REVIEW: David Lee Roth – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986)

Scan_20150728DAVID LEE ROTH – Eat ‘Em and Smile (1986 Warner)

1986 was the year it all went down. If you were a Van Halen fan, it was time to choose.

Of course, nobody really had to choose between Van Hagar and David Lee Roth. It’s not like every fan had only $10 to spend on albums that year. Fans did choose anyway, and even today almost 30 years later, we still argue about who’s best: Diamond Dave or the Red Rocker?

No matter who you sided with, there is no question that David Lee Roth stormed into 1986 with a killer new band and album.

Steve Vai! That’s enough right there to make for an incendiary band — just ask David Coverdale. Before Little Stevie Vai was a household name, he had earned the respect of Frank Zappa who hired him on after Joe’s Garage. He made his Zappa debut on Tinseltown Rebellion, before being snagged by Graham Bonnet in 1985 for Alcatrazz’s Disturbing the Peace. In that band, he had the unenviable task of replacing a Swedish guitar player you may have heard of called Yngwie J. Malmsteen. Needless to say, Steve Vai was already experienced in filling big shoes by the time David Lee Roth made contact.

Billy Sheehan! A lot of people think he’s the world’s greatest bass player, period. Eight finger lead bass, baby! Three albums with Talas didn’t do much in terms of sales, but the material was strong enough that one song was re-recorded for the Roth album.

Gregg Bissonette! Once you learn how to properly spell his name, you will recognize Bissonette on loads of album credits. Joe Satriani come to mind? How about Spinal Tap? For your information, Gregg Bissonette is still alive, and is still the current Spinal Tap drummer.

Combine those three virtuosos with the greatest frontman of all time, and you have best new band of 1986.

Van Halen’s 5150 came out in March, going to #1. That’s a hard act to follow. Eat ‘Em and Smile, however, ending up standing the test of time. I would argue that even though it’s not Van Halen, it’s still the best Van Halen album since 1984….

As if to say “Eddie who?”, the album opens with Steve Vai’s trademark talking guitar. I’m talkin’ about-a-“Yankee Rose”! Here’s the shot heard ’round the world indeed. Lyrically, musically, and instrumentally, this song truly is the spiritual successor to classic Van Halen. David Lee was still in prime voice, and does he ever pour it on! Sassy as ever, Roth sounds exactly how he should: the showman in the rock and roll circus. And let’s not forget Billy and Gregg. Sheehan’s slinky bass on the outro is space age groove.

“Shyboy” is an atomic bomb. Billy brought in this song from Talas, but there is no question that Dave’s version is vastly superior. I have no idea how Vai makes his guitar create these sounds. When he goes into syncopation with Billy on the fastest solo of all time, your head may be blown clean off. Please, do not attempt to listen to “Shyboy” in the car, without testing it at home first. As Steve’s guitar flickers from left to right, Billy’s bass is the fastest, baddest groove on record. “Shyboy” is of such high quality that I do not think any self-respecting rock fan can live without it. Virtually every trick that Steve had at the time was in this one song.

One thing that was special about Van-Halen-with-Dave was their fearlessness in doing odd covers, such as “Big Bad Bill” or “Oh Pretty Woman”. Dave took that with him, and included oldie swing covers like “I’m Easy”. Horn laden and with Steve’s expert licks, it should be no surprise that they nail this one. It’s much in the spirit of Dave’s solo EP, Crazy From the Heat, only better.

Perhaps the most outstanding song on Eat ‘Em and Smile would be “Ladies Nite in Buffalo?” Dave has always said he loves disco and dance music. This is the most perfect melding of that world with rock. Vai is rarely so funky, and there is no question that Dave has the vibe right. Smooth and steamy, “Ladies Nite in Buffalo?” is a tune perfectly in synch with activities of the nocturnal persuasion. Who else but Dave would be perfect to deliver this message?

“Goin’ Crazy” was a great track to make into one of Dave’s typically high flying music videos. It’s party rock time, with a tropical vibe. “Goin’ Grazy” worked particularly well when Dave re-released it in Spanish, as “¡Loco del calor!”. I used to consider this tune a bit of a throwaway, but it has certainly endeared itself over the years. Another meticulously perfect Vai solo doesn’t hurt, and Billy’s bass popping helps end side one on an up note.

Now there is a story here that needs to be told. Billy Sheehan was in Canadian progressive rock band Max Webster for “about three weeks” according to lead singer Kim Mitchell. Upon joining Dave’s band, he introduced them to Kim Mitchell’s solo track “Kids In Action”, which they decided to cover. Bill called Kim up to ask him for the lyrics, because they couldn’t quite make them all out. Kim supplied the words, and Dave recorded the song. However, it was dropped at the 11th hour, for another cover — “Tobacco Road”. David Lee Roth’s version of “Kids In Action” has yet to be released or even bootlegged. Not that I am complaining about “Tobacco Road”, another old cover! Yet again, the reliably awesome Steve Vai just sells it. There is no question that the whole song just smokes, but getting to hear Stevie playing this old blues?  Pretty damn cool.

That’s nothing. You thought “Shyboy” was fast? Check out “Elephant Gun”! Billy’s fingers didn’t fall off, but mine would have. “I’ll protect you baby with my Elephant Gun”, claims Dave. Nudge, wink! Steve Vai’s been known to write blazing fast songs, and “Elephant Gun” is so fast it’s almost showing off. Wisely though, things get slow and nocturnal once again on “Big Trouble”. That’s a title Dave recycled from an old unused Van Halen song. (That song became “Big River” on A Different Kind of Truth.) Steve’s guitar melodies and solo on this are particularly celestial. Roth uses his speaking voice, spinning a tale as only he can. “Bump and Grind” is a perfectly acceptable album track, a sleaze rocker as only Dave can do. If I am interpreting the lyrics correctly, Dave is a dance instructor in this one. “Shake it slowly, and do that Bump and Grind”.

Much like “Happy Trails” ended Diver Down on a jokey note, Dave ends his first solo album with a cover: “That’s Life”, the song that Sinatra made famous. Coming from the guy who did “Just a Gigolo”, we know he can do that kind of thing very well. The first time I heard the album years ago, I shrugged and said, “Another one?” Now, older and fatter, I sez it’s all good! Zop-bop-doop-zooby-dooby-doo indeed. Funny thing though. When I think of Diver Down, I think of a fun but fairly shallow album of half covers. When I think of Eat ‘Em and Smile, I don’t question the integrity of it. I don’t know why I seem to hold that double standard.

In this writer’s humble opinion, Eat ‘Em and Smile was David Lee Roth’s finest moment as a solo artist. It was not nearly as well known as 5150, OU812, or any of Van Hagar’s albums, and that is almost criminal. The talent in this band, pound for pound, outweighed anybody else going at the time, including Van Halen. Shame they couldn’t make it last.

5/5 stars


  1. Even as a Van Hagar enthusiast/apologist I totally agree with all of this! It’s criminal that any Rock fan wouldn’t know about this one. It’s fantastic from front to back and Big Trouble and Ladies Nite In Buffalo? are two of the best songs ever written! Didn’t know about the Max Webster connection either, very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Billy is from Buffalo, which is just across the river from Niagara Falls Canada basically…not a long drive to Toronto or anywhere in Ontario. Buffalo is kind of considered Canada Jr. by a lot of Canadians!

      So having learned this, it’s not surprising that Billy ended up crossing paths with Max. And you know who the biggest Kim Mitchell fan around is? Paul Gilbert from Mr. Big, another Billy band. Huge fan.


  2. Yep a all around classic….like u said its a shame this band could not stay intact especially with the sound they created! I’m with HMO love BigTrouble and Bump and Grind……
    Great review ….

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Also with the lyrics…..Big Trouble man that’s some good street lyrics if any and of course Bump And Grind!
        Roth never got the credit from the public with the words solo or in Halen….
        Kinda baffling really….


  3. “Eat’em and Smile” is a great album for all the reasons you state why. However, I’m feeling a little naughty and just throw a spanner into the works here, I had a friend who said that Michael Anthony’s bass playing on “5150” was superior to that of Sheehan’s on this album. I now take a step back and wait for the dueling pistols to come out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ooooh! That’s absolutely a bold statement. It’s two very different styles though. I’m going to choose not to choose.

      But, as Neil Peart once said, “If you choose not to decide you still haven’t made a choice.”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Mikeys right two different bass playing vibes…..can’t compare I mean Dave was pissed at VH so he hot rodded up his solo band to go toe to toe and than some with Halen….


  4. “I have no idea how Vai makes his guitar create these sounds. When he goes into syncopation with Billy on the fastest solo of all time, your head may be blown clean off. Please, do not attempt to listen to “Shyboy” in the car, without testing it at home first”. I had a right chuckle there – brilliant.

    Strangely enough I was flicking through your Van Halen archives earlier (the DLR stuff), so the timing there is quite brilliant. I’ve spotted this a number of times and have been tempted to buy it, but there’s always been too much indecision so I’ve left it sitting – think you may just have sold it!


  5. Need to add to your statement:

    “For your information, Gregg Bissonette is still alive, and is still the current Spinal Tap drummer.”

    Add: “..but is likely to spontaneously combust at any moment.” :)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow, Mike, I like pretty much the whole album! Particularly “Yankee Rose”, “I’m Easy”, “Ladies’ Nite In Buffalo?”, “Tobacco Road” and “That’s Life”.

    Thanks for your wonderful review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. WICKED that is really rewarding to me. Thanks for the comment…you picked some pretty great tunes there.

      Van Halen are playing in Toronto tonight. I have several friends on their way to the show right now. They played Wednesday and my friend Craig said that Dave was great.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s sure to be an amazing show! It’s great that they’re touring again. Rumor had it that Dave had retired a while back, and I’m glad that is not the case. He’s meant for the stage, isn’t he?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well before the Van Halen reunion, he was doing a radio show. And it bombed…just tanked. And after that he wasn’t doing much of anything. A little while later, the Van Halen reunion happened and I was surprised as anyone! I honestly didn’t think they would still be touring in 2015!

          Liked by 1 person

        2. Oh interesting about the radio show! Maybe it required too much audience responsiveness and playing other peoples’ music…or maybe he didn’t like the routine scheduling. Hanging out on the golf course isn’t for everyone, so I can see how they’d be drawn back to touring. Pat Benatar said something similar about her husband — she’d like to retire but Neil can’t stay off the road :).

          Liked by 1 person

        3. They must be able to arrive at a compromise that works then! They’ve been together forever.

          Another DLR fact — he is a paramedic and actually worked as one in the 90’s!

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh yes, they seem to have compromised. She made this comment on stage at a fairly recent show. They’re touring but a little more on the “light” side of commitments.

    DLR as a paramedic is hilarious! The last thing I’d want to see as I’m coming to in the back of an ambulance is DLR looking down at me, telling me everything will be okay…! I’m sure he’s fully qualified and all that, but, still :).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HAHAHA that’s it exactly! The paramedic jumps out of the ambulance, takes off his hat and it’s Dave going “WOAH! Well take a look at this here!” Or something equally Dave-like.

      I think it’s perfectly respectable for an artist like Pat Benatar to take it easy on the touring. It only makes the next tour that much more special. But they certainly have earned the right to be normal people and have lives at home!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Heyyyy, let’s attach these electrodes and see what happens!”

        That’s exactly what I thought when she told that story. I was delighted to be in the audience for one of their shows…and happy that Neil can’t stay off the road!


  8. This is such an amazing record and it’s just a great as some of the Dave-era Van Halen records. Every rock fan should own it.
    But Dave shouldn’t have gotten any credits for Shyboy, it’s the exact same song as the Talas version so Dave didn’t write a thing on it.

    Liked by 1 person

Rock a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s