VAN HALEN III is easily Van Halen’s most critically reviled, hated album. The fans were shocked and dismayed, and ultimately this album lost Van Halen’s record contract with Warner. And why?
First off, the album is not as bad as everything says. It’s certainly not a great Van Halen record, but if Gary Cherone’s band had released it, people would be wondering who the hell that guitarist was. In many ways, VAN HALEN III has a lot of similarities to Pink Floyd’s FINAL CUT.
The biggest problem with III is tone. With BALANCE, and a handful of tracks from BALANCE’s predecessor, FOR UNLAWFUL CARNAL KNOWLEDGE, Eddie was trying to move Van Halen away from the party-hearty image that so long defined them, and was trying to reinvent the band as a socially conscious, more mature band. BALANCE found Van Halen balancing two major defitinions of their band, the partying, feel-good rock and rollers (“Amsterdam”, “Big Fat Money,”) with the more politically aware, socially concerned world citizens. (a la U2’s Bono) The problem with that is Sammy Hagar was in the band. While I’ve always liked Sammy, he’s always been about partying and getting into girls’ pants (but then, so was David Lee Roth and the rest of the band).
Exit Hagar, enter Cherone. While Hagar wrote and sang from the heart and gut, and just wanted to hang out on a beach somewhere with a hot chick, Cherone instead wrote much more from a head perspective, preoccupied with intellectual concerns. Cherone has some songs about women, but the songs on III are primarily concerned with political and social matters.
Some of these political, social songs fall flat. “Ballot or the Bullet” is dull, sounding more like a history lesson of the United States than a rock and roll song ever should, and the guitar instrumental “Primary”, no doubt referring to U.S. primary elections, is both boring and an unnecessary introduction to “Ballot.” “How Many Say I”, the first song in Van Halen’s career (and so I pray the last) to feature Eddie on lead vocals, sounds like Eddie writing a bad early 1960s protest song with a rock arrangement backing it. As for the voice, there’s a reason why he’s the guitarist, not the lead singer.
Other songs I like, but again are simply too much of a departure for the majority of Van Halen’s fan base to go along with. “Joesephina”*, one of my favorites, will be too trite and precious for most fans, though musically it among the most interesting. “Fire in the Hole,” used on the Lethal Weapon 4 soundtrack, never caught hold with myself. “A Year to the Day,” while certainly epic in a cinematic, Led Zeppelin way, is clearly derivative. “Once”, the other epic on the album, and admittedly a fantastic song (primarily because it was ripped off from superior songs), sounds like a rewrite of some progressive rock. Still, the songs have some undeniable power, and is certainly catchy. “One I Love” has that weird Cherone lyrical direction all over it, sound like a love-song from psychology major who has stalker tendencies and is more interested in the idea of love than the experience of love. Very much written from the head, not the heart, though still a fun song. “Dirty Water Dog” again focuses on social matters. “From Afar” is the only traditional woman song on the album, all about stalking an unrequited love. I used to relate to it in my younger days. “Neworld,” the title surely being a reference to the rebirth Eddie envisioned the record to be for the band, is a pleasant, but unsubstantial, instrumental. “Without you”, which kicks starts the album, is the most intrusementally instersting, lyrically original song on the entire disc, and where the whole band just SYNCS. It set a record for going to number one the fastest on the billboard charts.
Instrumentally, while Eddie certainly turns in some great guitar work, the rhythym section sounds run of the mill and rather dull, and Eddie works within his established guitar techniques, never once sounding vital and free, but instead rather formulaic with a been-there, done that feel, with clinically precise, technically skillful guitar solos.
When Hagar joined the band, he brought a much different vocal style than DLR. Instead of Cherone bringing a new vocal style and sound, he sounds, rather uncannily, like Sammy Hagar, only after a botched throat surgery and who screams all the time. Some of the vocals get grating, to say the least.
VAN HALEN III is simply a hard record to classify. While certainly not a great Van Halen album, par say, neither is it a bad album. Ultimately, the record sounds like a band trying to reinvent themselves at a point in their career where the major audiences won’t care about the reinvention, nor welcome it, and nor will the reinvention win them new fans. But that sounds like I’m giving a bad statement about the music itself, which is actually quite good in parts (the only real dud is “How Many Say I” due how self-concsious it feels and “Ballot or the Bullet”, which does not work on any level). The record shows definite promise, and perhaps had the band had time to develop this direction more the Cherone version of the band would have made it.
Ultimately, VAN HALEN III is Van Halen’s own FINAL CUT. When Roger Waters issued Pink Floyd’s final album with him still in the band, it was a sonically dense record that did not quite sound like anything else in rock music, save Roger Waters’ own solo records that were released subsequently. Just like the 1987 MOMENTARY LAPSE OF REASON is essentially a Gilmour solo project under the Pink Floyd moniker, so FINAL CUT is a Roger Waters solo album in all but name. FINAL CUT is where Roger Waters took over the band and remade it under his own artistic vision and image.
VAN HALEN III, while musically nothing like FINAL CUT, has remarkable similarities. III is where Eddie became Edward and he took over the band, and just like Waters (though due to entirely different circumstances), the band folded underneath him. While Floyd fans like FINAL CUT, not very many VH fans like III. Still, this is very much an Eddie Van Halen record, with his personality ultimately dominating the album.
Ironically enough, though III was flouted as being a musical rebirth though ultimately fell through, FINAL CUT and VAN HALEN III are worth listening too, as both are diverse and sound like nothing else in rock music.
But it’s probably better not to be a Van Halen fan to really appreciate this album.
*III’s release date was delayed three weeks when the band replaced “That’s Why I Love You” in the track listing with “Joesephina”. “That’s Why I Love You”, still unreleased, leaked before the album hit the stores, and is still widely available over the internet. A fine song, it should have been included as well.