The 1980s were a difficult time to be an old school 1970s AOR band. As MTV rose to prominence and synthesisers became the predominant tool for music, bands like Kansas and Foghat who had dominated the classic rock scene soon found themselves without an audience. Rock music was pushing in both a sleeker and a heavier direction, spearheaded by the likes of Van Halen and Motley Crue. By contrast, a band like The Doobie Brothers seemed like dinosaurs.
Only a few years prior, the Doobies were arguably one of America’s biggest bands: they had recently recruited a new lead vocalist in Michael McDonald and had put out the number one album Minute By Minute in 1978. But just four years later, the Doobies were officially broken up, with exhaustion, creative tensions, and a rapidly changing music scene taking its toll on the members. McDonald opted to go solo, taking Doobies producer Ted Templeman with him. Templeman had seen the changing tides and pledged allegiance to Van Halen, producing all of their albums from their 1978 debut through 1984.
Van Halen had managed to do the impossible: redefine the sound of rock music for an entirely new generation. That was largely thanks to guitarist Eddie Van Halen, who created his own style of playing that sounded completely unlike anyone who had come before him. He had all the creativity of Jimi Hendrix, the tastefulness of Eric Clapton, the power of Tony Iommi, and the showmanship of Pete Townshend. He was the complete package, but he didn’t get there alone.
By his side was his brother, Alex, who took the booming ethos of John Bonham and paired them with the manic expressiveness of Keith Moon. Bassist Michael Anthony became the band’s secret weapon: his bass guitar would fill in the gaps while Eddie explored new sonic territory, while his backing vocals gave Van Halen a distinctive sense of melody and hooks. Then there was frontman David Lee Roth, who was on a one-man crusade to create as much fun and entertainment as humanly possible.
Even though Van Halen had the raw material for global domination, they also had yet to hone in on their signature sound. For most of the 1970s, Van Halen travelled up and down California playing backyards, basements, and barbecues to try and make a name for themselves as America’s premier party band. While they had the basis for what would eventually be a multi-platinum sound, their initial demos lacked the impact and excitement of their live performances.
That’s where Templeman came in. Although he might have seemed to be an odd choice for a band as heavy as Van Halen, considering his singer-songwriter work with Van Morrison and Carly Simon, Templeman had recently branched out to hard rock by producing the debut album from the California band Montrose. That group had a lead singer by the name of Sammy Hagar, a man who would later factor into the Van Halen story as Roth’s replacement. But by 1977, Templeman was best known as the Doobies’ producer.
It was while producing 1984 that Templeman saw the band get stuck on one particularly synth-heavy tune. ‘I’ll Wait’ was in its early stages of composition, with only Eddie Van Halen‘s keyboard line being solidified. David Lee Roth needed a hand in getting the song’s vocal lines completed, so Templeman decided to bring in McDonald.
“Ted Templeman called me up and said, ‘Hey, these guys have a track and they need some lyrics, so I mentioned you could do it and they said fine, so why don’t you come down?'” McDonald told Ultimate Classic Rock. “He sent me the track, and I got some ideas going so I’d have something when I got to the studio.”
Although McDonald was aware of Van Halen and their bawdy reputation, meeting the band turned out to be strictly business. “I met David Lee Roth at Ted’s office. That was, uh, an interesting experience,” McDonald explained comically. “He kinda liked what I had going, so we sat there in the office with the demo playing on a cassette recorder, singing lines and melodies.”
“I guess they thought I was Santa Claus, because I had to go chasing them a little bit on that one,” McDonald said with a laugh. “It’s probably one of the most-played things I’ve ever written, just because it’s Van Halen. That album sold three or four million copies right away, which was a really big deal at the time.”
‘I’ll Wait’ turned out so well that the band opted to release it as the second single from 1984. The song rose all the way to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, despite not having a video at the height of the MTV boom. ‘I’ll Wait’ was McDonald’s only collaboration with Van Halen, but he continued to help punch up songs throughout his solo career, including landing a number one hit duetting with Patti LaBelle on the song ‘On My Own’.