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The David Lee Roth Fetish Photo Shoot That Almost Sank Van Halen

Icons | July 2, 2019

Left: Michael Anthony, Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen at the Cobo Hall on July 4, 1980. (Photo by Michael Marks/Getty Images) Right: Detail of a Helmut Newton portrait of David Lee Roth, for sale at Backstage Auctions (backstageauction

The budding hypersexual persona of frontman David Lee Roth in 1979 would seem the perfect subject for edgy fashion photographer Helmut Newton. Maybe so -- but there were three other guys in Van Halen who didn't want the bondage themed photos on their album cover.

When fans went into record stores in March 1980 to buy Van Halen’s third album Women And Children First they found an album cover showing the four members of the group jammed together and grinning in black and white like the American Beatles. They were four friends having the time of their lives.

All was not as it seemed in the world of Van Halen. The dynamic inside the band was growing more volatile as their stars continued to rise, and the photo on the cover was actually a last minute addition following a disastrous photo shoot that almost pushed the group to the breaking point.

A month before the album cover was shot, another series of photos were taken by Helmut Newton, one of the most iconic fashion photographers of the 20th century. Only a few of the photos from Newton’s photoshoot of the band have surfaced, and one of them is an extremely lurid BDSM themed shot of singer David Lee Roth. 

Helmut Newton Was Hired Because He Could Make Roth Look Like A Star

A photo spread from the 1986 retrospecctive 'Helmut Newton: Work,' published by Taschen. Courtesy Taschen.com

The provocative, erotic photography of Helmut Newton created a stir in the fashion community. His black and white shots captured raw, sexual energy that made other fashion layouts seem limp by comparison. He shot everyone from David Bowie to Catherine Deneuve, and by 1979 he was one of the most sought after photographers in the world. Or in David Lee Roth’s words, “He’s the sh*t. He’s legit.”

When Roth pitched the band’s label on shooting with Newton it turned out that the label’s art director was thinking of the famous photographer as well. Richard Seireeni, the Warner Bros. art director said, “Dave and I were talking, and I mentioned Helmut Newton to him.” Roth responded, “I’ve been thinking about Helmut too!”

When Seireeni mentioned that he was friends with Newton, Roth pressed him for info about the photographer and found out that he was in Los Angeles. Rather than using his Warner Bros. connection to hook up with the photographer he threw on his best leather and went on a hunt for the object of his desire. 

David Lee Roth Tracked Newton Down At A Hotel

Source: (pinterest.com)

Roth says that he realized if Newton, an Austrian born photographer, was staying in Los Angeles that he was at one of four high-level hotels. He called around until he found the photographer at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After a few pleasantries, Newton told Roth to come down to the hotel pool and audition for him. Roth picks up the story from here in his autobiography:

I said, ‘Great.’ Put on leather everything - riding boots with the leather pants, chaps with the jacket, the belt, and I went down to the hotel. He was lounging by the pool.

I sat down, and we talked everything from politics to mathematics for about half and hour, then he leaned over and said, ‘Do you know what, David? You are my new favorite blonde. I would love to shoot photos of you.’

Newton was expensive

Source: (pinterest.com)

Helmut Newton isn’t just some guy with a camera, in 1979 he was one of the most important photographers on the planet. His photos appeared in magazines like Vogue and his prints still sell for hundreds of dollars. He wasn’t cheap to hire for the day, and even though Warmer Bros. was rolling in dough in the late ‘70s they still had trouble finding the cash to drop on Roth’s preferred photographer.

In David Lee Roth’s autobiography he claimed that Newton did the shoot for cheap, the Warner Bros. art director, Richard Seireeni, begs to differ:

I was the one who cut the deal with Helmut for Warner Bros., most Warner Bros. albums at that time had a very limited cover art budget. Usually, it was less than fifteen hundred dollars. But for our bigger acts like Van Halen, you could request an ‘extended budget.’ I’m sure the Helmut shoot fell into this category.

None of the band members knew who Helmut Newton was

Supermodel Eva Herzigova with a sex doll in a photo spread for Paris Match, shot by Helmut Newton, reproduced in 'Helmut Newton: Pages From The Glossies,' a retrospective of his magazine work. (Taschen, 2015; source: taschen.com)

Even though Roth was excited about the prospect of working with his new favorite photographer, the rest of Van Halen didn’t know Helmut Newton from a hole in the ground. Roth says that when he told the band about the photographer they basically shrugged him off because they’d never heard about him.

Seireeni confirmed the band’s lack of interest in the proposed shoot, “They [Eddie and Alex] asked, ‘Who’s this guy?’ They had no idea who Helmut was.” When the guys showed up at Roth’s house for the shoot on a December afternoon they were in a bad mood and just weren’t in the mood to deal with Roth or the wildly artistic photographer. 

Eddie Van Halen didn’t want anything to do with the BDSM themed shoot

David Lee Roth photographed by Helmut Newton, print for sale at Backstage Auctions. Source: backstageauctions.com

When the other members of Van Halen showed up to Roth’s Pasadena estate for the shoot the singer was already in costume. He wore nothing but leather pants and boots. He was chained to his fence by his wrists and torso. Roth bent and pouted allowing Newton to capture what the photographer described as Van Halen’s “main influence.”

Alex and Eddie weren’t excited to see their singer in bondage gear, and they didn’t like being treated as if they were Roth’s backing band. T0 keep the band from revolting Seireeni nudged Newton toward the group:

The brothers see David chained to the fence, and already these guys are upset. I see this and told Helmut, ‘Hey, let’s take some shots of the rest of the band…’ Helmut didn’t much like the other band members. So he took some of the other guys but ended up shooting all of these pictures of David.

Seireeni says that after the band took off Newton and Roth got back to their project where they captured one of the few photos of the session that were released. Roth disagrees with this version of events.

In his autobiography he writes that the photo was taken the night he met Newton, not the day of the photo shoot with the band. But behind-the-scenes photos reveal that Roth was chained up during the photo shoot with the full band. Maybe he just really enjoyed getting chained up. 

 Newton may have not even shot the full band

Source: (pinterest.com)

You'd think that the one thing that’s required of a photographer at a band's album cover photo shoot is that they actually take a photo of the full band, at least one. Newton may have so thoroughly enjoyed taking pictures of Roth that he never got around to taking a shot of the band together. An assistant for Newton later said:

I remember we shot Eddie with the guitar and Dave in many different ways. I don’t specifically remember a band shot, but maybe we did one.

This is one of the two official photos released from the shoot. Warner Bros. included it in the band’s 1980 press kit, likely as a way for Warner Bros. to make some use of material they'd paid extra for. 

Warner Bros. had to diffuse the situation with a second photo shoot

The actual cover art of Van Halen's 'Women And Children First.' Photographer: Norman Seeff.

Following the implosion of the Helmut Newton photo shoot the band flipped out and blamed their label, Seireeni explained:

This whole thing ended up being a big mess. There was a lot of fallout from this. The brothers complained to Noel. I’m taking all these calls, talking to Pete and Noel. They’re telling me, ‘These guys are on the warpath and are giving me a hard time.’

In order to actually get a photo for the album, Warner Bros. booked a second photoshoot with photographer Norman Seeff, a guy who’s known for shooting artists as varied Steve Martin, Johnny Rotten, and Ray Charles. Rather than shoot the band members individually he got the band together, put on the new record and had the group hang out together. The band got drunk, rocked out to their new album, and finally got a photo. 

Newton and Roth’s BDSM photo was turned into a limited edition poster

Source: (pinterest.com)

What happened to the photos that Helmut Newton took of Roth? Photos of the other band members have never surfaced, which means that they might not exist. The most famous photo of Roth was turned into a limited edition poster that was included in the Women and Children First LP, and it has gone on to become a best selling poster. Roth writes in his autobiography:

We made a poster: Me, chained up - it's a very famous poster - in the dog pound… This photo is easily worth ten thousand dollars. The photo of me, chained up in the dog pound has been in every one of Helmut’s annuals. 

Tags: Album Covers | David Lee Roth | Fetish | Helmut Newton | Photography | Rare Facts And Stories About History | Van Halen

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.