Looking Back On Van Halen’s Worst Album 20 Years Later
Van Halen — the quartet of guitarist Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alex Van Halen, bassist Michael Anthony, and vocalist David Lee Roth — rose from the Southern California club-and-backyard-party scene, releasing their debut album in 1978 and becoming one of the biggest bands in the world with astonishing speed. But after the release of their sixth album, 1984, Roth quit/was fired, and the band replaced him with former Montrose singer and mid-tier solo act Sammy Hagar.
They achieved greater commercial success with Hagar than they had with Roth — every Hagar-era album hit #1 on the Billboard charts and went platinum or multi-platinum — but the music changed, at first in subtle ways and then a lot. The singles — “When It’s Love,” “Finish What Ya Started,” “Right Now,” and all the rest — were longer, slower, and less focused, their bland AOR-ness lacking the marriage of pop hooks and anarchic fun that had made the band great in the first place, and they always felt two minutes too long.
That’s pretty much literally true, by the way. Van Halen — the self-titled 1978 debut — ran 35 minutes, and it was the longest of the six Roth-era albums. Each of the others was either 31 or 33 minutes long. By contrast, each of the four Hagar-era studio albums was longer than its predecessor: 43 minutes, then 50, 51, and 53.
Anyway, after the release of their 10th album, Balance, Hagar quit/was fired, and the band replaced him with … former Extreme singer Gary Cherone.
That’s the kind of statement that most normal people respond to with some variation on “How the fuck … ?” The short answer: Extreme and Van Halen had the same manager, Ray Danniels. Extreme had gone on hiatus, and while Van Halen was looking for a new singer, they were doing it surreptitiously, at the same time that they were promoting their Best Of, Vol. I album via an onstage reunion with Roth at the MTV Video Music Awards.
In 2012, Cherone told Rolling Stone, “They were putting out a greatest hits thing and doing the VMAs. I remember one morning getting up to go to the studio and no one told me all this press was interviewing the Van Halen guys because of the VMAs and all this stuff. They told me, ‘Gary, no one knows you’re in the band.’ I remember bumping into a photographer from Japan and he knew me from Extreme. He goes, ‘What are you doing here?’ I go, ‘Nothing.'” Not shady at all, and certainly not the kind of thing that reveals total contempt for the fans.
Anyway, Cherone joined, and spent over a year writing with Eddie Van Halen, even living in the guitarist’s guest house. Eventually, they went into the studio with noted producer Mike Post. Oh, wait, he’s not a noted producer — he’s a noted composer … of ’80s and ’90s TV theme songs (Magnum, P.I., NYPD Blue, Law & Order, about eight thousand other shows).
Remember what I was saying about each Hagar-era album being longer than the one before it? Well, Van Halen III, which turns 20 this Saturday, is 65 motherfucking minutes long. That’s as long as the two best Roth-era albums after the debut, Fair Warning and 1984, put together. The shortest song on the album, not counting two 90-second instrumentals, runs 5:24. The goddamn single, “Without You,” was 5:33 in its abridged video edit — on the album, it’s a will-to-live-sapping 6:30. There’s a song called “Year To A Day” that’s eight and a half minutes long. The last track on the record, “How Many Say I,” is a six-minute piano ballad — with some wedding-reception strings at the end — on which Eddie Van Halen sings lead. He’s not awful; he sounds kinda like Roger Waters on one of the depressing songs from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Cherone provides high harmonies on the choruses.
Now, wait a minute, you may be saying. Doesn’t Michael Anthony do the high harmonies in Van Halen songs? Not on Van Halen III, he doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t play bass on the record, either, except for three songs: “Without You,” “One I Want,” and “Fire In The Hole.” And that’s a huge problem. Eddie Van Halen plays bass on the rest of the album, and while he does well enough, Anthony was an ideal partner for Alex Van Halen. The two of them had a unique swing and feel that’s totally absent when it’s just the brothers cobbling something together in the studio.
And speaking of cobbling things together in the studio, Van Halen III is easily the band’s most processed-sounding album. It opens with almost two minutes of acoustic guitar and piano. The first real song is the aforementioned “Without You,” which, again, is six and a half minutes long. Cherone is singing at the upper edge of his range, with a hoarse cry that seems like he’s trying as hard as possible to sound like Sammy Hagar. Meanwhile, the backing vocals are filtered and mixed down till they sound like they’re coming from underwater, and Anthony’s bass is buried, to make room for at least three layers of guitar.
The whole thing has that crushed-under-the-weight-of-the-studio feel. There’s never the slightest sense that this was music made by people playing together in a room. The drums are too loud, and while AVH doesn’t succumb to the late ’90s trend for ringing snares, keeping to his usual muffled boom, when compared with the relative airiness heard on, say, “Beautiful Girls” or even “Unchained,” he sounds like he’s whacking the wall with a broom handle. The effects on Cherone’s vocals often make him sound like he’s literally phoning it in. The only person well served by the mix is — surprise! — Eddie Van Halen. Too bad he forgot to write any decent riffs. There’s not a single memorable one on the album, and even his solos are a bunch of twiddly nonsense half the time.
He’s not entirely to blame, of course. It’s obvious that these songs were co-written with Cherone, because they have all the flaws of Extreme’s music baked in, from the shouty, show-tune verses and choruses to the what-passes-for-funk-in-Boston beats. There’s even a power ballad, “Josephina,” that starts off in acoustic “More Than Words” mode before going off the rails; they nod in the direction of Jellyfish/Enuff Z’Nuff-esque ’60s pastiche, Eddie does that Brontosaurus-guitar thing from ” … And The Cradle Will Rock” for two seconds (and no reason), and eventually it all dissolves into — I am not joking — carousel and music-box sound effects.
I’ve gotta talk about “Year To The Day,” too, because Jesus fuck, there is no excuse for a Van Halen song to be eight and a half minutes long. It comes right after “Josephina,” and it’s another power ballad. Cherone croons the verses over acoustic-sounding plucking, and then on the choruses things get big, loud, and slow, and he sounds like a cross between Sammy Hagar and David Coverdale, but not as good as either. After the second chorus, somewhere around the five-minute mark (I am not joking), Eddie takes a solo that’s like the worst possible combination of his technophilic shredding and his occasional attempts to get “bluesy.” This song is the absolute definition of “turgid.”
Van Halen III was not well received, commercially speaking. It went gold, rather than platinum, and though the tour was relatively successful, Cherone left the ranks afterward (though they did start work on a follow-up album). Van Halen disappeared until 2004, when they released The Best Of Both Worlds, a compilation that featured three new songs with Sammy Hagar … and no tracks at all from Van Halen III.