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15 Years Ago: Van Halen Play First Show With Gary Cherone

Tim Mosenfelder, Getty Images

The first time Van Halen changed singers — swapping David Lee Roth for Sammy Hagar – their debut concert with the Red Rocker on March 27, 1986, couldn’t have been more triumphant.

But when the hard-rock heroes tried the same thing a second time — almost 12 years to the day at Wellington, New Zealand’s Queens Wharf Event Centre — with former Extreme frontman Gary Cherone at the mic, the party sure seemed lively onstage. But behind the scenes, it was an entirely different story.

Fans didn’t ask for refunds or set fire to their seats when Van Halen Mach III took the stage (this was their first public appearance, after all), but Cherone’s carefully orchestrated soft-launch, far away from the U.S. media’s glaring headlights, would stall the trouble brewing back home for only a short time.

For the New Zealand audience gathered to see Van Halen that night, Cherone’s rookie nerves and unfamiliar visual presence proved to be a minor distraction from the jukebox show performed by the band, which wisely sprinkled just a handful of new songs among a few select Hagar-era favorites (‘When It’s Love,’ ‘Dreams,’ ‘Right Now’) and a generous helping of Roth-period classics (‘Unchained,’ ‘Panama,’ ‘Jump’), plus resurrected album tracks like ‘Mean Street,’ ‘Romeo Delight’ and ‘Somebody Get Me a Doctor.’

It was as varied and as crowd-pleasing a set list as any open-minded Van Halen fan could ask for. Problem was, open-minded Van Halen fans were in short supply once Cherone’s debut album with the band, ‘Van Halen III,’ hit record stores and radio stations. It simply didn’t meet expectations.

Whether it was because the new music replaced the party-all-the-time attitude with more serious topics, fallout from the Van Halen brothers’ ugly spats with two former singers or various other reasons, ‘Van Halen III’ was the first Van Halen album to not go platinum. It stalled at No. 4 on the chart, instead of reaching No. 1 like its four predecessors.

Once the tour hit the U.S. and was met with similar disappointment, Cherone’s fate was sealed: Within a year, he was scapegoated as “just the wrong choice” and handed his walking papers.

Years of countless chaos would follow for Van Halen. But for one promising night in New Zealand, things didn’t look all that hopeless.

Next: Van Halen 'III' Turns 15

Watch Van Halen Perform Live in 1998

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