Did Van Halen ‘F.U.C.K.’ Up Their Third Hagar Album?: Roundtable
Was For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge the first misstep of Van Halen's Sammy Hagar era? Or was it exactly the back-to-basics move they needed to make?
On its third album with its second singer, the band jettisoned the keyboards and genre experimentation that were a big part of their first two albums together in favor of straight-ahead rock.
Thanks to producer Andy Johns, F.U.C.K. - which came out on June 17, 1991 - features what might be the fullest band sound of any record in Van Halen's catalog. While drummer Alex Van Halen is given plenty of space to shine, his guitar-wizard brother Eddie remains the star here, showing off a typically dazzling series of riffs, solos and tricks.
The album sold more than 3,000,000 copies and spawned three hit singles, with the inventive video for "Right Now" getting more attention than anything they'd done in that realm since the David Lee Roth era.
In the decades since the album's release, fans have settled in two lines regarding F.U.C.K.: those who think Van Halen played it too safe, and those who consider it a highlight of the Hagar years. We asked five writers six questions about the album. Their answers are below.
What’s your overall take on Van Halen's For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge?
Gary Graff: Ambivalent, really. No question it's a perfectly listenable album, front to back - perhaps their most straightforwardly consistent in some ways and the heaviest of the Hagar era. It sounds like a band that's been on the road a lot and is looking for material to fit into the show. But it does miss the quirkiness and clever daring-do that was so much a part of Van Halen's makeup before. I wonder what would have happened if Ted Templeman had been involved from the very beginning and brought more of the sensibility of those first five albums back into the mix.
Rob Smith: Tales have been told of how difficult the record was to make: a year or so in the studio, waxing and waning interest from members of the band, two producers with different approaches and aesthetic choices, etc. Yet, I think it’s the strongest, hardest, best-sounding record of the Hagar era. Call the mixes busy if you wanna (and plenty have), but Eddie Van Halen was, first and foremost, a guitar player, and this record is thick with guitars – careening riffs, melodies and countermelodies and counter-countermelodies buried deep in the mix. Guitars as melodic instruments; guitars as rhythmic instruments; guitars as bell choirs and Indy cars and power drills. It’s a record that rewards repeated listening, ideally with headphones, to catch as much as you can each time through.
Matt Wardlaw: From the moment Van Halen joined forces with Sammy Hagar for the 5150 album, it was clear there was a strong union between Eddie Van Halen and Sammy Hagar. They turned out an impressive set of songs with that debut offering that showed how much enthusiasm they both felt for the newly minted collaboration. OU812 demonstrated that time spent together on and off the road had only strengthened the bond. For me, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge is the album where they bring it all home, fully comfortable knowing what the revitalized Van Halen machine was capable of. I like how they toughened up the sound of Van Halen in a way that, in one sense, was a return to their hard-rockin' roots, but, in another, it's a really interesting record that fits in well with the grunge movement that was starting to take hold - although the album was recorded before Seattle seized control of the music industry. The production is ragged and rough in that way, and although it's polished, it's less polished than what they had put forth with the previous two Hagar-led albums. If 5150 didn't exist, I'd say F.U.C.K. is the best of the bunch they recorded with Hagar.
Michael Christopher: It may have been a little bit too late for fans of old-school Van Halen to get into. The band went back to the more straight-ahead rock 'n' roll two albums after keyboards had become so integrated into the sound of the “Van Hagar” era, when maybe it should’ve been done right after 5150. Enlisting Andy Johns as producer was trying a bit too hard. Sure, Alex was looking for that Bonham-esque drum sound, but they could’ve done it in a number of other ways instead of causing divisiveness in the ranks. Hagar and Johns didn’t get along, and it was no good on a number of levels, including taking the longest of any Van Halen album to record. Thankfully, Ted Templeman came in. All that said, it’s a solid effort, one that doesn’t get enough credit for keeping Van Halen relevant in a quickly changing music landscape.
Matthew Wilkening: There's nothing wrong with F.U.C.K. You'll find a good song anywhere you drop the needle. But as a whole, somehow it all seems too homogeneous and safe. The best parts of Van Halen's first two records with Hagar were hearing them try lots of new things together, and there's not enough of that exploration here.
Watch Van Halen's 'Poundcake' Video
Where does F.U.C.K. rank among the four “Van Hagar” albums?
Graff: I'd put it a solid No. 3. Better than Balance, for sure, it doesn't quite hit 5150's freshness or OU812's brash confidence. Not my first go-to, but I wouldn't turn it off when it came on either.
Smith: Tops. The thin production that has aged 5150 and OU812 is absent here, and the band seems more committed to the material than they were on Balance. The songs are great; the playing and singing are great. Yeah, it’s a little dense in places, but you have to listen to hear all the different moving parts that comprise that density.
Wardlaw: It's neck and neck with 5150. I have a lot of love for the first three "Van Hagar" albums, but 5150 and For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge are the best albums, song for song. I think 5150 probably gets the edge - there are songs on F.U.C.K. like "Spanked" that sounded pretty cool and badass to teenage me. But 30 years on, I can see why hardcore fans of the David Lee Roth era were pretty upset with some of what Hagar was contributing to Van Halen lyrically - which they viewed as being childish and sophomoric at times. Still, hearing album tracks like "Judgement Day" for the first time, I was so stoked, hearing them get so heavy like that. "Runaround" and "Top of the World" (and, of course, "Poundcake") remain hooky, brilliant ear candy, and "The Dream Is Over" is another example of the melodic gems that Hagar helped create during his time with the group.
Christopher: Top two or three - 5150 at the top, and then it’s a toss-up between this and OU812. There’s not a lot of filler. Even the band thought so – just take a look at the set lists around that time. Obviously, a fair amount of new material is going to be performed whenever something new comes out, but nine out of the 11 tracks from the album were played on the supporting tour, with something like five or six each night.
Wilkening: Third. There's plenty of fun to be had, but compared to their previous work together, there's just not enough surprises. F.U.C.K. almost sounds like a souped-up version of one of Hagar's '80s solo albums. If you had told me in 1983 that Van Halen would serve as Hagar's band for the follow-up to Standing Hampton, I'd have lost my mind, but with 5150, and to a lesser degree OU812, they set the expectations bar much higher for themselves.
Was it a mistake for Van Halen to move away from keyboards and synths?
Graff: Nah - and that's not to speak against them. You can never go too wrong when Eddie Van Halen picks up the guitar - or power drill - and lets rip. There's some terrific playing on this album by all parties. It's still fun to hear that little Zappa-jazzy figure in "Man on a Mission" or to hear them thrash through "Judgement Day." Even when the solos get a little long, there's usually something cool to find in them.
Smith: Nope. In addition to being a self-described “tone chaser” when it came to building and occasionally destroying amplifiers and guitars, Eddie Van Halen was also a melody maker and a melody writer, and for a number of years he chose to express those melodies on keyboards as much as he did guitar. F.U.C.K. put the focus back on the guitar as the chief instrument of expression, and with that came a commitment to exploring the instrument to the fullest extent to which one could employ it on a recording. And it worked.
Wardlaw: It felt pretty natural, honestly. Van Halen were primarily known as a rock band from their earliest days, so it wasn't a shock in the same way it would be if a group that had been built on keyboards and synths had attempted the same transition. If anything, it was probably a relief to Van Halen fans who had resented the presence of the instruments in the first place. For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge felt like a record that was created with the idea that they would be playing it live. As produced as it is, it had a really "live" feel in the songs and energy. As a result, it was pretty great to see Van Halen open up their shows that year with the first four songs from the album in sequence.
Christopher: Not at all. It was best to leave the keyboards and synths in the '80s where they belonged. I don’t think the record would’ve been nearly as successful had they not moved away from them. At first, maybe, but as 1991 wore on and alternative music came to the forefront, the band would’ve been seen as wildly out of fashion and out of touch with the shifting times. One could make the argument that Van Halen were too big at that juncture to succumb to the same things that ruined other rock acts of the period, but they may not have survived had the return to the fundamentals not happened.
Wilkening: Maybe? If they weren't hearing keyboards in their heads anymore, then they were right not to use them. But the album could have used more sonic variety, in whatever way they wanted to deliver it. Alternatively, they could have cut a few songs. Fifty-two minutes of this isn't Metallica-level overkill, but it's dilution for sure. But then the problem becomes deciding what to cut: The best half-dozen songs are pretty easy to identify, but choosing from the uniformity of the remaining tracks would be difficult.
Watch Van Halen's 'Runaround' Video
What’s the best song on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge?
Graff: I find myself returning to "The Dream Is Over." "Right Now" is a distinguishing track in its own, earnest way, but "The Dream Is Over" catches the right balance of energy, velocity and chops without overdoing the playing or the arrangements as the album's longer tracks do.
Smith: I love how “In ‘N’ Out” comes together, from the avalanche of drums in the beginning, through the wonderful, complex solo section, to the “throw it all in there” ending. Between the verses and chorus, “The Dream Is Over” sounds like two songs bolted together, but they’re two very good songs. The answer, though, is probably “Poundcake,” because it just knocks you over from the jump, and every time you try to get up, it knocks you over again. And it’s the simplest thing – a loud rock song that compares the singer’s woman with a dessert, but it cooks and sounds great when played with the volume set to “stun.”
Wardlaw: "Top of the World" is pretty great as far as the singles go. Such a cool, memorable riff - and there are a lot of those on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. But I have a lot of love for both "Judgement Day," arguably the heaviest song that Van Halen ever put to tape with Hagar, and "Pleasure Dome," which is heavy and perhaps a bit quirky by Van Halen standards -- almost progressive sci-fi metal, in a way. Both are good Van Halen jams that sounded good when cranked up loud in 1991. Honorable mention to "In 'N' Out."
Christopher: It’s hard to dispute the epic nature of “Right Now,” as that song is just so powerful. But for my money, “Judgment Day” sums up everything which makes F.U.C.K. so appealing. It’s a driving, unforgiving rocker where Eddie Van Halen is doing some really interesting things deep in the mix. Hagar’s lyrics aren’t nearly as awkward as usual, revisiting the theme of religion like he did on one of OU812’s strongest tracks, “Mine All Mine.”
Wilkening: "Judgement Day." Is this what Eddie Van Halen got from watching Metallica every night on the Monsters of Rock tour? If everything on the album kicked this much butt, there would be nothing to complain about.
If David Lee Roth had to sing one of the songs on F.U.C.K., which should it be?
Graff: A provocative question, since Roth's lyrical sensibility and vocal approach is so, so different than Hagar's. But "Pleasure Dome," albeit meandering, is twisted enough to fit Roth's personality, right down to those spoken-word parts.
Smith: Understanding that Roth would change the lyrics, I’m trying to imagine his voice mixed over the instrumental tracks, and I think “Top of the World” might be the right move. It’s got that “Little Guitars” picking in the verses, and there’s enough pop in the chorus to give Roth some space for a great “Dance the Night Away”-like moment.
Wardlaw: It's pretty easy to hear him taking a good swing at "Poundcake." But I could also hear him pulling off "Spanked."
Christopher: I’d love to hear him take on “Pleasure Dome.” Lyrically, it’s not the best, but it has that thundering Zeppelin vibe, and there’s some spoken lyrics in the vein of what Roth would do a few years later with Van Halen in “Me Wise Magic,” so that would’ve suited his range, too.
Wilkening: If he was allowed to change the lyrics, arrangement and melody, "Poundcake" followed by "Spanked." But if he's gotta stick to the song as written, probably only "Pleasure Dome" is warped enough to work.
How does F.U.C.K. compare to Roth’s solo 1991 album, A Little Ain’t Enough? Which of Roth's tracks would you most like to have heard original lineup Van Halen tackle?
Graff: I'll take F.U.C.K. A Little ... has its merits, but much like F.U.C.K., it pales in comparison to its two predecessors. I could see Van Halen taking on a few tracks here, though - maybe "Shoot It," "Drop in the Bucket," the title track. "Hammerhead Shark" and "Sensible Shoes" would be intriguing, too, but might not end well.
Smith: A Little Ain't Enough is a good record, but Roth's clown-prince shtick was pretty dated by 1991. Still, "It's Showtime" is a classic Van Halen shuffle - like "Hang 'Em High" or "Sinner's Swing" or "Loss of Control" or even "Get Up" - and I think that could have worked on F.U.C.K.
Christopher: It’s interesting that both acts were getting back to their roots at the same time. Though it’s very strong in places (“Drop in the Bucket,” “Baby’s on Fire”) and has some killer guitar work by Jason Becker, it’s just not as well rounded as F.U.C.K. By his own admission, Roth was becoming disenchanted with hard rock in general at this time, and it shows. He leans way too heavy on his past schtick in spots and seems to be phoning it in at others. Total no-brainer which song I’d have liked to hear Van Halen tackle: “It’s Showtime.” The track is such a "Hot for Teacher” rip-off to begin with – not exactly in a bad way – that the band that influenced it might as well play it.
Wardlaw: I think they're pretty comparable as far as song quality - song to song, Roth mixes things up a lot more stylistically. It seems like he really indulged every creative urge that he thought about pursuing on that album. And it would have been fun to hear a Roth-fronted Van Halen tackle "Hammerhead Shark" in an alternate universe.
Wilkening: Van Halen were operating at a completely different - a much higher level than Roth by this point. "It's Showtime" is the most obvious match, but they've already done better versions of that song together. "Lady Luck" has the sharpest melodic hooks on the record, which is admittedly faint praise. It would be way cooler to hear them team up for "Big Train" from 1994's Your Filthy Little Mouth.
Hear David Lee Roth Perform 'It's Showtime'