The 80s were a tumultuous time. The threat of nuclear war loomed over our heads thanks to the Reagan/Gorbachev dog and pony show, somebody shot J.R(apparently), pegged pants were all the rage, something about Iran and the Contras, neon became a thing, and the Battle of the Network Stars was cancelled. But probably the most shocking was that David Lee Roth left Van Halen. After 8 years of constant album dropping, arena-filling, and drunken festival shows the boogie rockers of Sunset Strip were without their king of class clowns, Diamond David Lee Roth.
I remember there was a lot of contention between camps of Roth fans and Van Halen fans. What happened? Did he leave or did they kick him out? Sammy Hagar? Will they be Van Hagar now? Speculation swirled and rock rags fueled those speculations with hints, allegations, and flamboyant photos of David Lee Roth wagging his crotch like a mini-flag at a Fourth of July parade.
The Van Halen brothers laid their hand down first by releasing 5150 in March of 1986 with Sammy Hagar. It wasn’t quite the rock and roll banger we were expecting, but they certainly made an album that the ladies could get into as well. Many a middle school dance would be playing “Love Walks In” and “Dreams” that following school year. There was some catchy stuff, too. “Good Enough” was rocking and just dirty enough that when you were listening with your parents you cringed a bit. “Why Can’t This Be Love” was a great radio song. Catchy enough to keep a steady rotation, but different and rocking enough to keep hardliners engaged. “Best of Both Worlds” and “Summer Nights” were decent enough to blast from the Pioneer Super Tuners of any reputable hesher’s Chevy Nova in the mid-80s.
But then, along came Eat ‘Em and Smile in July of 1986. All bets were off.
Roth was relatively quiet after his EP of schlocky cover songs and his foray into comedy music videos. When he emerged in July of 86 with a new band and new album he made a grand entrance. Eat ‘Em and Smile was the polar opposite of 5150. It was dirty, loud, obnoxious, musically crushing, and the musical equivalent of a super-charged 1969 Chevelle driving thru your living room wall and the driver getting out and laughing in your face as he makes out with your girl.
THIS was what we needed in 1986. Not freaking “Love Walks In”.
I can remember being 12-years old and a die-hard Eddie Van Halen fan. I went with my mom to her best friend’s house and she had a son that was 3 years older than me. He had the coolest of everything. A basement full of classic Star Wars toys(Creature Cantina, Death Star, and the giant-sized action figures, natch), and a great collection of realistic toy guns. As he got older he got into skateboarding, BMX, punk rock, and anything that went against societal norms(he said Roger Moore was a better Bond that Sean Connery. What??) On this trip he was going on about how David Lee Roth’s new guitarist blew Eddie Van Halen out of the water. I stared at him disapprovingly, but said nothing. I was flabbergasted. Nobody was better than Eddie. C’mon! Of course, the bastard was right. Once I heard “Yankee Rose”, “Shyboy”, “Elephant Gun”, and “Bump n Grind” it was over.
Roth’s secret(or not so secret) weapons were Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan. Absolute maestros. It’s like he created these steroid-fueled, Robocop versions of Eddie Van Halen and Michael Anthony and unleashed them onto the world. Turns out he didn’t create them in a lab. Both had been around for years, Sheehan playing in Talas and Vai first working with Frank Zappa writing out music charts of Zappa’s guitar solos, then becoming a full member of the band. He also played with Alcatrazz, had recorded a solo album called Flex-Able, and played the devil’s guitarist Jack Butler in Walter Hill’s Crossroads.
So in 1986 David Lee Roth assembles one of the best pop metal bands of the 80s and unleashes an LSD-laced beer bong of an album in Eat ‘Em and Smile. In 1988 he follows it up with Skyscraper. Where Smile felt warm, decadent, outlandish, and brash, Skyscraper felt digital, cold, overly modern, a little too meticulous, and like an attempt by Roth to be more mature than I think he could be.
Still, it had its moments.
One of the biggest changes was the absence of producer Ted Templeton. Instead, the album was produced by Roth himself with co-production by Steve Vai. Templeton brought a big sound to the table, as displayed by the Van Halen discography. Even the most overplayed VH tropes still sounded great thanks to Templeton’s skills behind the board. With Roth at the helm, it was as if he wanted to legitimize himself as an artist as opposed to being just a wild front man and good time entertainer. David Lee Roth was one hell of a front man. He was never an auteur, and Templeton knew that. So he played to Roth’s advantages in the studio which were his gonzo personality and his banshee howls. Without the brash technicolor struts, karate kicks, and general Terminator-level shucking and jiving, songs like “Skyscraper”, “Damn Good”, and “Stand Up” just come across as exercises in self-indulgence. Gone are the hot, sweaty riffs of Eat ‘Em and Smile and in their place are these synth-heavy, well manicured tracks that don’t feel much like a Diamond Dave album.
That’s not to say it was all cold and pseudo art pop. Of course Steve Vai and Billy Sheehan still keep things interesting, like on the muscular “The Bottom Line”. Vai’s showing more of his Zappa-esque tendencies on this record, and the guitar intro feels like a preview of what we’d hear on his excellent Passion and Warfare. Roth goes full throttle on this track as well as Diamond Dave makes his presence known as he accentuates the phrase “soda pop” in the lyrics. There’s also the single “Just Like Paradise”. At first I was like “What is this?” when I first heard it. I don’t know if I like this song or not. The more I heard it on the radio the more it made an impression. On the bus to school, at home on the radio, and eventually in my tape deck “Just Like Paradise” wormed its way into my brain. Besides, I’d a rather heard that than say Aerosmith’s “Angel” or Cheap Trick’s “The Flame”. “Hot Dog and the Shake” is all innuendo and classic David Lee Roth, and would’ve sounded pretty amazing as a straight up all guitar track. Instead we’re treated to layers of synths and piano as well as some of the best Vai soloing up to this point.
“Hina” always stood out to me. It might be my favorite song on Skyscraper. It has a bit of groove and Vai’s guitar is chunky and probably sounds more like Eddie Van Halen than anything he’s ever done. This song has the feel of one of those odder tracks you’d hear on a Van Halen album, like “Dreams” or “Little Guitars”, and you’d secretly love them but never admit it to anyone. This is an example of those odder, more artier tendencies working perfectly for Roth.
I remember teaching myself “Two Fools A Minute”. It was a cool riff and I could get the tone just right with my Fender Squier Strat, an overdrive pedal and my little practice amp.
As with a lot of things, Skyscraper was sort of lost to time for me. It was put in its spot in the cassette holder on top of my speaker in my room. Eventually it was pulled out and put in the “shoebox of misfit cassettes”, along with second wrung Sammy Hagar(Cruisin and Boozin’) and Ratt’s Dance, to make room for Joe Satriani, LA Guns, and Rush.
The other day I was perusing my local record shop and found a copy of Skyscraper for $5.99. The 14-year old version of me begged me to pick it up and take it home. I don’t spoil myself very often, but this time it felt right. Throwing it on the turntable with a beer in hand didn’t reveal anything I didn’t already know. Skyscraper is a so-so follow up to a perfectly over-sexualized pop metal classic.
“Two fools born a minute, guess that makes me three.” Wait, what the hell does that even mean?