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Published on October 27th, 2011 | by Alan Cross

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Bullshit Story of the Day: Van Halen’s (Alleged) Backing Tracks

So Sammy Hagar accuses the recently-resurrected Van Halen of using backing tracks in concert.

My reaction is “So what?  Everyone else is.”

This is the dirty secret of today’s concert world.  But it’s really not that dirty at all.  Here’s why.

In the Olden Days–around the same time “real” musicians refused to use synthesizers or other electronics because “they didn’t take any talent to play”– no one would be caught dead using taped bits to augment difficult arrangements in concert.  

I remember the brouhaha that broke out around Queen’s Live Kllers album in 1979.  ”They couldn’t have reproduced those vocals in concert! They must have used backing tapes!  That’s cheating!  Worse yet, that’s a fraud perpetrated on the audience!  How DARE they?”

Please.  Get over it.  Backing tracks have been a way of life for touring musicians for ages. And I’m not talking about Britney and Madonna.

(1) Audiences pay a lot of money for concert tickets these days.  They expect an appropriate spectacle with good sound, lots of lights and maybe some fire.  They also expect the songs to sound just like (or very close to) what they hear on the CD or the download. That not only means backing tracks but all manner of pitch correction hardware. 

(2) Yes, you could just hire enough musicians and singers to reproduce all the studio sounds in a live situation, but that’s awfully, awfully expensive.  Backing tracks accomplish the same thing at a fraction of the cost.

(3) In the case of older acts, voices are shot.  That doesn’t help when your audience is hoping and praying that the performer (and by extension, themselves) still has the same stuff they did when they were much, much younger.  

You think Ozzy can still hit those high notes?  Hardly.  There’s apparently a guy backstage with a mic who helps him through those parts.  It’s alleged that AC/DC couldn’t change up the set list of their last world tour because “they’d have to go back into the studio to redo all the tracking.”  That’s a quote from someone I know deep within the concert industry.  How much of U2′s 360 Tour was tied to programmed material?  Yes, they played the vast majority of what we heard, but with a show that big and complicated, backing track assistance is a necessity.

(4) We’re so far into the Age of Sampling that most people don’t even give a second thought to whether portions of a performance are live or recorded.  It’s almost assumed that a performer uses that technology as part of his/her bag of tricks.  As long as it sounds good, right?

If Van Halen comes around, I’ll go see them.  And I don’t care of Eddie’s kid sounds scarily like Michael Anthony. I just want the background vocals to “Runnin’ With the Devil” to sound like it did on the 1984 tour.


About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.



5 Responses to Bullshit Story of the Day: Van Halen’s (Alleged) Backing Tracks

  1. J Russell says:

    I don't want a concert to sound exactly like the cd. I can stay home and listen to a cd for the $15 I spent on the disc. I want the band to sound just enough different that it is clear the band is working for my $50-$100 I dished out for a ticket.

    Everyone attending the show needs to understand and realize that a cd is produced to refine the bands sound. If the band sounds that different live that they need to use technology to clean up a live show to match the cd then I think the bigger issue becomes the fact that the cd is so altered from what the band really sounds like that the cd is the deception of the fans. There should be no good reason for a rock band to be so overproduced that the studio version does not accurately reflect the band's live sound.

  2. Most people who attend a concert want the experience of being there. They want to hear the hits. If the vox or music is off then they complain the band sucked. Heck, many couldn't accept the new singer of Journey & he was great! But he wasn't Steve Perry. The point is only real musicians seem to care. Mr. & Mrs. Average Music Fan don't really want much difference between the CD & live because they fell in love with the version they heard on the CD or radio anyway. They're not sure what they like but are quick to point out what they don't like. And it's unfair to expect a guy in his 50s to sing like he did in his 20s. Music is the product of musicians & it has a thin profit margin so you can't take chances losing what precious audience you have by changing things too much.

  3. Stanley B. Nielsen says:

    I know it's common practice to use backing tracks, but come on!!! What next??? The Toronto symphony putting the violins on tracks to save money??? This is not what the "art" of music is about.
    It would be funny to hear what VH sounds like without the tracks. I'd bet they're abysmal!!

  4. Warren Berghoff says:

    I was at the Van Halen concert on June 1st in Los Angeles. I grew up on Van Halen and I was so excited to see them until the show started. It was so painfully obvious that they were using backing tracks. What the hell is this? As a comparison I saw Bob Segar in December. His band was tight and you could see every instrument that you hear. I know Eddie and Alex have talent so why are they stealing money from everyone. I would rather see the cover band Atomic Punks. It was very obvious at many points during the show, but most evident may have been on the last song Jump. There is clearly no keyboard on stage, so why do hear a keyboard. On another song "And the Cradle Will Rock" I heard so many sounds that Eddie was not playing. Of course I expect this from Cold Play, but Van Halen? What in the world happened to one of the best bands of all time. Eddie should be ashamed about the product he is selling. Don't even ask about Dave's voice and horrible monologue during a private showing of Dave on his ranch with his dog's. Lame!!

  5. Robbied says:

    Has the use of backing tracks been proven for the VH example? if so.. yeah, I got a beef with that. IMO, concert goers exspect some decay of "vocals" "guitar tightness" for a classic band but the GREAT bands accept the fact they have aged and throw it out there the best they can with a touch of class and grace. I love VH but also would anticipate some level of "aged" sound live. Cheers

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