This piece is a followup to the Friday July 17 live stream “Lead Singer’s Disease”.
GETTING MORE TALE #845: VHIII
We carried two magazines at the Record Store: Spin, and Rolling Stone. I cannot remember which printed the following comment in 1996, when Van Halen announced their new lead singer. After a tumultuous few months with Sammy Hagar quitting and David Lee Roth briefly re-joining, the Van Halens decided on Extreme frontman Gary Cherone to carry the VH torch.
Spin or Stone, in a brief paragraph, commented: “Roth, Hagar, Cherone…the downward spiral continues.”
I called bullshit then and I call bullshit now. That is crap journalism, and so typical of the anti-rock attitudes of the 1990s.
First of all, we hadn’t heard one note of Gary Cherone’s new music with Van Halen, so how could they make that judgement? Second, it severely short-sells Sammy Hagar, who took Van Halen to their first #1 and scored some seriously massive followup hits with the band. Critically acclaimed ones too, like “Right Now”. So: bullshit! They were absolutely out of line to print that, and we had many reasons to be optimistic about Gary Cherone.
Some of the thoughts that crossed our minds when the Van Halen news hit:
- Will Van Halen play “More Than Words” live, like they use to give Sammy a solo song or two? Eddie would sound amazing on that, wouldn’t he? He’d put his own spin on it, surely.
- With Cherone, Van Halen would be able to play a wider variety of Roth tunes again.
- Gary’s natural charisma, as witnessed at the 1992 Freddie Mercury tribute concert, was bound to bring new life to Van Halen.
- His lyrics, usually more serious than Hagar’s, would allow Van Halen to adapt to the 1990s.
- The only drawback I saw was that Gary didn’t play guitar, bringing Van Halen back to just one guitar, live. The tiniest of issues.
I was not only optimistic, but I was excited. It’s natural, when two bands you like merge in such a way. One of my favourite singers working with one of my favourite bands? Yeah, I was overly excited. At that time, coming off three amazing Extreme albums in a row, I was a bigger Gary fan than Sammy. However, when Van Halen III finally came out in 1998 after an agonising wait, I was not immediately impressed. Nor were a lot of people. But I gave it more than a fair shake, cranking it as much as I could get away with at the Record Store. And it grew on me. It was my favourite album to play in the car during the spring of ’98.
I bought the album in the limited edition tin. I got it from Al King at Sam the Record Man. I had a lot invested it in emotionally and monetarily. T-Rev will remember me praising the record, but also telling him, “Something about it doesn’t sound like Van Halen.” What I sensed then was the lack of Michael Anthony who only appeared on three tracks. His lack of vocals was very obvious.
When Eddie first decided upon Gary Cherone as singer, one of the things he commented was that Gary had the “voice of an angel”. I found that encouraging, but when they made Van Halen III, Gary bellowed almost every single song at the top of his lungs. His blown-out voice carried none of the nuance it did on the same-titled Extreme album III. It was a disappointing choice, making Cherone sounding overly similar to Sammy Hagar.
“Why bother changing singers if the new guy is trying to sound like the old guy?” I wondered to myself.
Van Halen did not play “More Than Words” or any other Extreme songs live. One could argue that Extreme didn’t have the pedigree of Sammy Hagar and didn’t deserve to take up any time in a setlist when you could play another Roth song instead. Many of them returned to the live setting after an absence: “I’m the One”, “Unchained”, “Mean Street”, “Romeo Delight”, “Dance the Night Away”, “Feel Your Love Tonight”, and even “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, albeit now sung by Michael Anthony. The new Cherone album took up a generous chunk of the set, and the Hagar tracks were reduced to a few key hits: “Why Can’t This Be Love”, “When It’s Love”, “Humans Being” and “Right Now”.
The new Van Halen underperformed to say the least. I was shocked when we received 50 copies at the Record Store. There was no way I was going to be able to sell 50 copies, and I tried. Lord did I try! I have been very critical of our regional manager in the past, because she was absolutely merciless in pointing out every one of my failures. Now that she can’t hurt me anymore, I feel freer to talk about some of it. She definitely can’t blame me for us getting stuck with a huge pule of Van Halen III. I never would have ordered 50 copies. 20 was what I had in mind. But she didn’t ask me. Hand on the bible, this one was not on me.
YouTuber Todd in the Shadows tackled Van Halen III in one of his “Trainwreckords” episodes, and he goes into great detail about every single thing that went wrong with the album. This excellent and funny analysis is well worth the 18 minutes of your time.