Van Halen Tee Shirts – The David Lee Roth Years

Ain't Talkin' Bout Hagar - Van Halen circa Diamond Dave

Inarguably, the David Lee Roth years of the band Van Halen were the best.  The first six albums of VH during the years 1977 – 1984 gave to the world anthems like “Running with the Devil”, “Unchained”, and “Panama” and proved not only Eddie Van Halen’s unassailable guitar virtuosity but David Lee Roth’s L.A. party lothario/game show host frontmanship as well.  It also established a rock iconography all their own.  Almost like a rock and roll sitcom/variety show, California style. 

Van Halen were a group that was born from the backyard Hollywood party scene of the mid-70’s and ended up developing a live show based on this bacchanalian aesthetic.  Seeing them live during Roth’s tenure was much like a house party throw-down bankrolled by L.A. record biz tycoons without any worry that the cops will show to break up the fun.

Growing up in late 70’s and 80’s, you’d see friends going to school wearing the concert tee shirt they bought the night before.  Certain bands’ tees bestowed that modicum of coolness that reached beyond the cliques and posing and delivered, like some armored suit of ultimate bad assedness, a confidant and swaggering fashion manifesto to which all viewers gave credence to.  You might not be popular, you might not be wearing the right shoes, but if you were wearing the tee shirt from the Van Halen concert the night before, something must be o.k. about you. 

Here is a time line in tee shirt form of Van Halen’s six world tours from ’78 – ’84.  Also included are details from each campaign showing that Van Halen were as serious about touring as they were about bringing their party ethos to the masses. 


Van Halen – The first 6 tours:

–       1977 – Pre-record contract: Van Halen become L.A. club circuit regulars, playing regular dates at Gazzari’s, the Whiskey A Go-Go, and the Starwood.  They are soon courted by Gene Simmons of Kiss who produces their demo and tries to change the name of the band to Daddy Longlegs.  Kiss’ disco-oriented record label Casablanca tells Simmons they’ll never make it.  Warner Brothers records thinks otherwise and signs them.


–       1978 “First World Tour” 1978 – 167 dates, 2 cancellations – Their first world tour had them opening for Journey and Montrose only to be kicked off the tour by Journey for being too good.  From there they go to England to open for Black Sabbath on their last tour with Ozzy.  Debut album breaks the Billboard top twenty, sells over 2 million in the first year and sets a high bar for successful first albums not to mention untouchable guitar shredding and foot to ass front man swagger.

–       1979 “World Vacation Tour” 1979 102 dates 0 cancellations – Their first headlining tour behind their chart topping second album keeps them busy most of the year with 5 separate U.S. legs of touring with stop offs in Japan and Europe.  The album is recorded live in one take with no overdubs.  The wicked black and yellow custom made guitar pictured on the back of the album, known to Eddie as Dimebag Darrell’s favorite, is eventually buried with late Pantera axe man.


–       1980 “World Invasion “Party til you die” tour 1980 124 dates 2 cancellations.  4 lengthy U.S. legs and 2 separate Euro legs keep them busy all year.  The “Women and Children First” album doesn’t have any chart toppers, but still delivers the goods, Van Halen style.  The first tour to feature keyboards when bassist Michael Anthony plays them for the intro to “And The Cradle Will Rock”.  Also memorable is the scene in “Better Off Dead” where a daydreaming John Cusack, while at his flipping hamburgers job, sees a burger patty sing “Everybody Wants Some”.


–       1981 “Fair Warning Tour” 82 dates, 1 cancellation – 79 shows of the 82 shows are sell outs netting boffo box office profits.  Last two shows of the tour are opening slots for the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You tour.  Fair Warning was Van Halen’s most musically adventurous album and a musician’s musician favorite, but also their least commercially successful album, selling a paltry 2 million.  Esquire magazine votes it as one of the 75 albums every man should own.

–       1982- 1983 “Hide Your Sheep Tour”  99 dates, 5 cancellations –The band plays in South America for the first time.  3 huge legs of U.S. touring commence to promote an album only David Lee Roth was fully satisfied with (containing 5 cover songs and clocking in at barely 30 minutes running time).  Roth directs the video for their first #1 hit, a cover of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” which is subsequently banned by MTV for featuring two midgets groping a drag queen.

By mid-February 1983, the band was officially done with touring for the album and Roth had already decamped to South America for an extended vacation on the Amazon.  However, Steve Wozniak, the other Steve at Apple Computers, gave Van Halen an offer even they couldn’t refuse.  As a result, the group nabbed the Guinness Book World Record for the “highest paid single appearance of a band” at the U.S. Festival netting a cool 1.5 million for a 90-minute set (that’s $17,000 a minute).  Numerous clips from the backstage revelry of this show can be seen on youtube and feature a David Lee Roth in top form:

–       1984 “Tour 1984” 106 dates (including the “Monsters of Rock” Euro Tour), 0 cancellations, 99 sell outs.  The “1984” album peaks at #2 as Michael Jackson’s unassailable “Thriller” owns the #1 spot for 37 weeks (also featuring Eddie soloing on “Beat It” – a session he did for free), but still goes on to sell more than 10 million.  The band has better luck with the video market and feature stripping school teachers, Eddie playing synthesizer and kid versions of each Van Halen members.  

 Thanks for indulging my obvious obsession.  Stay tuned for more rock tee buffoonery.  Happy trails, ’til we meet again…

The Modicum

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