‘Van Halen III’ Roundtable: What Went Wrong? Our Writers Answer Five Burning Questions
After amazingly successful decade-long runs with both David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar ended in acrimony, Van Halen recruited Extreme singer Gary Cherone for their 1998 album Van Halen III.
For the first time in the group's career, a record was widely panned and failed to catch on with the record-buying public. Cherone left the group the following year, and it would be more than a decade before the band released another full-length studio effort. So ... what went wrong? After first making sure they couldn't spend the whole day teeing off on Eddie Van Halen's much-maligned lead-vocalist debut "How Many Say I," we turned our writers loose on five big questions.
In a nutshell, why didn’t Van Halen III, and the band's Gary Cherone era, work?
Michael Gallucci: The band had reached its expiration date by the late '90s. Their previous couple albums weren't very good, and nobody really needed another record with another singer at that point.
Matthew Wilkening: Nobody seems to have been steering. There are some cool riffs and ideas, but the concise pop sensibility that helped make the band so special was long gone. (To be fair, they had started to wander away from it during the later Hagar years.) Other than the two guitar solos, the shortest track on this album clocks in at 5:24. Cherone has also suggested it would have been better for them to tour together before recording an album, which seems wise. Oh, and where the heck are Michael Anthony's vocals?
Matt Wardlaw: I really think that it's all about how they rolled things out. I feel like if they would have done a tour prior to recording, the revised lineup might have had a fighting chance. They would have had time to jell as a band. Add to that the excitement that fans had as they were taking so many Roth-era Van Halen songs out of mothballs and it seems pretty likely that the Cherone era would have gotten a better reception once new music was presented. Instead, it felt rushed and half-baked, as if Cherone was stepping into an album of material that had largely been envisioned with Hagar in mind.
Eduardo Rivadavia: Not enough consumers bought copies of the album, bought concert tickets or bought into Cherone himself. And fans weren't willing, yet again, to buy the Van Halen brothers' line about their new singer being amazing while the last guy sucked. Eddie and Alex clearly underestimated Hagar's popularity. They also made it way harder on themselves after the bait and switch tease of a reunion with Roth (at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards) that disappointed so many fans.
Michael Christopher: Fans felt hoodwinked by the whole David-Lee-Roth-is-back-no-he’s-not debacle in 1996 – no matter the real story behind it. Was Roth led on? It doesn’t matter, because the fans perceived it as one big sham when all was said and done. It certainly wasn’t Gary Cherone’s fault; he could’ve been Freddie Mercury reincarnated and it would’ve been a letdown because he wasn’t David Lee Roth.
Jeff Hausman (VHND.com and VanHalenStore.com): To me, there’s only one Van Halen III and that’s Women and Children First. I don't blame Cherone for anything. He’s great in Extreme. He had the impossible job of following up the very successful decade with Sammy Hagar, and the incredibly exciting possibility of a reunion of the original lineup, which was what the entire world assumed we were going to get. As for the album, I think of it as being an Eddie solo project, with his friend Gary singing. It was not Van Halenesque. It wasn't pop either. While it was an unexpected departure, it’s full of interesting guitar work, and remains the most unique and most unpredictable album the band has recorded, along with Diver Down. But I think it was doomed because everyone wanted either Roth or Hagar at the time.
Could Van Halen III, and Cherone’s time in Van Halen, have been saved?
Gallucci: The album should have been billed as an Eddie Van Halen solo album with Cherone as the featured singer. Expectations would have been lowered, and it wouldn't have been perceived as such a disaster. Releasing it as another Van Halen album with yet another singer was just asking for trouble.
Wilkening: They needed somebody with a stop sign or a police whistle. In a 2011 interview, Hagar said that Eddie Van Halen wrote great guitar parts, but not songs. When you look back on the first two eras of the group it does seem plausible that Roth or Hagar had a big hand in how the songs are arranged. Whoever took control of that aspect of the process for Van Halen III -- if anybody did -- let things get out of hand.
Wardlaw: Probably not. Listening to the album this week, it really struck me as being more experimental on Eddie's part, something that I really didn't hear when I was first listening to the album at the time of the original release in 1998. Some of the songs, like "Neworld," sound like he's drifting into movie-scoring territory, and I wonder whether Mike Post helped him explore that area of the sound as the album's co-producer. Listening to "Once," I can hear Cherone's love of Queen and specifically, the vocal style of Freddie Mercury, in the way that he approaches that. It's interesting, but a bit out of place on a Van Halen album -- which is not a knock on Cherone at all, I just don't think that song fits the mold of what fans would expect from a Van Halen song. And overall, there's a good amount of that on this album -- if Eddie was in an experimental mood, which creatively, I think that's always an element -- he pushed the boat out too far on this album.
Rivadavia: No. On top of the practical business issues, the alternative rock-dominated music world of 1998 simply didn't need another Van Halen album, let alone a weak one, fronted by a former hair metal casualty who may as well have been blacklisted by the flannel-sporting masses.
Christopher: Not under those circumstances. The whole thing just felt dirty, and no amount of slick production or sudden interest by the band in fan interaction could clean it up. Following the split with Sammy Hagar, had Cherone been brought in immediately – with no publicly acknowledged consideration of Roth returning – the blow might’ve been softened. The best move would’ve been to go on tour right away, do those shows like the 1998 performances with all the old material that got hardcore devotees excited, and returned from the road invigorated and familiar with one another in a studio setting. Then again, it’s hard enough to sway fans with one lead singer switch after they’ve already attained a certain level of popularity, and as bands like Anthrax, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden have shown, doing it with three vocalists is pretty much impossible.
Hausman: I think the best chance the Cherone era had of being saved was if the band simply released music that sounded like more traditional Van Halen. And using Michael Anthony’s signature background vocals sure would have helped. Those unmistakable vocals would have been a no-brainer to add to the mix to help the album sound more like the Van Halen people know and love, yet his voice was barely heard on VH3. Also, it would have been interesting to hear another collaboration on the heels of a year on the road together.
What are the three best songs on this album?
Gallucci: Trim a couple minutes from "Without You" and you've something sorta close to what the classic lineup may have done. "Fire in the Hole" sounds like something from the Sammy Hagar era, but like so many tracks on the album, it goes on way too long. Eddie Van Halen's maximum-overdrive solo on "One I Want" almost makes up for the song's excessive length. Seriously, why is almost every song on the album so damn long?
Wilkening: "Dirty Water Dog" is a fascinating just-miss, with particularly clever rhythm and instrumentation. "Fire in the Hole" suggests they could have done well by playing things a bit safer overall. But one of the most experimental songs -- the moody, keyboard-based "Once" -- is the biggest winner. It would have been a trip for them to release that first, if they really wanted to re-set expectations.
Wardlaw: "Without You," with those grungy chugging riffs at the end of Eddie's solo that still sound so cool. I also like "From Afar" and "Year to the Day," which I think added an interesting emotionally schizophrenic vibe to the album that worked well in a way that "Once" didn't.
Rivadavia: "Without You," because it is unusually direct and blessed with an uplifting chorus, bringing a small ray of sunshine to such a creatively muddled and overcast record. Plus Eddie's guitar part reminds me of Queen's "One Vision," which is strange given Cherone's past exploits with Extreme. The electronically drenched "Once," because if you're going to mess with a golden formula like Van Halen's, you may as well go off the deep end with an entirely unrecognizable sound. "Josephina," because if you survive its painfully slow, turgid introduction, it spins another decently memorable chorus over a wide range of subdued EVH guitar heroics.
Christopher: “Without You” was the perfect choice for the lead single. It’s a high-energy track with some expected swift guitar histrionics from Eddie Van Halen and a propulsive bottom end. Despite Cherone’s lyrics sounding like an over-excited history professor giving a lesson, there are some really interesting elements throughout “Ballot or the Bullet.” Hearing Eddie play slide is always a treat, and it contrasts to the heaviness of the track. The maturity and growth musically on “Josephina” is one of the few places on the record where it actually works. Eddie incorporates a very Jimmy Page-like acoustic guitar melody at one point, and Cherone delivers some of his best vocals on the record.
Hausman: “One I Want” has a mesmerizing guitar solo that runs all the way through to the end of the song. “Without You” is also good. And the minute-long outro of “Fire in the Hole” is absolutely menacing. I wish they made an entire song out of the outro riffs.
Besides ‘How Many Say I,’ which song would be the first you would cut?
Gallucci: "Ballot or the Bullet" is hollow political lecturing from a band that wisely stayed away from this territory in the past. Who wants that from the guys who gave us "Runnin' With the Devil" and "Jump"?
Wilkening: The music on "Ballot or the Bullet" is limp and the lyrics are embarrassing.
Wardlaw: I didn't have a problem with it at the time, but "Ballot or the Bullet" is one song that for me really hasn't aged well. It just feels like album filler. You could have probably snipped off those last two tracks and maybe replaced a third one with a stronger song and had a much better 10-song album.
Rivadavia: Is "Primary" even a song? Does it qualify? If not, how about "Dirty Water Dog" since it's such a nauseating replica of the Van Hagar sound, minus all the personality and monster hooks.
Christopher: “Year to the Day” is proof that no Van Halen composition should run longer than eight minutes. It meanders aimlessly between light and heavy, with a languidly paced guitar solo that borders on feeling uninspired. By the time Cherone is shouting “365! 365!” at the conclusion, it feels like the song has gone on for that many days.
Hausman: The album opens with a waltz(!), so I would cut “Neworld." But I want to say something about “How Many Say I.” A year before the album came out, I was interviewing the band at 5150 Studios, and Eddie and Alex played me demos of some of the VH3 songs. I heard “How Many Say I” before any vocals were added, and I loved it! I thought it was beautiful, and what I imagined the final product being was much better than how it turned out. I'll never forget a letter we received at the The Inside (the all-VH magazine we published), where someone said playing that song’s chorus always gets a bewildered look out of his Yorkshire terrier.
Which Van Halen III song would be the most fun to hear David Lee Roth attempt?
Gallucci: "Without You" is the best song on the album and probably the only one the original lineup would be able to shape into something sorta memorable.
Wilkening: Obviously he's rewriting the lyrics and melodies, right? Because the work he did updating unreleased tracks from early in the band's career for A Different Kind of Truth did not get the praise it deserved. Anyway, for throwback thrills it would be fun to hear what he could do with the riff from "Fire in the Hole" but the more forward-thinking answer is "Dirty Water Dog." (Nobody asked, and it's probably Cherone's best performance on the album, but "Once" is the one that would suit Hagar the best.)
Wardlaw: Honestly, I was going to say "none of them," because they all feel too far outside of his wheelhouse. But he could have done good things with a retooled version of "Without You" if he was given him the keys to the lyrical kingdom. It could have been in the vein of what we heard with "Me Wise Magic" and "Can't Get This Stuff No More" on the best-of album, which I liked.
Rivadavia: I'll go with "Fire in the Hole," because it's the only song here whose title sort of feels like a Roth double (or quadruple) entendre. It also stomps along with some tempo, amid so many slack-paced numbers, so Roth could shake his booty to it. Upon second listen, I'm about ready to swap one of my previously chosen best three songs for this ballsy little bastard.
Christopher: It would be fun to hear him troll Eddie by offering a take on “How Many Say I,” but the shuffle of “Dirty Water Dog” really fits Roth’s style. Lyrically, it’s the only thing that comes close to his infamously ingenious wordplay.
Hausman: I would love to hear what Roth would have done with the music that became “Dirty Water Dog."
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