I was reading one of the blogs I follow recently, and the discussion was about how the author tries, on regular occasions, to listen to The Clash's Sandinista, and like it. No matter how many times he does, he can't. He also asked about what albums his readers don't like, but feel they're supposed to. Bob Dylan's Time Out Of Mind was offered as an example.
This started me thinking about the albums I'm not supposed to like, but I do. Yeah, Chinese Democracy sprung immediately to mind, but I really think the king of this particular hill, for me, is Van Halen III.
Now, I'm not going to sit here and try to claim this is a perfect album, because it most certainly isn't. However, this one an only outing with the third version of Van Halen really is a blueprint for what could've been a rather interesting new direction for the band. Certainly more interesting than where it actually went. This 1998 album is the last original recording the bad has ever released. Last full-length record, anyway...Yes, there were a couple of new tracks on the Best of Both Worlds greatest hits collection in 2004, but, as far as an actual, honest-to-God, album, nada.
That's really pathetic. I'm sorry, but it is. The band has toured three times since the release of this album, with each of their lead singers, and grown more depressingly into a nostalgia act with each go-around.
That, however, is another rant.
The sad fact is that this record has been completely washed out of the Van Halen history. It looks like it's still in print, but, like anything not involving David Lee Roth, it's been completely scrubbed from the official Van Halen website. Which doesn't even feature an official discography, at all, or any other features you'd expect from a band's official website...it's a glorified sales gateway for "official EVH products."
This album was released at a very tumultuous time for Van Halen. Sammy Hagar had left the band under a swirl of nasty comments in 1996, leading to a first "Best of" greatest hits album in that same year, which included two new tracks with original singer David Lee Roth. MTV arranged for the band, with Roth, to appear on the Video Music Awards show, and hyped the event with commercials using the Welcome Back Kotter theme over images of Roth in his VH-heyday.
Well, things didn't work out. Almost coming to blows backstage at the VMAs. Whatever plans were brewing for Roth to return, they were scuttled. The sense of disappointment, and anger, with many Van Halen fans was palpable.
I'm still convinced that no singer could've come into this situation and succeeded. Also that any Van Halen album without one of the original vocalists, and probably without Roth, period, was doomed. I was on the internet at the time, and there was a general sense from many people that they had been "ripped off" with some sort of bait-and-switch with Roth.
Which is just about one of the silliest, stupidest, things I've ever heard. This whole situation is a nasty glimpse into the mind of a hard core fan. The sense of entitlement, the feeling that Van Halen "owed" their fans something was really ugly to behold. The nascent internet community was a really difficult place to be rational in back in those days.
In the middle of all this is the actual album, and new vocalist Gary Cherone, who had been with the funk/rock band Extreme (and would again.) There have been rumors of other vocalists in contention, but that's never really been officially confirmed. I was very excited about the record at the time of release. I'd liked Cherone a great deal in Extreme, and I was hungry for new Van Halen. I was open to a new sound from the band, and perhaps most of the record-buying public wasn't.
Even now, when I listen to the album, I am struck by an adventurousness in the songs. I tend to believe that this was Eddie Van Halen at his most free. Roth and Hagar were both very much "hit singles" guys, while Cherone, in Extreme, had been more adventurous in the styles and genres he's worked with. Plus, without a doubt, Cherone was not a "name player" like Hagar, or a founding band member like Roth, so perhaps Eddie was able to force things on him more. Either way, I can't imagine Hagar or Roth going for a torchy number like "A Year to the Day," or a delicate song like "Josephina."
There are a LOT of good songs on Van Halen III. Maybe not the fist-pumping cock-rock that was expected from the band, but in it's place was adventurous arrangements and interesting lyrical compositions from Cherone. For myself, I can listen to "Without You," "One I Want," or "Fire in the Hole" an enjoy the hell out of them. "Dirty Water Dog" is, flat out, one of my favorite VH songs, ever. They function in a way that Hagar's straight-ahead pop/rock sensibilities, and Roth's scat-attack rantings never did. They're rather personal, and open up with meaning if you want to think about them. There are some stinkers, of course. "Once" just kind of plods along, and the less said of "How Many Say I," with Eddie on vocals, the better.
There are some big, big downsides to this record. First and foremost, Cherone is kinda trapped by the specter of Hagar. I tend to feel like Eddie was so used to writing for Hagar's voice at that time, he had some trouble shifting gears. More often than not, Gary isn't allowed to sing like Gary, but more in the Hagar mode. It's not bad, but you can tell he's straining at points. This is one area where I really love this record more for the potential is represented, rather than what was on the CD. I feel like the band would've become more and more comfortable with what Cherone could do well, and vice-versa. That stuff takes time, and one album ain't always gonna do it.
Second, the production is horrendous. The whole thing feels so muddy and Cherone's vocals feel way too hot and jarring on the final mix. He seems like he's screaming all the time, when I know he isn't. When I saw this lineup live, he sounded fantastic. The vocals could've done with some treble taken from the mix. No doubt that specter of Hagar influenced this as well, with the straining I mentioned above. Eddie does some of his best playing in years on this album, and it just feels sludgy. I don't know how much of this to lay on Producer Mike Post (he of dozens of TV themes) and how much to put on Eddie himself, playing with the knobs. Somebody dropped the ball, I would guess in mixing or mastering, and it hurts, a lot.
The popular perception is that the album was an utter failure upon release, and certainly it wasn't as financially successful as other Van Halen albums, especially in the Hagar era. It did, however, reach Gold certification, and "Without You" was the #1 rock single for 6 weeks. The tour also proved to be less than triumphant. Which is a damn shame, I saw this lineup at Sandstone Amphitheater in Bonner Springs, Kansas, and it was one of the best shows I've ever seen. With Gary they could mine the entire Van Halen catalog and do it well. Cherone also has stage presence and physical agility to spare.
Cherone eventually left the band in 1999, after they had worked on a number of songs for a follow-up. At least one track, or the lyrics, anyway, "Left For Dead," ended up on Cherone's follow-up project Tribe of Judah. I'm pretty well convinced that this stuff will never see the light of day, as the era has been scrubbed out of the band's history.
A couple of interesting postscripts to this are in the fact that Eddie Van Halen went into an utter tailspin after this lineup dissolved. He virtually disappeared, with a cancer battle and divorce providing a major explanation, but he's also alluded to the idea that Warner Brothers Records (their label at the time) basically demanded they eject Cherone. The inference being that one of the two popular vocalists had to return. I sometimes wonder about that event, and Eddie's subsequent lack of interest in original material are connected. If, in fact, Van Halen III is an Eddie Van Halen freed to produce the music he wanted without restrictions, maybe going back has little interest for him. That's utter and complete supposition on my part, of course.
Also, though Gary Cherone was not inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the rest of the band, leave it to the always class-act, bassist Michael Anthony (himself ejected for Eddie's son in 2006) to mention him warmly in his acceptance speech.
At the end of the day, Van Halen III has a lot of problems, and I'm not trying to hold it up as a "lost masterpiece," or anything of the kind. I do, however, think of it as an underappreciated part of Van Halen history. An album that could've been a doorway to something a hell of a lot better than what we ended up getting. Plus, I really dig a lot of the tunes.
So, when I hear people talking about how terrible it was/is, I just can't agree.