How Van Halen’s Roy Orbison Cover Led to a Classic Album

by TK Sanders
(Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

In 1981, heavy metal band Van Halen thought that the best way to stay popular without touring was to record a cover album to bridge the gap between albums. But the band’s cover became iconic, and they suddenly faced even more pressure to create new music than before.

After the band’s Fair Warning Tour concluded in 1981, singer David Lee Roth suggested that they cover a classic Motown riff just to keep some music flowing to the public. Band leader Eddie Van Halen liked the idea; but instead of Motown, he chose Roy Orbison’s (Oh) Pretty Woman to cover. The song was newer and a proven winner already, so Van Halen set themselves to learning the riffs and tweaking the sound.

Apparently, in the studio, tempers flared (as usual) between Roth and Van Halen, with both parties pressing the other to get better all the time. Eddie badgered Roth about the lyrics and inflections; Roth needled Van Halen to learn the chords and develop an original sound. In the chaos of trying to improve upon a classic, the band accidentally left out an entire verse of the original song in their recording. But thanks to a long, meandering intro, the song still clocked in around three minutes; so the band decided to leave the missing verse out of the final cut.

Van Halen’s producer did not like ‘(Oh) Pretty Woman’

Producer Ted Templeman recalled in his 2020 memoirs that he thought the song was a poor choice for the band; but that the ensuing video — a ridiculous MTV romp with dwarves, historical characters, and a transsexual reveal at the end — helped create enough buzz to warrant a supporting album, Diver Down.

“The sessions went well enough, but the fact that the band members prioritized the video over the songs gave me fits,” Templeman wrote. “Alex [Van Halen] and Dave were obsessed with the video being right. They wanted the [meandering intro] so the video would work. So we were doing all this crazy stuff for that instrumental in the studio. I just wanted to work on the song side of things, you know? All of this meant that the whole ‘Pretty Woman’ video project was a big nightmare for me.”

The cover song, and subsequent album, solidified Van Halen as rock icons

Templeman let it be known that he disliked the song choice as well, but the public received it well enough. Van Halen’s version of (Oh) Pretty Woman hit number 12 on the charts, leading the record company to demand an album to support it. Van Halen the band, which had recorded the song as a way to stall any need for a new album, now had to get back to work in order to cash in on the unforeseen success.

“When you put out a hit single, you better have an album to go behind it, because nobody — the company, the act — makes any real money on a single,” Templeman wrote. “I’m sure those guys thought that by releasing a single and video, they could temporarily pause the annual album/tour cycle that they’d been on since 1977. But instead, the word came down to me from Mo [Ostin] and Lenny [Waronker] that Warner Bros. wanted a new Van Halen album within weeks. Van Halen’s management agreed. So the message to the band and me was ‘Okay guys, you’ve got a hit. Let’s get moving. Go into the studio.'”

The band managed to release Diver Down just six weeks later on April 14, 1982, to massive fanfare. Van Halen were certified superstars with the golden touch at that point.