Why the Best Van Halen Singer Was Gary Cherone

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One way to begin a story is with a headline so absurd that people read on just through annoyance. So here we go.

Van Halen has had three singers. David Lee Roth made six brilliant albums with the band. Sammy Hagar replaced him and made four, not great but still good. Then Gary Cherone joined and made one record, easily their worst. It was slammed by fans and critics alike, Cherone quit, and Van Halen didn’t make another album for fourteen years. In light of these facts, how can I possibly say Cherone was the best singer for Van Halen?

It’s an absurd statement, of course. The choice can only be between Hagar and Roth. Technically, Hagar was the best singer for his vocal range and ability to sing in tune, neither of which were ever strong points for Diamond Dave. Yet Roth was a bigger personality, better lyricist, and the beneficiary of Edward Van Halen’s best songwriting.

Even so, there’s one way Gary Cherone was the best singer for Van Halen, and that was in the setlist for the live show. The Cherone era is the ONLY time a Van Halen live show has ever featured a balanced mix of both the Hagar and Roth material. Every other time since 1986, that ideal has been thwarted by ego. When Hagar joined, he refused to play any of the Roth songs, except the most obvious, boring ones (Jump, Panama, You Really Got Me, etc). Then, when Roth rejoined in 2012, he refused to sing any Hagar songs at all.

It’s a pretty poor letdown when fans are denied the chance to hear great songs simply through the giant (or fragile) egos of singers. It’s like Ian Gillan in Deep Purple. Plenty of fans would have loved to hear ‘Burn’ from the Coverdale era, but Gillan ruled it out.

In Australia, the first time we ever got to see Van Halen live was in 1998, with Gary Cherone singing, and the setlist was first rate. The best of Hagar, the best of Roth – but you can guarantee this is the only time in the history of Van Halen it will ever happen!

I’ve just read Greg Renoff’s book Van Halen Rising, an account of their struggle to get a record deal in the seventies. Despite having looks, talent, charisma, songs, regular gigs and a strong live following, it still took them over five years to get signed. This seems ridiculous in hindsight, but as Renoff says, heavy rock was seen as a dead genre in mid-seventies America. Record companies were into soft rock, disco, or punk.

The first Van Halen album finally came out in 1978, to mixed reviews. Renoff quoted some of the reviews in his book, and it was a reminder of the typical arrogance of 1970s rock critics. At the time, it was de rigueur for critics to make condescending or straight out rude remarks about heavy rock musicians and fans. There was always the implication that those into heavy rock were sub-human beings too stupid to be taken seriously.

In light of this, it’s worth remembering that some of these same critics were in awe of  ‘punk classics’ like the first Ramones album, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, and Patti Smith’s Horses. Musically, at least, these were highly simplistic, the work of toddlers compared to the virtuoso guitar playing of Edward Van Halen. Yet in 1978, plenty of critics would have rated these albums more highly than the debut record from Eddie and co … which is even sillier than my statement that Gary Cherone was the best singer for Van Halen!

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