Given their storied list of accomplishments, it’s surprising that Van Halen were never musical guests on Saturday Night Live.
However, a chance encounter between Eddie and legendary house band leader G.E. Smith once led to one of the greatest impromptu appearances in the show’s history.
The 1986-1987 season was a good time for SNL. After taking a dip in the ratings for a few years, new cast members such as Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman and Victoria Jackson breathed fresh life into the once-struggling show.
Riding high, Lorne Michaels was happy to accommodate reasonable requests from the staff. G.E. Smith made it a point to have as much fun as he could with the relaxed atmosphere.
In an interview with the series An Oral History Of Television, Smith reflected the day when actress Valerie Bertinelli, Eddie Van Halen’s then-spouse, was the SNL guest host for Season 12, Episode 13, broadcast on Feb. 28, 1987. “Eddie was bored,” he said. “He doesn’t want to follow his wife around like a puppy dog.
“So he finds out about the music office, and he comes in and hangs out – because you can do whatever you want in the music office. Drinking, smoking, whatever. He was comfortable there. It was his people, band guys.”
During Season 12, Smith made it a point to call upon big-name musicians to sit in with the house band unannounced. Given the live format, these spontaneous guests provided an extra layer of excitement that incentivized viewers to tune in.
“A couple of guys from Metallica told me there were times when they’d get off stage and get on the bus and turn on the TV to see who was playing with the band that week,” Smith recalled.
Although fondly remembered among fans, Smith lamented that the live performance was just slightly off from the version they nailed during dress rehearsal.
Titled “Stompin’ 8H” as an homage to the famed Studio 8H at 30 New York’s 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the song was based around a “little lick” Van Halen had written. “I wrote another section, and then Lenny [Pickett, musical director] arranged the horn parts and then there we were,” said Smith.
“At dress it was fantastic – it was ridiculous how good it was. … He’s a master, he really is,” the house guitarist exclaimed. “At air it was great, I mean it was super high quality. But he made a tiny little mistake.
“He forgot where this one very intricate little thing [was]. Nobody would even know about it; maybe three people in the United States. He was so upset that he had made a mistake; but it was great.”
You can watch the clip on NBC’s website or check out the audio version below. The “mistake” happens around the 2:08 mark.