So it's something of an ugly shock when Sammy Hagar appears. A veteran hard-rock journeyman (Montrose, Hagar's early-Seventies outfit, was sort of a poor man's Bad Company), Hagar was playing out the tail end of a one-hit solo career when he got the call from Van Halen in 1986. His advent liberated Eddie the songwriter somewhat -- unlike Dave, Hagar could sing big love ballads without sounding like a child molester -- but the band was never quite the same. Sammy sang everything with a sort of pained, leaden earnestness that made the back catalogue nearly unplayable and rendered new material strangely Journey-like. This, of course, spelled boffo success, and the hits kept on coming like nothing had ever happened.
Something had happened, though. The Van Halen Mark II that plays on the second half of Best of is a different animal than the one on the first half. This is a band that indulges in blustery 5:36 mini-epics like "When It's Love" (from 1988's OU812) and brings its still mighty instrumental firepower to bear on slick fodder like "Dreams" (from 1986's 5150). When they do get down to the business of rocking, you get "Poundcake," a tuneless, incoherent stab at Rothian sniggering as heavy and lifeless as the baked good. Hagar sounds like he's trying to impress his kids, and Eddie plays up a storm but never nails a single memorable riff.
You wouldn't know it from here, but there were a few flashes of the old touch in the latter-day Van Halen. Best of Volume 1 somehow overlooks "Finish What Ya Started," a nifty bit of twang from OU812, and "Black and Blue," a far more successful balls-out rocker. For that matter, there's no "Jamie's Crying," "Hot for Teacher," or "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?" either; presumably, a Volume 2 would pick up these and other missing pieces of the Van Halen story.
A more logical solution, of course, would have been to simply divide Dave and Sammy's respective contributions onto two separate discs. Having Dave and Sammy uneasily coexisting on a single album doesn't seem right somehow, even if it does make a certain marketing sense (Dave and Sammy themselves would likely agree). Especially because, after Sammy vanishes into the sunset with "Human Being" (a surprisingly furious exercise in guitar whomp from the Twister soundtrack), Dave comes lurching back to life briefly at the end with a pair of new tunes, "Can't Get This Stuff No More" and "Me Wise Magic."
The first isn't much, really, just a throwaway boogie with a nice Frampton Comes Alive talk-box solo. But "Me Wise Magic," whatever the hell the title means, is something else entirely. This is the kind of stuff that has been so conspicuously absent from the Van Halen of late -- raunchy, catchy, and unapologetically over-the-top guitar wallop goosed by a circa 1996 David Lee Roth spaz-out. Dave growls and grumbles like the dirty old man he was destined to be before igniting that inimitable high-pitched wail of his, and suddenly we're back in the glorious spandex year of 1984, waiting for the "Panama" encore.
Apparently that's what Dave thought as well. Hearing the band lock into the vintage Van Halen chorus on "Me Wise Magic," with chunky bassist Michael Anthony hitting those uncanny high harmonies, Eddie lashing his tremolo bar around, and brother Alex pounding it all home, it's easy to see why Diamond Dave figured -- wrongly -- that the good times were finally back again.