REVIEW: David Lee Roth – Skyscraper (1988)

 

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?

4/5 stars

“Promo only!  Not for sale!”

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15 comments

  1. Great review. I’ll have to give this one some more listens. I can never seem to get much of a grip on this album, although I enjoy it when I listen to it. I like you how you describe it as artisitic and smart, I fell that way about EEAS too. Although, it’s a rocking party album there’s a really clever and sophisticated layer to it.

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    1. I think all Roth albums have elements of intelligence and sophistication. I think his lyrics, as far as rock n’ roll goes, are pretty much second to none. His tongue is always in his cheek, but he’s usually clever too.

      I think this one’s a peak of some kind.

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      1. It’s definitely a quality he has that gets overlooked by a lot of people. I think this one, for me, is a bit like you described Journey’s Eclipse: I can never remember much about it afterwards (apart from 2 or 3 songs).

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        1. And this is what I LOVE about music…how different tunes effect different people! I will always be eternally fascinated by that.

          As I’ve said before, I’m always influenced by the context of hearing the music, especially the first time. I got this on cassette from my “Favourite Aunt” for Easter of 1988. She lived in Ottawa which is 6 hours away. We drove up to spend Easter with them, and she gave me this tape.

          I played it on the way home on a shitty walkman. I didn’t like it, aside from two songs. My walkman was warbly too. I got it home, played it in my bedroom. I tried listeing to it without reading along to the lyrics, which is what I did the previous time. Then the album started to grow on me.

          It became a really treasured album to me that summer, I was done grade 10 and that tape got a lot of play! So of course I always remember experiences with this album. I remember having it playing while I was putting newspapers together on the front porch, helping with my sister’s paper route.

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  2. I remember this album, was big with the kids around that time. Haha Hot Dog And A Shake. I haven’t even heard that track or looked it up and I’d wager he’s not talking about food in that track at ALL. Good ol’ DLR.

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  3. I couldn’t agree more. I always liked this album, but always felt the sterile production was a bit of a hinder. Still, can’t find a bad song on here, but Eat ‘Em And Smile wins 24/7.
    And “Stand Up” was the one with the programmed bass, so It’s a filler for me too. Too bad, as it is a good song that suffers a lot from bad production and ill arrangements.

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    1. EEAS is truly in a league of its own. Everything gelled on it, and sonically it’s really good.

      When I was a kid I always tried to predict what the next single was going to be. I would have loved Skyscraper, I thought it would make a great video. I also felt Hina and Perfect Timing had hit potential. You can imagine my surprise when the next single was Stand Up!

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      1. Stand Up as a single was so predictable. Boring, but obvious choice. Perfect Timing or the title track would have been great as singles.

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  4. No surprise here but I bought this the day it was released back in 88. I knew Roth was shifting musical directions by the release of the Just Like Paradise video before the release of the album. At first listen I thought wow does the sound ever sound dry unlike EEAS where the sound was bombastic and smacked u across the forehead. So for sure when I bought the album and gave it the first listen I found wow a pretty major shift in style but still with the quirky lyrics. Hina I declared as the best song from that album and still do but when I read the inside credits that there was no bass on Stand Up I was like aaaaaah man …here we go and soon Sheehan was gone…..
    Give Dave credit I guess he coulda cashed out a soundalike EEAS followup and as time passed Skyscraper grew on me but the day of Skyscrapers release I guess u could say at the time I was looking for another EEAS clone…
    I was a silly 21 yr old at the time….
    Ha

    Mike …next weekend Kim Mitchell is playing here in Tbay…me and my wife are going ,maybe he will play Kids In Action…man if that would have ended up on EEAS…!!!!

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    1. No kidding, that would have been incredible! I hope Kim is awesome. Down our way he is opening for Sammy Hagar & Michael Anthony.

      Hina is a great song Deke. You can really hear Vai’s influence on it with those layers of guitars…

      EEAS will always remain the one true solo DLR classic. It’s a shame it was never followed by something by the same players in the same vein. Actually it’s a shame that DLR has never worked with Vai again.

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  5. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about DLR – not sure if that makes me a rock heretic ! I do have a mile-wide soft spot for ‘Just Like Paradise’ & ‘Damn good’ though.

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    1. You know what, I think his compilation album called The Best is a really fine way to get his best songs. The track list is pretty good. If you listened to it and didn’t like it, I would say your ambivalence is justified.

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