Jan 24

How the Navy Got a Hit Recruiting Video From Van Halen

Friday, January 24, 2020 5:06 AM

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In 1986, the band Van Halen was in transition. After scoring a major commercial success with the album 1984 that included their first #1 single “Jump”, the antics and overbearing personality of lead singer David Lee Roth had become too much for the rest of the band and they decided to part ways. Critics questioned if Van Halen could continue without the charismatic Roth serving as the frontman. The announcement that the “Red Rocker” Sammy Hagar would be Roth’s replacement was met with mixed reactions from fans.

5150 by Van Halen

So it was a surprise to many when 5150, Van Halen’s first album recorded with Hagar as the lead vocalist, quickly topped the charts on the strength of the first single “Why Can’t This Be Love”. What made this feat more remarkable was that Van Halen had refused to produce any music videos in support of the album. At the time, videos were considered an absolute necessity to promote new releases. It was the industry practice for bands to be billed for the production costs of videos but Van Halen maintained that promotion and associated expenses were the responsibility of their record company, Warner Bros.

Poster for Top Gun

With a hit album on their hands, Warner Bros. was keen to keep the momentum going with a second single so they began to consider how they could make a quick and cheap video. One of their executives had recently seen the box office smash Top Gun and thought the movie would have been even better with a rock soundtrack (he must have considered “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins a bit too twee). Using the Tom Cruise movie as inspiration, Warner Bros. elected to produce a video featuring the Navy’s Blue Angels and then release it to coincide with the Independence Day holiday.

Cover for Van Halen’s single “Dreams”

From McDonnell Douglas, Warner Bros. obtained decade-old stock footage of the Blue Angels flying the A-4F Skyhawk II and decided that Van Halen’s soaring track “Dreams” was a perfect match. Since Van Halen was not footing the bill, the band gave their approval. The Navy was also pleased to assist the effort because the video would help commemorate the Blue Angel’s 40th anniversary. Once all parties were in agreement, the quick-cut video of the Blue Angles executing their signature maneuvers was edited in three days.

Initially, the video was intended to have a very limited run exclusively on MTV during the July Liberty Weekend which was a special celebration of the restoration and centenary of the Statue of Liberty. It was put into heavy rotation and aired four times a day. The massive response it generated took Warner Bros, Van Halen and the Navy by surprise. MTV was deluged with phone calls from viewers who wanted to know more about the Blue Angels and where they could get copies of the video.

The Navy was thrilled. On the heels of the two-hour recruiting commercial that was Top Gun, they now had an electrifying music video by one of the nation’s most popular rock bands being viewed by millions of teenage boys. Navy Recruiting Command was reaching their target audience, and it had cost them nothing. In fact, everyone involved reaped rewards. MTV had a buzzworthy video, Van Halen notched another hit single in “Dreams” (peaking at #22 on the charts) while being able to stand firm on not paying for the video, and Warner Bros. racked up more album sales due to their inexpensive promo. For these reasons, all parties agreed to extend the use of the video indefinitely.

Blue Angel A-4F Skyhawks

Warner Bros. expanded distribution of the video to game arcades, shopping malls and hotels. The Navy made the most of the unexpected gift by sharing copies of the video with its 2,200 recruiting stations as well as schools and hospitals. There is no data to indicate exactly how many recruits the Navy gained due to the “Dreams” video, but without question it raised awareness and brought positive attention among a key demographic during the summer of 1986.

Van Halen with Sammy Hagar went on to record three more #1 albums without paying for any music videos out of their own pockets. Hagar estimates that it saved the band $4 million. Hagar has also said that if he was forced to pick his favorite Van Halen song, he would chose “Dreams”.

The same year that the video for “Dreams” was released, the Blue Angels replaced their Skyhawks with F/A-18 Hornets. They still perform regularly and dazzle audience across the nation.