DAVID LEE ROTH – Skyscraper (1988 Warner Bros.)
Changes were afoot in the land of Roth after the success of Eat ‘Em and Smile. Keyboardist Brett Tuggle was hired in as a full-time member. Steve Vai was promoted to the rank of co-producer for the next album. Billy Sheehan was put on a leash, his busy bass stylings reduced to typical pop rock lines on much of the new material. One song even had a programmed bass instead of the real thing.
It seemed like a sudden about-face. David Lee Roth had left behind the Van Halen-nouveau trappings of the last album in exchange for a much slicker and more commercial sound. What resulted was Skyscraper, a synth-heavy odd duck that nevertheless spawned a massive hit single still getting radio play today. Revisiting it, this almost (only almost!) sounds more like a Vai album than a Dave album. That’s not a bad thing, depending on how you feel about the 6 (soon to be 7) string master. Certainly, his loopy noodling was reaching an early peak here, but his stylings are not for everyone.
My biggest complaint would be the sidelining of Billy Sheehan. I mean, you’ve got possibly the best bass player in the universe in your band: Exploit that! Don’t keep him playing 1/4 notes. In a 1988 Hit Parader interview, Sheehan said that he had to leave the band in order to express himself. He referred to the “note police” (Roth) who ordered him to play it simpler. After Skyscraper, he was replaced by drummer Gregg Bissonnette’s brother Matt (no slouch).
The opening rocker “Knucklebones” is a great song, but falls a little limp. Skyscraper‘s production is cold, sterile, and digital; like in that 80’s way before the technology had really come along. It does boast complex guitar riffing mixed in with idiosyncratic Dave lyrics. Dave has acknowledged that Vai was in the driver’s seat for this album, and its complexity is a testament to that.
Elsewhere there are some progressive moments (the title track, “Hina”), stage-ready rockers (“Perfect Timing”, “Hot Dog and a Shake”), good time ballads (“Damn Good”) and whatever-the-hell (“Three Fools A Minute”). All of this is surrounded by a fun, party-like atmosphere courtesy of Dave as the band’s hoots n’ hollers along.
I consider this album to be a brave experiment, and Dave’s highest artistic achievement. Not his best album, but his most artistic. While not as instantly likable, rocking, or consistent as Eat ‘Em And Smile, it is endlessly ambitious, layered, and most importantly fun. Dave is the ringmaster of the greatest party in town. Skyscraper is the party where the smart dudes stop in for a beer.
Craig Fee at 107.5 Dave FM, the world’s biggest Van Halen (not Van Hagar!) fan has this to say:
I still have a soft spot for “Just Like Paradise,” “Stand Up” (the more you do it the less you fall down!) and “Hot Dog & A Shake.” With Steve Vai on lead guitar, this album is a killer follow-up to EEAS.
I’m glad I asked Craig for his comment because our song likes and dislikes on this album are almost opposite! My faves? “Skyscraper”, “Hina”, “Just Like Paradise”, “Knucklebones” My filler: “Stand Up”! So there ya go. Maybe this record has something for everyone?