Rock

Published on July 9th, 2014 | by Andy Sedlak

‘Skyscraper’ – David Lee Roth [1988]

‘Skyscraper’ – David Lee Roth [1988] Andy Sedlak

Summary: Most of Diamond Dave’s second solo album has all the charm of a microwavable dinner. But hidden within the drab is arguably the finest song of his solo career.

2.5

Mediocre


User Rating: 0 (0 votes)

Length: 41:17  |  Released: Jan. 26, 1988

Producers: David Lee Roth, Steve Vai

Peak Position on Billboard album chart: 6

Top 40 U.S. singles: 1

Label: Warner Bros.

David Lee Roth in 1985, on the eve of his solo debut.

First of all, I’m a Diamond Dave fan. Whenever some blowhard dusts off the archaic Dave v. Sammy debate, I’m in Roth’s corner. I’m an advocate for the handshake-buzzer wit that he injected into hard rock.

And I believe his 1988 solo release, Skyscraper, has its place. There’s a breaking-curfew type of glory to the album and it would sure as hell sound good as you rev up the Trans Am and peel off into the sunset with your best girl. For better or for worse, Skyscraper is the soundtrack to that nutty senior trip from the late ’80s.

But probably like your own senior trip, that description isn’t nearly as charming as it sounds. Even when you strip away the other egos in Van Halen, “solo Dave” doesn’t necessarily reflect the effortless charisma that made us all believers in the first place.

There is, of course, a gigantic exception. We’ll get to that in a minute.

A compilation of news reports on Dave as Skyscraper was coming out.

Skyscraper was released in early 1988, when Roth was riding a wave of solo success and thumbing his nose at his former bandmates in Van Halen. His first solo album, 1986’s Eat ‘Em and Smile, came out the same year as Van Halen’s 5150 and more than held its own. Dave was his own man. For better or worse.

When Skyscraper dropped in 1988, it too became a hit, proving Roth could do it on his own accord more than once – something detractors always root against. Skyscraper would sell two million copies in the United States. But truthfully, there’s a hollow tone that holds back a desire to revisit it.

And why don’t I feel like I got the full Dave?

Skyscraper - Van Halen

With Van Halen, Dave’s personality was always front and center.

The record opens with “Knucklebones,” an initially generic song that eventually forges its way into your brain and ends up being one of the better songs on the album. If Dave gave us nine other tracks like “Knucklebones,” I wouldn’t have an issue with Skyscraper.

But let’s really get down to why this record was a hit. Remember the days when you bought an entire record just to hear one song? This was that song. The tune is as effortless and cool as Dave himself on a good day. From a songwriter’s standpoint, this where rock and pop completely align and are caught necking in the back of the movie theater.

Roth wrote the song with keyboardist Brett Tuggle.

From “Just Like Paradise:”

Girl, we’ve been meant for this since we were born (since we were born)
No problems now, the coast is clear (ooh)
It’s just the calm before the storm
This must be just like livin’ in paradise
And I don’t want to go home
 

The clip for “Just Like Paradise.”

“Just Like Paradise” is simply better produced, better sung and better recorded than the rest of the generic ’80s rock that mostly populates the album. This is a party. And the rest of the album may try to party, but it’s the difference between the guy who gets beach-bar drunk and the guy who quietly gets hammered in his apartment on a rainy day.

I understand the burden of catching lightning in a bottle. Can you imagine if this was the lead track on the album? Then the rest of this thing would really sound like shit. Lyrically, the song is nothing profound. I’ll admit that. But there’s literally no dread on the track. Dave finally wrote his own “California Girls.”

I know I’m rambling now. But it just totally works with the populist music fan in me. I could name my first child “Paradise.” I’m getting married in October and might just weave the phrase “just like paradise” into my vows.

What a great fuckin’ song.

Skyscraper - DLR Jump SMALL

The way you feel after listening to “Just Like Paradise.”

Now… the rest of the album.

It’s not intrusive. It’s not a slap in the face. And if I bought the album new in 1988 I bet it wouldn’t even have been a regret. It’s just a mild disappointment because it feels like diet Dave.

The problem is simply that there’s nothing particularly memorable about nine-tenths of the record. “The Bottom Line” is sufficient and the album’s title cut, “Skyscraper,” works fine but doesn’t make any grand gestures when it feels like we’re due for one. Dave may be a clown, but he’s no dummy. He knew what listeners expected.

“Stand Up” continues to hammer away at the status quo and “Hina” emerges with a little identity after a few listens.

Part of the issue might be the band, which hits all the right notes but zips the soul out of the recording. Skyscraper is essentially a collaborative record between Roth and Steve Vai, the guitar virtuoso who got his start with Frank Zappa. Vai had a hand in writing half the songs and co-produced the record with Roth.

I’m not here to doubt Vai’s skills, but Steve Vai writes rock music for engineers. Vai’s approach always sounded professorial. And that sounds somewhat restrictive next to showman Roth. Roth may have tried to turn up the voltage to drown out his former band mates, but he inadvertently turned down his personality as a result.

Skyscraper - DLR Band NEEDS CROP

Roth ratcheted up the technical firepower by adding Steve Vai (r) to his solo band.

“Two Fools A Minute” is one of the Davier songs on the album but the banter at the end of the track seems almost forced. And that’s the type of thing that always came so effortlessly to Dave. What’s up with that?

From “Two Fools A Minute:”

I’d wait for her parade
While she’s out doin’ Yankee Doodle
Thought I had it made
But the gravy train was late as usual

There are interesting spots. “Damn Good” may be about Memory Lane, but Roth doesn’t sing like he’s looking back with a wistful heart. He sounds more like he’s reluctantly approaching a mid-life crisis. Roth wrote the song with Vai. Maybe solo life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it was easier to be Roth when he was backed by Van Halen.

From “Damn Good:”

Yeah, we were laughin’
As we reached for the stars
And we had some
For what it was worth 

DLR and the band jam “The Bottom Line” from the 1988 tour supporting Skyscraper.

Roth would botch an attempt to rejoin his Van Halen bandmates in 1996. He would rejoin for good in 2007. A Different Kind of Truth, the group’s first release with Roth since 1984, garnered positive reviews. It wasn’t a hit (let’s not get greedy) but initially, positive reviews didn’t always come easy to Van Halen.

Was 1988 Roth’s year? Once again, Van Halen released an album that same year. Comparisons, again, were inevitable. But behind the strength of “Finish What Ya Started,” Van Halen’s OU812 topped the Billboard album chart while Roth’s Skyscraper stalled out at #6.

Who knows? Maybe Roth was already bored with solo life. The majority of the disk makes a case for it.

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About the Author

Andy Sedlak is a former television reporter who lives in Dayton, OH. He grew up in a household that pumped Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel every weekend. He instantly became a new man when he discovered Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in junior high.



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