Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On A L.S.D. Trip

1998 or the year that Van Halen forgot, with Gary Cherone.

After watching Foreigner perform with current front man Kelly Hansen, my mind became fascinated with the pattern of rotating lead singers in established bands. Rock and roll band break ups and make ups are nothing new, it happens pretty much daily and has for decades. Bass players in particular come and go, some bands don't even carry a full time member on bass after a while (lookin' at you, Rolling Stones!). As I said a week ago, The Eagles jettisoned Don Felder pretty much saying he could stay in his own hotel California without an official replacement. In the late 80s, both Journey and Survivor gave their rhythm sections a rest leaving the door open for Randy Jackson to do some session work worth bragging about on American Idol. And with these changes the fans still come out to see their favorite bands, many not even aware of who is in any given band or when. Yet there is one position that fans do notice when there is a switch. You know what it is. Lead Singer.

In popular music including rock, the singer is often the emotional tie the audience has to the music. The singer is the narrator of the story, the possessor of a talent all want to have, the focal point of attention, the star of the show. According to those musicians that work with lead singers, complaints often start filing in after some success. They get tired of alleged prima donna attitudes, excessive creative or marketing control or they just plain don't like the guy (usually it's a guy) after a while. During one of the times Sammy Hagar was fired/quit Van Halen, Eddie Van Halen gave a name to this: L.S.D. = Lead Singer Disease. Now I don't know if EVH actually made this term up (or if Sammy Hagar really deserved such a slam, I lean towards no) but he's the person I remember hearing it from. So that will be the name of these posts, L.S.D. I know, what a trip. Ba dump dump.

So I thought it would be fun to write some posts about times when a lead singer from an established band leaves/gets fired and replaced with someone else. Then track what happens afterwards (usually something dismal until the original singer comes back). To kick things off, I'm going to cover the fracas that brought L.S.D. to my radar.

Sammy Hagar / David Lee Roth gets fired / quits and is replaced with Gary Cherone

Like they say in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, we're going way back now. Somewhere about 1995 or 1996. The story the way I recall it was Van Halen had finished touring in support of Balance aka the one where Eddie Van Halen sobers up and shaves a lot of his hair off. The band was called in to do music for the movie Twister and had a big blow out over Hagar's hackneyed song lyrics. Something about being told not to write words about hurricanes (because The Scorpions have that market cornered) and doing so anyway. Plus, Hagar was a new daddy at home and wanted some time off. Eddie Van Halen wanted to do some new tracks for a greatest hits comp, since Hagar was not available he roped in Diamond Dave. This was like a guy cheating on his second wife with his first wife, so Hagar was understandibly pissed. Saint Sammy and Ed talked with Rashomon flair - Sammy said he was fired while Ed said he quit - end result being no more Sam. At the same time, EVH had talked to other singers about fronting VH. People I've heard about include Mitch Malloy and Sass Jordan (EVH seems fascinated with having a female front woman, I've read he wanted Patty Smyth to join after Roth left the first time. As much as I like Smyth, just can't picture the warrior singing "Jump"). After an MTV appearance of VH with Roth, Diamond Dave put one foot out the door by arguing with EVH backstage. So DLR was kicked to the curb and the search was on for a new lead singer again. And after searching the guy they turned up was...Gary Cherone?

Gary Cherone of the Boston based band Extreme was the guy chosen to lead Van Halen to a new era. Like many, I was less than thrilled by this. One personal factor, I can't stand Extreme. Even with my love of lame rock bands, Extreme somehow dipped so low on my lame meter that even I couldn't like them. I remember watching tv when I saw the video for "Kid Ego" come on, I thought to myself "Wow, this band really sucks." They seemed like a generic copy of a generic copy. Then they got some character, but of the wussy kind. "More Than Words" took power balladry to an all time low with a tune filled with so much sap that Sting thought rain forests were destroyed in its creation (reaching too far for a metaphor? Fuck yeah, I'm buzzed on beer!). Even when they tried to rock, it would be ham handed crud like "Rest In Peace" that got played on MTV ad nauseum.

So yeah, I was less than juiced about Cherone as it was. Now he was put in the almost no win situation of replacing both Sammy Hagar and Diamond Dave as lead singer of Van Halen. To make matters worse, Eddie Van Halen told Cherone to sing like Bon Scott which made him sound like a bad imitation of...Sammy Hagar. It seemed like a long way to go for the band to essentially get a Sammy Hagar that does what he's told. Well, when I say band I mean Eddie and Alex Van Halen since Michael Anthony started getting iced out, reportedly playing bass on like only half the disc. One of Extreme's hallmarks was adaptability, they could mix a number of genres into their sound and apparently that's what the Van Halens wanted.

Because this was Van Halen mach 3, where Eddie's creativity would run unhindered by any egotistical lime light stealin' lead singer. And if Eddie Van Halen was an auteur on par with say Trent Reznor or Prince then Van Halen III was to be a work of genius. And some positive buzz started with people talkin' 'bout the song "That's Why I Love You". EVH was going to work in some of those influences that he appreciated but hadn't used like Peter Gabriel. And he was going to do it with TV theme king Mike Post as producer. Yes indeedy, it was Eddie Van Halen's way or the highway.

Van Halen III was released in 1998 to much fanfare. And it was everything that any prior Van Halen album wasn't. It was musically adventurous with Gabriel like rhythms ("Once"), political commentary ("Ballot Or The Bullet") and Roger Waters like croaking ("How Many Say I" with EVH on lead vox). While these excursions added to Van Halen's repitoire, they were merely functional representations of things other people did better. And try as they might, the band was only able to deliver decent hard rockers like "Without You" or "One I Want". No "Panama" here. Not even a "Poundcake". No fun aloud. The production sounded flat and evenly mixed, like a TV theme song. And the buzz song "That's Why I Love You" was dropped in favor of the "More Than Words"-ish "Josephina".

I tried for months to like this album, I really did. Eddie Van Halen sounded inspired, can't really fault any of the guitars here. As a whole, it just sucked too much. Too much for even a super fan like me to take. I wasn't alone, Van Halen III stopped the band's career cold. Even a tie in with the film Lethal Weapon 4 couldn't raise much interest in one of the disc's better cuts (the hard rock stomper "Fire In The Hole").

The failure of Van Halen III on a creative and commercial level effectively ended the band's recording career. To this day, Van Halen has not recorded a CD of new material - just greatest hits comps and reunion tours. Gary Cherone quietly departed from the group and I felt a little bad for him. I felt like he didn't get to be himself and have an opportunity to show if he could really do the job.

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