to exultant, major-chord joy in the chorus. In a sense, all Hagar had to do was follow the lead of Van Halen's melody -- which may explain why "Humans Being," which finds Hagar working against the grain of the arrangement, is one of least satisfying tracks on this "Best of."

Satisfaction, though, is a relative term, and many longtime listeners may gripe that these 17 songs hardly count as the band's best. Among the missing are such fan faves as "You Really Got Me," "(Oh) Pretty Woman" and "Dancing in the Streets," omissions that may leave some wondering if their non-inclusion has anything to do with the fact that none were written by Van Halen. (In fairness, the collection also overlooks such well-known originals as "Finish What Ya Started" and "Top of the World.")

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But the real question "Best of" raises has to do with the two new tracks cut with Roth, and whether or not the band made a mistake in ditching him. Short answer: They didn't.

That's not to say the new songs are a waste. "Can't Get This Stuff No More" is a bit of a disappointment, as the vocals never quite get in synch with the rest of the band, leaving Roth sounding like he hadn't quite found his groove.

"Me Wise Magic," though, is brilliant. Opening with a swirl of guitar and cymbals, it quickly erupts into a nasty boogie riff that finds Roth ricocheting from demonic growl to trademark howl and back again. It's as exciting as a rollercoaster ride, but mainly because Roth is strapped in tight, riding the guitars, bass and drums for all he's worth.

Listen close, and you'll also notice that the vocals have been flanged and distorted, making them more like the instrumental parts -- and leaving them even more in Van Halen's hands.

In other words, it's still very much Edward's band. And if he continues to write and play this well, how much can it matter who he has singing?

Pub Date: 10/22/96


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