On St. Patrick’s Day 1998, Van Halen released their eleventh studio album, their first (and only) album to feature lead singer Gary Cherone. The aptly titled “Van Halen 3″ received some positive reviews (Entertainment Weekly, Guitar World) and debuted at number 4 on the charts. At first it looked like Van Halen’s third incarnation might fly. An enthusiastic audience at the world premiere, and a huge turnout to meet the band at Times square were positive signs. But alas, Van Halen’s third incarnation was not meant to be. The album was a huge bomb, selling only 500,000 copies in the US, one quarter the sales of its predecessor “Balance” (1995). The tour too was a relative failure. Van Halen’s third incarnation turned out to be very short-lived. The following year, while well at work on their follow-up, Gary Cherone and the rest of Van Halen parted ways. The whole Gary Cherone-era of Van Halen was seen as a failure. “3″ is regarded by many as not only Van Halen’s worst album, but as the worst album of all-time.
So why didn’t fans take to the third lineup of Van Halen, especially when you consider that they had adjusted to a change in singers before? Why did the rock-community so reject “Van Halen 3″? The answer lies in anger/protest, and expectations.
Many fans didn’t buy or open their minds to “Van Halen 3″ out of protest and anger towards the band. In 1996, after eleven years of fronting the band, Sammy Hagar, Van Halen’s second lead singer, left the band, and not amicably. Eddie Van Halen maintains that Hagar quit and that his “work ethic sucked.” Hagar maintains that he was informed, by phone, that original lead singer David Lee Roth was returning and that his services were no longer required.
The return of Roth to Van Halen created a media sensation. MTV started airing “welcome back Dave” commercials and fans were elated at the prospect of reunion tour/album. While the band maintained that they were looking for a new singer, fans were hoping Dave would return for good. In the late summer, David Lee Roth joined Van Halen on stage, for the first in eleven years, to present an award. The crowd went nuts, giving the band a standing ovation. While Eddie Van Halen and Dave hugged on stage, all was not well. That night Eddie and Dave almost came to blows when Dave told Eddie to stop talking about his hip. In addition, Eddie was mad at Dave for hamming the spotlight when Beck was accepting his award. While Van Halen’s brief reunion at the award show received overwhelming rave reviews, any hope of a reunion was shot. The next month David Lee Roth put out a press release which stated that while at the MTV awards, Van Halen already had another singer waiting in the wings and that he was an “unwitting participant” in a scam to give a false impression that the band would be reuniting. The other singer was of course, Gary Cherone of Extreme.
The fruits of the Roth/Halen reunion bore two new songs “Me Wise Magic” and “Can’t get this Stuff No More.” While the songs are excellent, the bitter second breakup cast a shadow and fans didn’t enjoy the new songs as much as they could have.
For the next year and a half, Van Halen, Roth, and Hagar beat each other up it in the press. Mudsling and accusations went back and forth. Van Halen’s once enormous fan base was divided between the VH loyalists, the “Dave camp” and the “Sammy camp.” When “Van Halen 3″ was finally released, many fans, out of loyalty to either Roth or Hagar, simply refused to buy the album on general principal. Not only were fans angry at Van Halen for discarding their favored frontman, but Gary Cherone was viewed as a poor replacement. While Cherone is multi-talented, most knew Cherone only from Extreme’s 1990 smash acoustic hit “More than Words.” In the eyes of many fans, Cherone was viewed as a candy-ass, not worthy to fill the shoes of the Diamond One or the Red Rocker.
The other reason “Van Halen 3″ bombed was it didn’t meet fans expectations. The album was just too far out there for fans to accept. Even fans willing to give Gary Cherone a try just couldn’t dig the band’s experimentations. “Van Halen 3,” with Pink Floyd-esque epics, multi-layered solos, and political/cultural commentaries, was not what Van Halen fans wanted to hear.
While the artistic merit of the album is subjective, the album does have some flaws. The production is fair. “Van Halen 3″ sounds more like a demo, or a rough-draft, than an actual finished product. Another problem was the lack of Michael Anthony’s signature harmonies. Also, Cherone at times sounds out-of-range. He sounds as though he’s screaming his lungs out. Many have commented that he sounds like a “poor-man’s Sammy Hagar.” Since Van Halen had so much to prove with their album, regardless of its merits, its faults were the final nail in the coffin. In hindsight, it was a mistake for Eddie to produce the album with TV producer Mike Post.
All of this is a shame because, despite its faults, “Van Halen 3″ is a good album. It was refreshing for Van Halen to branch out and experiment. And Eddie Van Halen had never sounded better, churning out some of his best solos in years.
The album opens with the somber, serene “New World.” This elegant piano/guitar instrumental leads perfectly into “Without You,” the hard-rocking, funk-laden first single, which sounds a lot like Extreme. The infectious “One I Want,” sounds like reggae peppered “Panama.” The off-center, theatrical “From Afar” is probably the strongest song on the album. An ode to a stocker, it boasts eerie vocals, layered guitars, and Alex Van Halen’s bohemian like percussion. The crisp “Dirty Water Dog” is both melodic and lush. The song is under-produced and somewhat awkward, giving it a certain charm. “Once” pays tribute to Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd. This spacey, multi-layered, atmospheric song is probably the most creative composition Van Halen ever penned. While some may call it “pretentious,” they probably only do so because it’s Van Halen they’re hearing. If the same song had been released on a Peter Gabriel album, it would have been hailed brilliant. “Fire in the Hole” is a good-but-no-great, straight-forward “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” era-type rocker. The beautiful “Josephina” follows next. This song also sounds somewhat awkward, under-produced, and left-of center, but that only adds to its sincerity and the song is a triumph. The downdraught “A Year to the Day” sounds akin to some of the bluesier songs by early Led Zeppelin, and is another winner. “Primary” sees Eddie Van Halen soloing on a sitar, which is an interesting change of pace. “Ballot or the Bullet” is probably the weakest song on the album. It has a good Zeppelin-like riff and rocks hard, but its political-laden chorus sounds forced and out of place. Also, Cherone sounds horse and out of range. The closing “How Many Say I” which sees Eddie Van Halen taking the mic for the first time. This song isn’t as bad as its reputation. It’s a little corny, but heartfelt. Still, unreleased pop-savvy “That’s why I Love you” would have made for a better choice to end the album.
Despite its reputation, I have always stood by “Van Halen 3.” Yes, it has its faults, but I still find it to be an intriguing and satisfying listen. It’s really a misunderstood and underrated album. If Van Halen had taken a little more time on polishing the album, and if they had worked with a better producer, the album may have had a chance. As it is, it has been vitally forgotten. “Van Halen 3″ and Gary Cherone aren’t even acknowledged in the credits in Van Halen’s career-spanning anthology “The Best of Both Worlds” (2004). It’s as though the Cherone-era has been erased. Funny, considering how Eddie Van Halen once said “Gary is my musical soulmate.”
While “Van Halen 3″ will in all likelihood always be hated and ultimately be just a footnote in the legacy of the mighty Van Halen, it still has many fine qualities and deserves a second chance. It’s a shame Van Halen and Cherone didn’t give it another try and release a follow-up.