All rock bands have their personnel conflicts, but the story of Van Halen is more contentious than most. Extroverted and charismatic lead singer “Diamond” David Lee Roth was usually at odds with genius guitarist Eddie Van Halen and the rest of the band: Eddie’s brother, Alex, on drums and bassist Michael Anthony. (As Eddie Van Halen described it to Rolling Stone in 1984: “I’m a musician, Dave’s a rock star.”) Eventually, the band replaced Roth with Sammy Hagar, leading to the band’s lame yet successful “Van Hagar” period, followed by a stint with Gary Cherone on lead vocals; most recently, the band has been back with Roth again. Meanwhile, Anthony got fired in favor of Eddie Van Halen’s son, Wolfgang. The only thing consistent about Van Halen’s lineup over the decades has been its tumultuousness.
Back in 1979, though, the band was enjoying the considerable success of the now-classic Van Halen II, and was preparing for the release of its third record, Women And Children First. A 2015 article on Medium by Van Halen biographer Greg Renoff reveals that after talking to record label Warner Bros.’s art director, Roth decided that acclaimed fashion photographer Helmut Newton would be the ideal person to shoot the album cover. And as luck would have it, Newton happened to be in Southern California at the time, same as the band, so Roth tracked him down at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel.
Van Halen’s singer came wearing “leather everything,” his long, blond hair spilling down the back of his black motorcycle jacket, all the better to impress a photographer, whose work celebrated contrasts between light and dark. After a spirited conversation, Newton exclaimed, “Do you know what, David? You are my new favorite blond. I would love to shoot photos of you.”
While Roth states in his autobiography that Newton was only supposed to take pictures of him, the label claims it hired the photographer to shoot the whole band. Only problem: The rest of the band had never heard of Helmut Newton. They were nonetheless summoned to Dave’s home for the shoot. Roth immediately had an idea of himself in bondage, and tried to set up a shot in chains. When the rest of the band members showed up a short while later, they were upset that what they thought was a group shoot had started without them.
One of Newton’s resulting photos wound up in the band’s press kit, and another on a poster. Still, the shoot almost perfectly depicted the creative conflicts that would eventually lead to Roth’s departure from the band. For a while, though, that volatile combination made some pretty great rock music, even if the outfits were kind of ridiculous.