Archived Arts & Entertainment

The guiltiest of guilty pleasures

By Chris Cooper

OK, yes, it’s a widely held opinion that the Reagan years doled out its fair share of really, really awful music, clothes and other cultural oddities. Geometrically impossible haircuts, weirdo shoulder pads, ridiculously pointy, paint splattered guitars — the list could roll on for miles.

If you were just such an age as to have been a teenager during this decade, you may feel a strange mélange of eye-rolling embarrassment and goofy nostalgia whenever some little piece of that era strolls into view, just waiting for you to ponder it and chuckle to yourself.

My recent experience with such a feeling involved the reacquisition of the debut album by then freshly ousted Van Halen frontman and babbling center of attention extraordinaire David Lee Roth. With a band of ridiculously over the top virtuosi on tow (guitarist Steve Vai, bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Greg Bissonette), Roth cranked out what could easily be the defining album of the entire coked-out, big haired and spandex clad party metal genre. It’s shameless, mostly tasteless and a big mess of cheesy fun... but that could just be the Crystal Pepsi talking.

But then there’s the music. Dated, yes, but no less amazing on many levels. Most people got their first taste of Steve Vai in the movie Crossroads, where he played the “devil’s” very own guitar player Jack Butler. Flamboyant, technically stunning and resembling some sort of rock star cartoon character; Vai certainly left an impression on me, and likely played a big part in my ever wanting to pick up a guitar.

Then videos starting popping up on MTV (yes, actual music videos on a music television channel) with Roth bouncing around a fake broadcasting station and Vai hamming things up whilst playing some real, live, ridiculous guitar. One such video was for a song called “Goin’ Crazy,” in which every state-of-the-art guitar trick documented thus far was crammed into a 20 second solo. I still remember staring at the TV dumbstruck, and proceeding to practice until my fingers were worn to little nubs.

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On barnstorming tunes like “Shyboy,” “Tobacco Road” and “Elephant Gun” Sheehan and Vai deliver some of the most complex unison lines found this side of Return To Forever — but this wasn’t fusion, it was pop music. In fact, through the whole of Eat ‘Em And Smile the two manage to fill every nook and cranny with head-turning noises, licks and harmonic sleight of hand. Even with Roth’s semi-incoherent attempts at story telling as narrative, this was one of the best rock bands at the time. Considering the fact that in many ways Vai was charged with filling the enormous shoes of guitar deity Eddie Van Halen, he rose to the occasion not only with ample chops but chordal ingenuity and rhythmic flair that nearly eclipsed any need for comparison of the two.

And though Sheehan possesses skills as a bassist that many guitarists could only hope for, he’s not above laying down perfectly pocketed eighth notes on “Ladies Night In Buffalo,” a song frighteningly close to what some mutant hybrid of hair-metal and Tom Waits might sound like, complete with yet another butt kicking guitar solo.

So it’s with my head bowed low in mock shame that I admit how much I love this album. Say what you will; I know you’ve probably got a secret stash of Enya or Winger hidden away somewhere. But I invite you to cast off any guilt at such pleasures and embrace them for what they are: vivid snapshots of moments in our exceedingly goofy culture and windows to some mighty fun moments in our pasts. Hmmm — I wonder if Skyscraper is still in print...

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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