35 Years Ago: Van Halen Release ‘Panama,’ Their Last David Lee Roth-Era Hit
He’s wearing a Panama hat, but he’s not singing about the country (or the hat). No, David Lee Roth is singing about a woman, again, though also about a car, for the first time – which explains the mixed metaphors.
Recorded for Van Halen’s blockbuster sixth album, 1984, “Panama” was the band’s last hit single with their original singer and one of the few tracks to have been performed by every lineup. It was also a refreshing return to guitar-led music, after previous synth-heavy singles “Jump” and “I’ll Wait.”
Mixed metaphors, incidentally, is what you get when you try to establish the truth behind the song. Roth has discussed it on many occasions, but – in classic fashion – he’s seldom told the same story twice about the song that illustrated the pinnacle of the band’s ‘80s world dominance.
Reputedly, he wrote the lyrics in response to the accusation that he sang about only women, partying and fast cars – prompting him to realize he’d never actually written about fast cars. There’s some doubt about the vehicle in question, however; it’s apparently not the 1951 Mercedes custom in the video.
It’s either a drag racer Roth once watched in action, named Panama Express, or it’s a 1969 Opel Kadett station wagon that was once mounted on a wall of his home – complete with a prop deer smashing through the windshield. In 2012, though, he suggested the car was named As Is and not Panama, and that the art installation made for it is called My First Deer and not Panama. It can be seen in his 2003 video for “Shoo Bop.”
Watch David Lee Roth Talk About 'Panama'
Regardless, the car engine heard during the bridge of the song is definitely not called Panama – it was the sound of Eddie Van Halen’s 1972 Lamborghini Miura S, which was reversed into his 5150 Studio for the recording. “They thought we were nuts to pull up my Lamborghini to the studio and mic it,” he once said. “We drove it around the city, and I revved the engine up to 80,000 rpm just to get the right sound.”
“Panama” was one of the first tracks to be recorded in that studio, which Van Halen had built partly as a means of taking control of the band’s sound from producer Ted Templeman. They still use it today, and Van Halen reportedly still owns the Lamborghini.
Perhaps tragically in light of its reputation, he doesn't remember how or when he came up with the song’s riff. “I have no memory of coming up with any of those riffs,” he admitted in 2015. “Even the stuff I wrote for the last record, I don’t remember. It just comes to me. I never sit down and decide to write a song. I’ve never done that.”
The situation was partly explained by the fact that he usually wrote on tour, alone in one hotel room after another, with just vodka, cocaine and a tape recorder for company. “Alcohol and cocaine were private things to me. I would use them for work,” he explained. “The blow keeps you awake and the alcohol lowers your inhibitions. I’m sure there were musical things I would not have attempted were I not in that mental state. You just play by yourself with a tape running, and after about an hour, your mind goes to a place where you’re not thinking about anything.” (Van Halen has been clean since 2008.)
Roth once described “Panama” as a celebration of “the farthest south that you could possibly go and still have a really corrupt good time,” which may refer to the geography of the Central American nation, or may perhaps refer to a stripper that the song is said to be partly about. He’s certainly having a good time in some of the action clips seen in the video, which were actually shot for “Jump” but left out as a result of creative differences.
Video creator Robert Lombard felt the larger-than-life antics were at odds with the intimate performance shots and left them out. That led to his dismissal, even though the video went on to win awards and inspire a generation of copycats. It would seem that Roth, working with director Pete Angelus, had his revenge by making sure the action scenes appeared in the “Panama” video.
The video also featured one of the most successful attempts to circumvent MTV’s ban on product placement. Michael Anthony is seen playing a bass that’s shaped and styled like a bottle of Jack Daniel’s. Faced with the impossible task of blocking it out or refusing to air a Van Halen video when the band was at its commercial prime, the network capitulated.
“The video is just one big goofy-faced victory lap,” one blogger wrote in 2014. “It starts with a biplane soaring in the sky, then suddenly we see Roth flying across the stage on wires, making swimming motions with a boom box on his shoulders, like some kind of 1980s archangel. The band jumps off of stage risers, mugs for the camera and does high kicks in slow motion. … The most memorable, and most inexplicable, is Diamond Dave sliding down a pole wearing some kind of rhinestone-encrusted stripper overcoat, then proceeding to shake his butt and show off his prodigious chest hair. … The message of the whole thing seems to be ‘Damn, it's fun to be in Van Halen.’”
Watch Van Halen's 'Panama' Video
“Jump” had reached No. 1 and the follow-up single, “I’ll Wait,” made No. 13. “Panama” also reached No. 13 – and even though it had proved lucky for Van Halen at the time, that luck wasn’t to continue. The fourth and final 1984 single, “Hot for Teacher,” got to only No. 56; the subsequent tour and its ever-increasing tensions led to Roth’s departure from the band on April Fool’s Day 1985.
The group would go on to further success with Sammy Hagar, and Roth would develop a successful solo career before returning – and there may still be more to come from the reunion. But it's likely to be a far cry from the heady days of “Panama.”
Speaking during the video shoot, after a day of sword-fencing moves, Roth said, “Van Halen has absolutely changed the face of pop music as we know it permanently and forever. … In 1984, you can’t avoid us. You can talk whatever you want about clothing and haircuts, but it’s all in the grooves. If the music moves, then you’ve got it.”
Watch David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen Make the ‘Panama’ Video