Career Killers: “Van Halen III”

by Unfrozen Caveman Law Writer

September 4, 1996. The MTV Video Music Awards are in full swing and the evening is full of historical moments. 2Pac, in his last televised appearance before his death, announced the formation of Death Row East – a provocative incursion onto rival turf at the height of east/west tensions in the hip hop world. A then-unknown No Doubt rocked the pre-show, serving notice to the musical world as to what was to come. A reeling Smashing Pumpkins gave one of their first performances since touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosed on heroin and died the previous July. 

But the moment that had everyone talking was a reunion over ten years in the making, and one that fans, music executives, MTV personnel and fellow musicians had been dying for. When David Lee Roth walked out on stage with the other members of Van Halen, it was the first time he, Eddie Van Halen, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen had stood together on stage in over a decade. The four had made magic together, establishing Van Halen as one of the greatest and most loved bands of its era.

In 1985, at the height of its popularity, Van Halen and Roth parted ways amidst plenty of recriminations and bad feelings. Sammy Hagar had taken over and had done great business for Van Halen. But Roth was the one that we all wanted to see again (heck, in the weeks leading up to the show, MTV ran a 45 second spot featuring some of Dave’s greatest music video moments set to the “Welcome Back Kotter” theme). By appearing together at the VMAs, the classic lineup was surely going to let the past be the past and record a kick-ass record that would restore them to supremacy in a musical world increasingly dominated by alternative music and hip-hop.

Instead, we got Van Halen III.

In retrospect, Van Halen III was never going to work. According to Eddie, Roth was never actually back in the band. He was just there to record two new tracks for a planned greatest hits album and the MTV thing was never meant to be anything more than just a one-off. Indeed, at the time of the VMA presentation, Eddie had already offered Dave’s job to two other singers: Unknown vocalist Mitch Malloy and former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone. Malloy presciently resigned after the VMA appearance, convinced that the fans would never accept him after the band had raised everyone’s expectations that Roth was back. Cherone, however, soldiered on (it’s never been clear which one got the job first – both claimed to have been offered the gig before the VMA incident).

On paper, Cherone should have worked. He was a good singer who was used to playing with a motor-fingered lead guitarist from his days in Extreme. Plus, he seemed like a nice guy and Van Halen probably could have used that, given all the turmoil of the previous few years. And he was coming in with no ego. Whereas Hagar had refused to sing more than a handful of Roth tunes on tour, like “Panama,” “Jump” and “You Really Got Me” and Roth would refuse to sing any Hagar tunes when he finally came back to the fold in 2006, Cherone had no agenda. As such, for those fans who had been waiting years to hear a good mix of Roth-era and Hagar-era songs during the same show, the Cherone-era band promised to deliver.

Instead, they shot themselves in the foot by recording Van Halen III – their worst-selling, worst-reviewed and worst-remembered album. In a sign of just how bad it was, the band seems to have taken the “Rocky V” approach towards Van Halen III. None of the songs off Van Halen III made the 2004 greatest hits double album, and none have been performed since. Even the III Tour ended up doing poor business – probably due to a combination of factors, including a bad record to promote and lingering disappointment over the bait-and-switch with Dave.

So it’s all Gary’s fault, right? After all, he was the new ingredient. Van Halen had four straight #1 albums on the Billboard 200 prior to Cherone joining the band and every single studio album the band had released under Roth and Hagar had gone multiplatinum. Van Halen III was the outlier, debuting at #4 and only going gold (amidst uniformly terrible reviews).

Of course, that’s an oversimplification – and horrendously unfair to Cherone. What is fair to say is that Cherone doesn’t add much to the final product.

For one thing, his lyrics are weak and corny. Listening to Extreme’s III Sides to Every Story album (the second-to-last album that band released before Cherone joined Van Halen), there are some clear parallels between the lyrical content of that III and this III. The Extreme album had several political-themed songs, some of which consisted of cliches and aphorisms. “Give Peace a Chance, “Make Love Not War,” and “Don’t Tread On Me” are recurring phrases thrown around in lead single “Rest in Peace” while “Politicalamity” actually has this lyric: “Ask not what your country can do/ To a one world governmental zoo.” I wonder if a discarded line went something like: “E Pluribus Unum/ Coming from my 1776 magnum.” Meanwhile, “Warheads” features Cherone riffing on different types of heads in trying to make a point that isn’t as profound as he thinks it is: “I’ve seen black heads/ White heads/ Red heads/ Dead heads/ Big heads/ Shit heads/ But there’s no heads/ Like warheads!” Okay. Nukes are bad. We get it.

Anyway, those tropes are all on display in Van Halen III. “Ballot or the Bullet” consists of nothing more than empty political phrases like “Give me liberty or death,” “ballot or the bullet,” and “when a house is divided, it just will not stand.” The song doesn’t advocate anything – just that people should make a choice. As such, it’s hard to take it seriously (to say nothing of the fact that Van Halen had always been an extremely apolitical band). Meanwhile, “One I Want” is similar to “Warheads” in that Gary riffs on different types of men. “Poorman, he just want a little/ Richman, want a little bit more /Superman, he looking for Lois/ Salesman, try and sell you his soul.” There are also lines about a “gay man” a “black man” and a “white man” that are less offensive than trite (they’re looking for another, justice, and a tan, respectively). “Fire in the Hole” takes his penchant for odd metaphors and imagery (the governmental zoo, for instance) to a new level. “In a word to the wisdom tooth/ To tell, or not the truth (yeah)/ So open up and say ahh-men/ Rinse cup, and spit again.”

So maybe we should have anticipated what we were in for lyrically. To me, the bigger disappointment is his singing. Cherone is a fine vocalist, but almost every song on Van Halen III has him screeching and straining his voice – almost like he’s trying to sound like Hagar. “Without You,” an okay song that is, by far, the best song on the album, sounds like it was probably written for Hagar as Cherone can barely hit those high notes. One school of thought is that this album was mostly written with Hagar in mind, so when Cherone came in, they simply told him to sing like his predecessor instead of lowering the register.

As such, it’s pretty clear from reading about and listening to this album, Cherone had very little power and input. Instead, this is very much Eddie Van Halen’s baby.

Freed from the shackles of Diamond Dave’s libido and the Red Rocker’s introspection, Eddie is front and center throughout the entire record. There are two separate instrumentals on the album, and the closing song is the justifiably maligned “How Many Say I?”- a six minute (!) socially conscious ballad (!!) featuring Eddie singing (?) lead. Let’s just say that, when it comes to singing, Eddie is a fantastic guitarist.

Eddie even plays bass on most of the album, relegating Michael Anthony to three songs (the album’s three singles: “Without You,” “Fire in the Hole” and “One I Want”) while using almost none of Anthony’s trademark high harmony. According to Anthony, Eddie may have even played some drums on the record, although he’s not credited for it. Throw in the fact that TV theme composer extraordinaire Mike Post, was making his debut as a rock-album producer, and it’s clear who was actually the one in charge. Indeed, if the album had been marketed as an Eddie Van Halen solo album with Cherone as the featured vocalist, it might have been better received.

In fact, this entire record can probably be attributed to this quote from Sammy Hagar about his former lead guitarist:

It got to the point where I was the leader of that band. Eddie was a humble, meek guy. Greatest guitar player in the world, but not a leader. I would write the lyrics, and Eddie was happy to just play guitar and play piano. But he woke up one morning and he decided he wanted his band back. Like I was taking over and I was just the bad guy.

Sammy Hagar, interview with MusicRadar, September 25, 2008

After all, despite the fact that the band was named after him (and his brother), for most of Van Halen’s career, Eddie Van Halen was not the one who called the shots. Hagar, for instance, has maintained that he, like Roth before him, ran the band and made decisions like when to go out on the road or whether to do certain projects. Meanwhile, Roth seemed to have his hands in all sorts of cookie jars, handling business matters (like the famous “no brown M&M’s” rider), directing some of the music videos and keeping the band on its grueling album-tour-album-tour schedule in the late 70s and early 80s in order to keep the band in the public eye (the two year gap between Diver Down and 1984 was the longest between albums during the initial Roth era).

Additionally, both Roth and Hagar have claimed that they had a much larger role in writing the songs than has been generally acknowledged. Hagar, for instance, has said that Eddie doesn’t really compose music as much as he just comes up with a bunch of random riffs, melodies and solos and it’s up to the producer and singer to figure out where they should go. Roth, meanwhile, has said that he actually wrote the solos on the first album (which is why they sound so different from the solos that Eddie would become known for later on), and that even on subsequent albums, they would chop up different sections and parts and Frankenstein a solo together that Eddie would then have to go learn how to play. It was up to the singers to structure songs around those guitar parts – giving them a large amount of say over the creative direction of the band. That probably explains why Van Hagar sounded so different from the Roth-era lineup.

Obviously, you have to take what Roth and Hagar have to say with a grain of salt. However, Eddie himself seemed to agree. For instance, after Roth left, his now ex-lead guitarist memorably rejoiced over his newfound freedom in the pages of Rolling Stone. “Twelve years of my life, putting up with his bullshit,” he told the magazine. In that piece, Eddie described Roth as a “generalissimo” and “drill sergeant” who ran the band like a dictatorship. Then, when Hagar was fired in 1996 after wanting time off to be with his new baby, Eddie portrayed it as a case of him standing up to Hagar.

In music, as in life, some people are born leaders while others function best in the background. There’s a reason why Keith Richards is at his best when he has Mick Jagger preening and posing in front of him. Or why Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams usually stood slightly behind and on either side of Beyoncé. Or why Andy Fletcher is content showing up for photoshoots, announcing tours and doing his best dad dancing on stage while Martin Gore and Dave Gahan do most of the work in Depeche Mode.

But what happens when the sidekick decides he or she is sick of being in the shadows and demands the spotlight? Do they rise to the occasion, like Roger Waters did after Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd? Or does the Peter Principle take effect and the now-former sidekick ends up proving why he or she was never the leader the first place (like the other members of the Doors found out after Jim Morrison died)?

In Eddie Van Halen’s case, it turned out to be very much the latter. And as a result, we got a terrible album that deserves all the hate it’s gotten over the years and more. This record ended Van Halen’s run of sustained success and ushered in nearly two decades of instability and uncertainty. Other than a disastrous 2004 reunion tour with Hagar and a somehow less disastrous reunion with Roth, who managed to get through multiple tours and a new studio album, the band has faced prolonged periods of inactivity to the point that its future has been questioned multiple times. With Hagar having seemingly burnt his bridge and Roth moving on to other things, it could be years before we hear from Van Halen again – if ever.

Then again, there is a third former lead singer they could always reunite with…