How David Lee Roth Helped Sammy Hagar’s ‘I Can’t Drive 55′ Video
Tensions between Diamond Dave and the rest of Van Halen were running high by 1984. The singer spent part of that year recording his debut solo EP, Crazy From the Heat, which he released in January 1985. He officially exited the band a few months later and was replaced in short order by Hagar.
The Red Rocker had been enjoying considerable success with a series of gold and platinum solo albums, including 1982's Standing Hampton and Three Lock Box and 1984's VOA. The last of those contained Hagar's signature hit "I Can't Drive 55," which was bolstered by a popular music video.
If not for Roth, however, "I Can't Drive 55" may have never made it to MTV.
"There was an incident, though, when I was recording the EP and I was in the studio with Ted Templeman [producer], and Ted was doing Sammy Hagar at the same time," Roth recalled in a 1986 Spin cover story, also noting that he'd never met Hagar at that point. "And the telephone call comes, and it's the singer and he's frantic. He just got his first big shot with some song, and he's got the video, and evidently, he says the word 'ass.' Standards and Practices are all over him. They're not going to play his video. There goes the last 10% of the career down the toilet."
Hagar was unsurprisingly distressed over the dilemma, and Roth jumped to his aid. "'What am I gonna do?' he asked. Ted turns to me and says, 'You're into video. What should he do?' I get on the phone and ask him what's happening on the screen, what's the transition before it? So he tells me the transition. 'Well, that's cool. If the guy's slamming the door when that word pops up, just pop in the sound of the door. You can go down to editing. They probably have 20 different doors for you. They're in the Yellow Pages.' And that's exactly what happened."
Watch Sammy Hagar's 'I Can't Drive 55' Video
Hagar confirms to UCR that Roth's retelling is "pretty much exactly what happened," though Roth's assessment of his solo career circa 1984 is uncharitable. By that point, Standing Hampton and Three Lock Box had both been certified gold, and Hagar was filling arenas throughout the United States. Hagar's Van Halen debut, 5150, would dwarf those figures, topping the Billboard 200 and ultimately selling 6 million copies in the U.S. alone — and more than tripling the sales of Roth's debut full-length Eat 'Em and Smile.
Notably, the official version of "I Can't Drive 55" that appears on YouTube doesn't seem to utilize Roth's tactic either. When Hagar sings at 2:22, "I'm gonna throw your ass in the city joint," the offending word is simply censored. Nevertheless, whether Roth was feeling generous or simply unthreatened by Hagar at the time, he gave his future rival a major assist when he needed it most.