The Private Photo Shoot that Sparked a War Inside Van Halen
In 1979 David Lee Roth met Helmut Newton, inciting an ego-fueled power struggle that ultimately split the group apart
Van Halen’s star was on the rise in late 1979. Vocalist David Lee Roth, bassist Michael Anthony, guitarist Eddie Van Halen, and drummer Alex Van Halen had sent sold out crowds into delirium on their wildly successful 1978 and 1979 world tours. They had two platinum albums under their belts, and their latest, Van Halen II, had even cracked the Billboard Top Ten. These were significant achievements for a hard rock band at time when disco and new wave dominated the nation’s airwaves.
These triumphs aside, intra-band tensions (which Roth later conceded were “always” present) mounted as the quartet and its label, Warner Bros. Records, planned the visuals for the forthcoming Women and Children First. This battle took shape along familiar lines, with the group’s frontman squaring off against the Van Halen brothers. But Roth’s desire to have a portrait of himself, bare-chested and bound in chains, dominate the album’s art gave this round of conflict a particular intensity. In effect, Roth’s artistic vision threatened to overwhelm Van Halen’s collective identity as a group, something that the band’s namesakes weren’t willing to cede to Diamond Dave without a fight.
When fans picked up Women and Children First in March 1980, Van Halen appeared as thick as thieves in the cover photos. But revealingly, there was no sign of the dozens of photos of the four musicians shot by the most important fashion photographer of the late 20th Century. The untold story of why these lost pictures have never surfaced—excepting two photos, including the risqué bondage-themed shot of Roth—and why images taken by another legendary photographer replaced them on the album sleeve sheds light on Van Halen’s internal dysfunction at the dawn of the 1980s. More importantly, the tumult surrounding these two shoots provided band insiders with a prequel to the titanic power struggles between the Van Halen brothers and Roth that would split the group in 1985.
Everybody Wants Some!!
Despite their success, Van Halen had little time to rest on their laurels in December of 1979. The industry’s relentless “album-tour” cycle, which had the power to turn breakthrough acts like Van Halen into superstars, demanded that the four musicians get to work on a new record, so they could hit the road again by the spring of 1980.
While Eddie, like a mad scientist, brought the monster riffs and hooks of Women and Children First to life, Roth began to write lyrics and contemplate the packaging of their forthcoming release. And when it came to shooting photos for the new album, Roth had someone special in mind: Helmut Newton.
By the late 70s, the German-born Newton had become more than a celebrated fashion photographer. The 59-year-old was a cultural icon. His provocative—some said pornographic—images of female beauty filled the pages of Vogue, Playboy and his own coffee table books. “He’s the shit. He’s legit,” Roth later observed in his autobiography, Crazy from the Heat.
On its face, the notion that Newton would work with Van Halen seemed absurd. Van Halen played places like Rapid City and Amarillo. Newton worked in Monaco and Manhattan. His rarefied world was galaxies away from Planet Van Halen. Newton rarely photographed rock stars. When he did, he shot international superstars like the Rolling Stones, not some upstart hard rock group with a funny sounding name.
But these cold, hard facts did little to dissuade the driven Roth. At some point in December, Roth caught up with Richard Seireeni, the Warner Bros. art director who’d be working on the new Van Halen album. “Dave and I were talking,” Seireeni recalls, “and I mentioned Helmut Newton to him.” Roth replied, “‘I’ve been thinking about Helmut too!” Seireeni, who was friends with Newton, then remarked that the photographer just happened to be in Los Angeles to do a photo shoot for Playboy.
Roth now had his target in his sights. And by an incredible stroke of luck, Newton was in town. After tracking Newton down at the posh Beverly Hills Hotel, Roth met with the perpetually-tanned Newton by the pool. 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.”
Herein lay the root of the coming conflict between Roth and the brothers. Roth’s autobiography makes clear that when he made his pitch, he suggested Newton shoot a portrait—“a photo”—of him at his sprawling Pasadena estate. Newton, likewise, intended to photograph David Lee Roth. As far as they were concerned, Newton wouldn’t be shooting photos of the band.
Warner Bros. executives saw things differently. Seireeni recollects that the label hired Newton to photograph Van Halen. This meant that Newton would take photos of all the band members and presumably, a group shot, for use in the album’s artwork.
Moreover, the idea that Warner Bros. would secure Newton’s services to photograph Roth alone seems all the more unlikely in light of Newton’s going rate. While Roth asserted in Crazy from the Heat that Newton did the shoot for a pittance, Seireeni scoffs at that idea. “I was the one who cut the deal with Helmut for Warner Bros.,” he observes. To be sure, “most Warner Bros. albums at that time had a very limited cover art budget. Usually, it was less than fifteen hundred dollars. But for our bigger acts like Van Halen, you could request an ‘extended budget.’ I’m sure the Helmut shoot fell into this category.” This extended budget could translate into a sum with more than a couple of zeros at the end. As Newton himself put it in his 2003 autobiography, “My fees are not low.”
By hiring Newton, Warner Bros. had already made an expensive investment in the new LP. The record company thus expected that Newton’s photos would appear on the album jacket in one form or another.
While Roth was thrilled about Newton’s participation, the Van Halen brothers and Anthony were nonplussed. When the word was passed to them that they should convene at Roth’s home one December morning for a Helmut Newton shoot, one immediate problem arose: none of them had heard of the superstar photographer. Roth writes, “Everybody said, ‘Who’s that?’” Seireeni confirms this by saying, “They [Eddie and Alex] asked, ‘Who’s this guy?’ They had no idea who Helmut was.” As a result, before they’d even arrived at the Roth estate, it was clear that the Van Halen brothers “didn’t want much to do with” the shoot. In contrast, Roth was “all for doing this thing,” according to Seireeni.
That morning, Newton, along with his assistants Just Loomis and George Holz, had prepared for the shoot. Pete Angelus, the band’s lighting director and creative consultant, Anthony, and Seireeni soon appeared as well. But the Van Halen siblings were nowhere in sight. As Seireeni recalls, after a few minutes of waiting around in the estate’s long driveway, Helmut and Roth said to each other, “Let’s just get started.”
With Roth leading the way, they all made a beeline for the pool, which in true Southern California style, was brim full in December. Roth, shirtless and wearing the tightest black leather pants imaginable, strutted to the far side of the pool while Newton and Loomis set up shop on the other side.
While Roth positioned himself against the fence that bordered the swimming area, Holz dropped the heavy chains he’d lugged from the driveway. He and Angelus fastened them around Roth’s wrists, thighs, and torso in different configurations as per Newton’s directions. Newton would shoot, then stop and call for another pose from Van Halen’s “main influence,” as Newton later described Roth in his private journal.
By this time, the Van Halen brothers had arrived. They took in the scene around the pool and were none too pleased. What was presented to them as a Van Halen shoot had turned into the Roth show. “The brothers see David chained to the fence,” Seireeni remembers, “and already these guys are upset.” The Warner Bros. art director continues, “I see this and told Helmut, ‘Hey, let’s take some shots of the rest of the band.’”
Newton dutifully photographed the others. Loomis says, “I remember we shot Eddie with the guitar and Dave in many different ways. I don’t specifically remember a band shot, but maybe we did one.” Images taken by Loomis show Newton posing a Les Paul-wielding Eddie leaning against a tree, and then on the property’s spacious lawn. From this sequence came one of only two Newton photos ever to surface from the session. Warner Bros., perhaps to recoup its investment, would include a black-and-white shot of the disgruntled guitarist in Van Halen’s 1980 press kit. To be sure, Newton’s artistry is on display, with Eddie’s backlit hair contrasting beautifully with the dark ivy behind him. But Eddie’s sullen expression speaks volumes about the day’s events: there’s no sign of his trademark grin.
After lunch, Newton shot a few more pictures of the group. But to Seireeni’s dismay, things continued to head south. The brothers never took to Newton, and the legendary photographer didn’t click with them either. Seireeni remembers, “Helmut didn’t much like the other band members. So he took some of the other guys but ended up shooting all of these pictures of David.”
In the late afternoon, Anthony and the brothers departed, leaving Newton and Roth free to finish their work. In the semi-darkness, they staged and captured the only image of Roth ever released from the shoot. It shows the bare-chested vocalist on his knees, his hands chained above his head to a cyclone fence.
Ain’t Talkin Bout Love
The next day, war broke out in the Van Halen camp. The brothers viewed this whole episode as an effort by Roth to hijack the band’s image for the new album. Newton’s reputation as the photographer to the stars meant nothing to them, and they sensed that Newton had really only wanted to work with the band’s lead singer. Roth, in turn, did want the album’s visuals to present him as the star of the band. Angelus, who ended up in the middle of this fight, says, “Eddie and Alex weren’t that familiar with Helmut’s work, and of course, Dave was desirous to be the center of attention.”
Things were no more harmonious at Warner Bros. headquarters. From Seireeni’s perspective, “This whole thing ended up being a big mess.” All day long, he was on the phone with the band’s personal manager, Noel E. Monk, and their creative consultant Angelus. “There was a lot of fallout from this. The brothers complained to Noel. I’m taking all these calls, talking to Pete and Noel. They’re telling me, ‘These guys are on the warpath and are giving me a hard time.’” He punched back by saying, “Hey! You guys agreed to do this. Your band asked for this.”
No one remembers who came up with the idea, but in an effort to bring inner peace to Van Halen, Warner Bros. hired famed rock photographer Norman Seeff to shoot another set of images for the album cover. Tellingly, when Seeff took the job he wasn’t made aware of the trouble brewing inside of Van Halen. Until recently, in fact, he had no idea that Helmut Newton had ever worked with the band.
Regardless, some wise decision-maker knew that Seeff was the right man for the job. The South-African-born photographer had a talent for taking pictures that made bands comprised of musicians who disliked each other look like they were the best of friends. For those around the band, the hope was that Seeff’s session would produce photos that would present an inclusive image of Van Halen as a group. In this manner, the resentments harbored by Van Halen brothers about the Roth-Newton shoot could be dispelled.
One day in late December, the quartet showed up at Seeff’s Los Angeles studio. Seeff recalled that he immediately sensed that all was not well with Van Halen. “Working with a rock group is always a challenge,” he recalled in a 2012 interview with M Music & Musicians. “There are times when a group comes in for a session, and I perceive there is tension among the members.” Seeff knew he needed to get the four musicians doing something, and fast.
Seeff suggested that Eddie plug his Ibanez guitar into an amp brought along as a prop for the session. Someone put a tape of the still-unreleased Women and Children First into Seeff’s stereo and turned it up—loud. The guitarist began playing along to the tracks as Seeff worked. Smiles soon radiated from the four musicians. A fat joint was lit, and someone cracked a pint of whisky. While Eddie jammed, the others laughed and sang.
From this round of photos came two iconic images. The first, which would appear on the front cover of the LP, shows the four musicians leaning in together while a reclining Eddie hits a hellacious note on his guitar. The second would appear on the back cover. The quartet stands abreast. A stoned Anthony, on the far right, exhales as he holds a joint aloft. Roth, on the far left, flexes his bicep as Alex supports the singer’s raised foot. As the drummer stares into the camera lens, Eddie points at Seeff, as if to say: parents of America: lock up your daughters.
Before the workday ended, Seeff did individual shoots with the band members, but those were beside the point. Seeff had taken two transcendent photographs of Van Halen appearing more like four pirates celebrating a day of plunder than four guys who couldn’t stand to be in the same room together. In light of the intense disagreements that had resulted from the Newton shoot, this was a masterstroke. Once the band, Seireeni, and everyone else saw the results, they were ecstatic.
When Women and Children First hit record stores in late March 1980, a surprise awaited Van Halen fans under the LP’s shrink wrap. Along with the record, a folded two-foot-by-three-foot poster of Roth in chains, perfect for hanging on a bedroom wall—or ceiling above a bed—was tucked inside the jacket. Despite all of the friction, Roth’s desire to have a Newton portrait of him in the album’s packaging had won the day.
That said, Roth and the brothers had struck a compromise of sorts. Diamond Dave, after much back and forth with Eddie and Alex, agreed that the poster would be enclosed only in the first million vinyl pressings. Angelus, who so tight with Roth that he would later manage his career as a solo artist, says, “I do recall a discussion of the poster being a limited edition run because it didn’t represent the band.”
To be sure, Roth’s decision to fight for the poster’s inclusion wasn’t all about ego gratification. Controversy, he knew, moved units. As Roth told Creem at the time, “we put the poster in because it upsets people. It’s disturbing. It’s one of those beautiful things where there’s actually nothing going on in the picture, and you’re forced to use your filthy little imagination.” Plus, he added later with a smirk, “it’s always been one of my sexual fantasies to be tied up.”
With the bondage poster enclosed, Women and Children First flew off the shelves. It entered the Billboard Top Ten within three weeks of its release and went platinum by June. But even as the Jack Daniel’s flowed in celebration, the brothers remained resentful about Roth’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the spotlight. “They saw themselves as the sound of the band,” Seireeni observes, “and the band has their name. From their perspective, they’d hired DLR just to be the voice of Van Halen.”
Roth, Eddie, and Alex seemingly put this chapter behind them as the group’s popularity exploded during the early 80s. But the tension regarding Roth’s role in the band loomed like a tumor inside of Van Halen, lying in wait until it would eventually metastasize and kill the original lineup. As Eddie conceded to Rolling Stone in early 1984, “I’m a musician, Dave’s a rock star.”
By 1985, Roth had even bigger plans to grow his public profile. After he shocked the rock world by announcing that he’d left Van Halen, he looked to add “movie star” to his resume via his ill-fated film project Crazy from the Heat. Perhaps the observer least surprised about all of this was Helmut Newton. He had, of course, anticipated Roth’s ambitions for superstardom back in 1979.
Runnin’ With the Devil
Thirty-plus years later, the Seeff photos stand as the best visual representation of what Van Halen meant to the band’s millions of fans. The quartet looks like a four-man gang who’d chug malt liquor until nightfall, shatter teenage eardrums before midnight, and party until sunup, fueled by a steady diet of women, whisky, and cocaine. The design here, to be sure, was to stir the passions of the band’s teenage audience. Yet undeniably, Seeff’s work captured the alchemy of youthful arrogance, virtuosic talent, and unbridled energy that gave the original Van Halen lineup its raw power and platinum appeal.
Today, Seeff has just one regret about the shoot. He always had camera crew on hand to film his photo sessions, all five hundred of them. When Van Halen’s management team arranged the shoot, they offered to foot the bill for the session’s footage, thinking the band would use the material for a future television project. Seeff agreed, expecting he’d get a copy of the film later. But because he didn’t pick up the cost up-front, he never received the footage. So moldering somewhere, perhaps in Eddie’s 5150 studio vault, is more lost visual evidence of the devil-may-care, gonzo attitude that made Van Halen into superstars. And as rock fans everywhere know, you can’t get that stuff no more.
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Header image: Helmut Newton, with assistant George Holz, photographs Eddie Van Halen at David Lee Roth’s mansion | Photo by Just Loomis
Greg Renoff is a historian and the author of Van Halen Rising: How a Southern California Backyard Party Band Saved Heavy Metal, which was published by ECW Press in October, 2015.
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