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Revisiting David Lee Roth's 'Eat 'Em and Smile' 30 Years Later

Revisiting David Lee Roth's 'Eat 'Em and Smile' 30 Years Later

By the fall of 1985, David Lee Roth had seemingly put the breakup of Van Halen in his rearview mirror.

Hoping to capitalize on his MTV-driven video stardom, Diamond Dave now set his sights on the big screen.

Along with his creative partner and manager Pete Angelus and writer Jerry Perzigian, Roth wrote a screenplay entitled Crazy from the Heat. Angelus and Roth then sold it to CBS Theatrical Films, secured a 10 million dollar budget, and camped out on the CBS movie lot in Burbank to do pre-production for the musical comedy. Angelus recalls, “I was going to direct it and Dave was going to star in it.” If all went according to plan, Crazy would hit theaters in the summer of 1986.

But in early November, just days before they would begin shooting, the phone rang in their studio offices. It was Roth’s attorneys calling to deliver some terrible news. CBS, facing serious financial woes, had shuttered its film division, leaving Angelus and Roth without a means to make their movie. Angelus says, “When we put the phone down, I remember we were both kind of speechless for a moment. We’d spent the better part of a year preparing for that film. We’d done the casting. We’d done the location scouting. We’d been working with the set designers and the wardrobe people. We were fully into it and fully prepared.” At that moment, it appeared all their work had been for naught.

This setback seemed tailor-made to trigger a crisis of confidence for Roth. He’d trumpeted his movie plans in the press throughout the summer past, previewing a bikini-packed plot that would see rock star Roth squaring off against his greedy manager while on an island vacation. He’d minimize the challenges inherent in filmmaking, declaring on the David Brenner Live show that both starring in and making a film was the “next logical step” after his success with video. “It’s the same thing…except our movies have been three minutes and twenty-eight seconds. So now it’s time to just bump it up to 90 minutes.” But now it seemed unlikely that his movie would ever arrive in theaters.

Meanwhile, Roth’s former bandmates in Van Halen had seemingly suffered no ill effects from his summer 1985 departure. They had a new blond-maned, leather-lunged lead singer, Sammy Hagar, and had begun work on the follow-up to their multi-platinum smash, 1984. Roth also had to live with the fact that Eddie Van Halen, who’d told Roth in the spring of 1985 that he had no interest in scoring Crazy because the guitarist expected the film would “probably stink,” seemed to have made the right decision after Roth’s deal disappeared.

But as the months that followed would demonstrate, Roth was nothing if not resilient. In the summer of 1986, the rock superstar would re-emerge with a hot new band comprised of virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai, bassist extraordinaire Billy Sheehan and monster drummer Gregg Bissonette. He’d release a chart-topping new album, Eat ’Em and Smile, and two new MTV-hit videos, “Yankee Rose” and “Goin’ Crazy,” all built upon the creative foundation he’d laid down for the aborted Crazy from the Heat.

 

He’d follow that up with a barnstorming six-month tour of North America. Despite stepping out from Van Halen, the massively popular act that had been the vehicle for his stardom, and the unexpected loss of his hard-won movie deal, Roth proved that he could weather adversity and still come out on top, smiling from ear to ear.

In early June 1985, nimble-fingered bassist Billy Sheehan, then a member of the heavy metal band Talas, got an unexpected phone call at his Buffalo home. “It’s from David Lee Roth’s office. He wants me to be in his movie. Can I come out to L.A. right away and talk to him?” Sheehan immediately said yes, passing the word to Roth’s representative that the timing for this meeting was ideal, since the upcoming Talas and Yngwie Malmsteen tour would commence at the Hollywood Palladium on June 7.

Sheehan, who’d gotten to know Roth back in 1980 when Talas had toured with Van Halen, made plans to arrive in L.A. a couple of days early. But prior to leaving home, Sheehan rang up a friend. He says, “I called Ed Van Halen to see if he wanted to come down to the Palladium show. At the time, I didn’t know anything about Van Halen breaking up. Ed said he was busy and couldn’t come, but said, ‘Have a good show!’ ” Before Sheehan got off the phone, he mentioned that he’d recently received a call from Roth.

“Wait. What! Why’d he call you?”

“Oh, he wants to have a meeting with me at his house.”

“Really? You’re kidding! You’ve got to call me back as soon as you have the meeting, because I think he’s going to pull an Ozzy Osbourne on us.”

In other words, Van Halen’s guitarist suspected that Roth’s next move was to become a solo artist, much like Ozzy had done in 1979 after leaving Black Sabbath.

Sheehan says that he now realized that he’d stumbled onto a minefield of inter-band politics. “I thought, jeez, now I’m in the middle of something, but I went ahead with the meeting with Dave.”

A few days later, Roth detailed his movie plans and laid out his vision for his new group to Sheehan. “We had the talk,” Sheehan recalls, “and decided to start the band. He said, ‘It will be you and me. We’ll find a guitar player and a drummer.’ Sheehan agreed to join forces with Roth as soon as his two-month tour with Talas ended, but after the singer swore him to secrecy, Sheehan realized he couldn’t return an important call. “So now my head’s about to explode, and I said to myself, well, I better not call Ed back. I felt terrible, because I was friends with Ed.”

As it turned out, Eddie wouldn’t need an update from Sheehan. Around the same time, he and Roth had a climactic meeting of their own at Roth’s place, with the longtime musical partners deciding that it was time for them to go their separate ways. “When I shook Edward’s hand goodbye,” Roth explained later, “we hugged each other and cried and said, ‘Hey, it’s musical differences and career differences, like all bands.’ ” For his part, Roth left that meeting with the impression that their parting was mutual and amicable. But once the star guitarist bitterly denounced Roth for leaving the band to become a movie star in the August 15, 1985, edition of Rolling Stone, an occurrence that Angelus says shocked both him and Roth, the rock world knew that Van Halen had broken up.


Roth shook off this unpleasant episode by searching for a guitar player to pair with Sheehan. After consulting with Ted Templeman, who’d be producing the forthcoming soundtrack album for Crazy from the Heat, Roth offered the gig to Billy Idol axman Steve Stevens. But as the guitarist explained recently on the podcast The Double Stop, Stevens told Roth that because of his musical commitments to Idol, he couldn’t work with Diamond Dave sooner than the following summer, a schedule that was unworkable in light of Roth’s movie timetable.

Roth then circled back to Sheehan and Templeman for advice. Sheehan recalls that after Stevens passed, “I mentioned Steve Vai to Dave, and I may have mentioned him to Ted as well.” Templeman, who’d gotten turned onto Vai’s astounding playing some time earlier, remembers endorsing the former Zappa and current Alcatrazz guitarist for Roth’s new band during an impromptu listening session. “Dave had a beat-up, noisy cassette of Steve Vai, and we listened together in some garage with the tape player on the fender of a car. I said to Dave, ‘Yes, that’s the guy.’ ”

Roth then placed a call to the guitarist. Vai said at the time, “I pick up the phone and hear, ‘Hey man, this is David Lee Roth. How ya doin’, Steve? I’m making a movie and I’m looking for some music.’ ” Vai, who’d just finished working on the soundtrack for the blues-themed movie Crossroads, agreed to get together with Roth and Sheehan once he finished a short summer tour with Alcatrazz.

By August, Vai, along with his drummer Chris Frazier, would appear at the Roth mansion to jam with Sheehan and Roth. Sheehan recalls, “Steve came down to Dave’s basement, and he brought his drummer with him. Chris had worked with Steve on a couple of records.” Once they plugged in and tuned up, the first signs of the remarkable musical chemistry that made the original Roth band so powerful made themselves manifest, according to Vai. “The moment we started jamming,” he told journalist John Stix, “it sounded great.”

By the end of that day, Vai had the gig, which made perfect sense to Sheehan, and not just because of his remarkable fretwork. “I love Steve Stevens, but Steve Vai had that Zappa-esque, tongue-in-cheek, comedic, entertainment vibe that was really important for the Eat ’Em and Smile band because we’d be involved in a lot of comedy in our live show.” Over the next few weeks, Sheehan and Roth, with Frazier on drums, worked up approximately 15 song ideas.

In late September, however, Roth abruptly decided to audition other drummers rather than giving Frazier the gig. Sheehan comments, “Chris is an awesome drummer, but for whatever reason, Dave wanted to get somebody else.”

After placing want ads in the local trade papers, Vai and Sheehan set up shop at Hollywood’s S.I.R. Studios. Even though the listings didn’t mention David Lee Roth, word traveled fast in the Hollywood rock community that a coveted spot in Roth’s band was up for grabs. On the morning of the audition, scores of drummers flocked to S.I.R.

One of them was Detroit native Gregg Bissonette. The drummer, who’d gotten an invite call from Vai thanks to a referral from former Kiss guitarist Vinnie Vincent, had a résumé that at first glance seemed ill-suited for a hard rock outfit like the David Lee Roth Band. After graduating with a degree in music from North Texas State, he’d been the drummer for The Merv Griffin Show, soft-rocker Gino Vannelli and jazz legend Maynard Ferguson. Still, he’d grown up a big rock fan.

Bissonette was thrilled about the opportunity, but when he arrived, his heart sank. “I just remember this huge line, just down the block.” As he waited, he questioned friends who emerged from the audition room.  Bissonette recalls, “I asked Matt Sorum, who later played with the Cult and Guns N’ Roses, and he said, ‘Oh they wanted me to play double bass, but I don’t really play much double bass.’ I did know ‘Hot for Teacher’ really well, because I was a huge Van Halen fan. So I’m in line, and now I’m getting my feet warmed up, thinking, here we go—it’s double bass!”

Soon it was Bissonette’s turn. “So I walk in the room, and it’s Steve and Billy and this funky old drum set. I sat right down and they said, ‘Hey, could you play a solo for us?’ ” After Bissonette finished, Vai showed him a guitar part that would later be enshrined on Roth’s 1988 album Skyscraper. “This piece would end up being ‘Hot Dog and a Shake.’ Steve wanted me to hit these breaks with him and Billy, and during all that, he would solo. So as Steve was talking I reached into my backpack and took out a Sharpie. I’d brought my own snare, so I started writing out these figures on my snare head. Steve goes, ‘Woah! So you can read and write music? This is amazing!’ ”

The next day, Bissonette’s phone rang. It was Vai, who told him, “Hey, you’re a great guy and we love the way you play. We’re all going to meet at Dave’s place today, and we’re going to have you play for Dave.” As Bissonette explained to Modern Drummer, this jam session couldn’t have gone better. “I went in the next day, met Dave, and we played… It was just like magic.” Soon after, he’d audition for Templeman, who like Roth, came away impressed by Bissonette’s big-band experience and killer chops.

 


But before Roth told Bissonette he had the gig, he attended to some pressing film-related business.

On October 27, the Fabulous Picasso Brothers, as Angelus and Roth had dubbed their creative partnership, held an old-time cattle call audition at the Hollywood Palace in order to cast new talent for Crazy. With Sheehan, Vai and Bissonette looking on, Roth marveled at the droves of the wildly attired actors and scantily dressed actresses, telling the Los Angeles Times, “This is a hell of a way to spend a Sunday, isn’t it?” Bissonette, who like Vai and Sheehan, had never experienced this kind of rock pandemonium, says, “There were just lines of girls in bikinis.”

Bissonette’s week only would get better. On a night that underscored just how high Diamond Dave’s star had risen in 1985, Roth informed Bissonette that he’d gotten the gig on the same night the singer would be appearing live on national TV. “It was Halloween,” the drummer recalls, “and Dave said, ‘I’m going to be on The Tonight Show tonight!’ Joan Rivers was the guest host, and we all went down to the set. It was like a dream when they told me.”

Bissonette now went to work with the others as they rehearsed and worked up new material. During these sessions, the three sequestered themselves in Roth’s basement while Roth and Angelus worked upstairs on pre-production for Crazy from the Heat. Vai says, “Once we’d all gotten into the basement and started jamming, writing, and playing, it was a very open, free, creative environment.”

Sheehan stresses that much of this creativity flowed from the fact that he and Vai shared many of the same musical influences. He says, “Steve and I were into a lot of the same bands, like early Bowie and Hendrix. When we came up with musical ideas we’d say, ‘That’s kind of a Hendrix-y thing’ or ‘That’s kind of a Bowie-thing.’ The ZZ Top shuffle and the ZZ Top feel was a big part of the influence too.”

Roth, listening through the floor, would regularly join them to review the new material. Sheehan says, “Dave would come downstairs and tell us what he liked, and what he didn’t like. We threw away what he disliked, and then he’d say, ‘Okay, now come up with a chorus.’ We eventually came up with all of these pieces of music.”

Roth also helped inspire Vai and Sheehan’s manic and sophisticated solo parts. As Sheehan explained in Guitar World, when he’d ask Roth, “Hey, Dave, is this bass part too busy?” Roth would shoot back, “No, do it twice as fast and Steve, you double it.” Likewise, Vai told Guitar Player that when he’d ask Roth if he was “overplaying,” Roth would reply, “No, keep going.”

Along with original material, the band considered a number of cover songs for their upcoming release. Sheehan recalls, “I was in the Kim Mitchell band briefly. He’d sent me a demo with four songs. ‘Kids in Action’ was one of them, and I just loved it. I played it for Dave and he really dug it. He also dug a Rory Gallagher song I played for him. It was from one of his mindblowing Rockpalast concert performances. I think it was called ‘Secret Agent.’ ” Roth had plenty of song suggestions too, one of them being “Speak of the Devil” by the early Seventies Texas power-trio Stray Dog. “He played it for us,” Sheehan says, “and we all said, ‘It’s perfect.’ ”

At the same time, Roth and Angelus worked to prepare everyone for filming. Vai, who recalls the zany plot included parts for all of the band members, says, “We had a lot of fun preparing for the movie. We got together with [choreographer] Toni Basil and started working out choreography for the songs. It was going to be really great.” Sheehan says that Roth and Angelus even arranged for a private showing of a cult film that had inspired them as they worked on Crazy. Sheehan continues, “We went to a screening of a 1940s movie called Hellzapoppin’. It’s just a wild, amazing movie, with a bunch of skits and vignettes and craziness. That was one of the templates Dave and Pete were using.”

Sheehan likewise remembers that as filming drew closer, the tunes they wrote soon made their way into the script. “I know songs like ‘Goin’ Crazy’ were going to be integrated into the movie somehow. I remember reading the dialogue in the movie, and there were a lot of scenes with the band.” These musical scenes included a concert performance of “Shy Boy” and a nightclub scene that featured Roth crooning his way through Sinatra’s “That’s Life.”

All of this planning and scheming, however, came to a standstill on that fateful November day when CBS pulled the plug. Angelus says that after the initial shock dissipated, they began discussing their options, asking each other: Apart from litigation against CBS for breach of contract, what’s our next step? Sheehan recalls telling Roth that day, “ ‘The hell with it. We’ve got a band. We’ve got songs. Let’s go out and tour!’ Not that he already didn’t think that, and not that he needed any encouragement from me, but I just remember thinking, I’m ready to play.”

Roth would get clarity about the next moves to make once he, like Sheehan, considered the full breadth of the creative endeavors they all had underway. “The movie was just one part of a whole program,” he explained to Creem. “Obviously, when the movie fell out, we just continued with the rest of the program.” Angelus observes that what Roth termed “the program” had included “a coordinated release of the film, the [soundtrack] record and of course the tour to accompany it.”

 

With his film in limbo, Roth and Templeman held pre-production meetings for what would now be a stand-alone rock record rather than a soundtrack album. They decided that the forthcoming Eat ’Em and Smile would include covers and originals, ones that represented a middle ground between the pop flavored, big-band sound of Roth’s Crazy from the Heat EP and the guitar-oriented pop metal showcased on his albums with Van Halen. As Diamond Dave would later say, even though he’d put together a band capable of playing the most technically sophisticated heavy metal, he didn’t want fans of “California Girls” wondering “what happened to the brass on this record? Where’s the saxophone? Where’s the shoobee-doobee-doo-bop?”


In late November, just days after the movie was put on hold, the four musicians entered Berkeley’s Fantasy Studios with Templeman and engineer Jeff Hendrickson.

Hendrickson, who’d already worked with Templeman on Hagar’s V.O.A., Aerosmith’s Mirrors, and Roth’s Crazy EP, recalls that the producer had a particular way he liked to begin recording sessions. “Ted and I usually tracked everything in the first couple of days, so the band could just get a feel for things. Sometimes we would keep those as our master takes because they’d turn out so well.”

Templeman believed that this cut-live approach helped musicians avoid the dreaded red light fright and allowed him to determine which songs would ultimately work best on the album. “We got a lot of keepers that way,” Hendrickson observes, “because when the band members don’t feel like they are on the spot, they play like they do when they’re out on the road, and so you get a lot better feel. But then again, sometimes you’d hear that a certain track would need a lot of work, or even that a track isn’t going to work at all.”

Templeman and Roth then listened back. They’d initially settle on 11 tracks for the album. These included six Vai/Roth compositions and five covers, including the Sheehan-penned headbanger “Shy Boy,” which dated from his Talas days.

While Roth was well accustomed to Templeman’s ways of working, it took a bit of getting used to for Vai, who had a very different mindset when it came to studio work. “At times I didn’t know if I liked [Ted’s approach],” he explained to Guitar Player. “But then I realized, boy, it’s really fun. Get in there and do it. We kept about 50 percent of what Dave sang on the basic tracks. I’m used to sitting in the studio and tweaking and playing and punching and tweaking some more and EQ’ing and punching again. With this, it’s get in there and kill the guy with the ball.”

Templeman’s method, as it had done for him and Roth during their Van Halen days, paid dividends at Fantasy. The four musicians produced high-energy, minimal-overdub takes of Roth classics like “Tobacco Road,” “Goin’ Crazy” and even the frenetic “Shy Boy.”

In the weeks that followed, the band would reconvene in New York to track at the hottest studio in America, the Power Station. Roth, in particular, loved working there because he felt inspired by Manhattan’s energetic street vibe. “The Power Station is in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, which is more dangerous than New Guinea,” he proclaimed to a reporter. “When you’re there for more than a month recording, you’re bound to soak up a lot of the anxiety from the surrounding streets and that comes out on the album.”

One track that generated some New York anxiety for Vai was the languid “Ladies Nite in Buffalo.” Vai recalled that his original demo “had tons of keyboards and all sorts of guitar overdubs.” But when Templeman had asked the band to first run through “Buffalo,” Vai gamely collapsed all of his guitar parts into one so they could cut the song live, fully intending to replace this basic track and overdub multiple guitar lines in the coming days.

Templeman, however, had a different take. When he played the track back for everyone, he thought the guitarist had pretty much nailed the song on his first pass. Vai, in turn, thought Templeman had lost his mind. As Vai told Guitar Player, “Of course, being an artist I hemmed and hawed: ‘I want to do it again.’ ” Hendrickson recalls, “Vai kept fighting us because he felt his rough track was terrible. He was so meticulous. But he’d played this basic track that just blew everybody away. We couldn’t believe he wanted to change it.” Ultimately, Vai says, Templeman and the others got him to see that his guitar part “was beautiful the way it was.”

Despite Templeman’s aversion to overdubbing, a persistent Vai did convince the producer to let him add additional guitar parts to the album. For example, he says, “I remember we were doing "Elephant Gun" and I said I wanted to double the guitar part. Because the part is all over the place, Ted goes, ‘What do you mean, double it?’

“I can double every single little thing, perfectly.”

After first saying no, Templeman did give the go-ahead. Vai started to double the part, but before he finished, he broke a string. Templeman said, “Well, probably we should just leave it with the one guitar.” Soon after, the producer departed the studio for the day.

Vai immediately went to work. He says, “I finished it. And when Ted heard it the next day, he liked it, so that’s why it made the record.”

Vai also layered some of his patented guitar eccentricity on what would be the album’s first single, “Yankee Rose.” As he explained to Guitar Player, “The half-time section in the middle had this nice little arpeggioed chordal thing that was kind of open and bare. So I said, ‘Let me try putting a solo on it. Let me try something weird.’ I hooked up a couple of delays set to some long delay…and they rolled the tape.”

Roth also had some ideas for the guitar parts for “Yankee Rose.” While Vai overdubbed, Roth got him focused on constructing an outro solo that might be visually arresting for MTV audiences. Roth coached Vai, saying, “Here in the video I want you to do something where you can take the guitar and ram it between your legs.” Vai then came up with the whipsawing whammy bar licks for the song’s conclusion.

Despite Roth’s MTV-driven mindset, the New York sessions also produced a song seemingly more suited for the Thirties than the Eighties. “I’m Easy,” a spirited big-band song originally recorded by Australian singer Billy Field, came into Roth’s orbit thanks to Templeman, who thought it fit perfectly with Roth’s “Gigolo” persona. Bissonette recalls that, weeks earlier, when the producer had played it for the band during pre-production, he said, “Gregg, this is going to be right up your alley, because you’re used to kicking five trumpets, five trombones, five saxes.”

At this point, Bissonette got to draw on his musical connections from his Maynard Ferguson days as Templeman worked to recruit session players for the track. He recalls, “Ted said, ‘Hey Gregg, you seem to know everybody. So can you help us put together a killer big band in New York?’ I said, ‘Man, I sure can.’ ” On the day of the New York session, Ted pulled Bissonette aside to thank him, saying, “Wow, you got all the A-list guys.”

Vai also played a vital role in making the horn parts on “I’m Easy” sound great. He explained, “I wrote the score and directed the horn section. You should have seen it. I had snakeskin pants on, my hair was flipped out, and I was sitting in this director’s chair with a baton in one hand and a big score in another. Twelve of New York’s best studio blowers were there, and I’m going, ‘Okay, now, can you make this a little more staccato over here?” Bissonette says everyone was amazed as they watched the Berklee-trained Vai, nominally a guitarist, do this work for the track. “He just sat down with pen and manuscript paper and wrote out the big band arrangements. The session guys then played along with our track and overdubbed. It was phenomenal.”

 


As the final overdubbing sessions wrapped up in the spring, Templeman and Roth looked to trim their song list down to 10 songs from the 11 they’d completed. Ultimately “Kids in Action” didn’t make the cut, to the dismay of both songwriter Kim Mitchell and ace session keyboardist Jeff Bova, who’d added synths to the track while the band worked at the Power Station. Bova observes, “I know they were toying with keeping either ‘Kids in Action’ or ‘Tobacco Road.’ I remember when the album came out being a bit disappointed because I did a lot of cool keyboard stuff on ‘Kids.’ ” To this day, the track remains unreleased.

With the album in the can, the Fabulous Picasso Brothers turned to scripting and filming promo videos for two of Eat ’Em and Smile’s forthcoming singles: “Yankee Rose” and “Goin’ Crazy!” Determined to make good use of their months of effort on Crazy, Roth and Angelus scripted two mini-movies as preludes to the band performance footage that would be the centerpieces of the videos. Along with casting many of the performers who’d been slated to appear in the movie, they also drew upon their months of work on wardrobes and makeup. As Sheehan explains, “Most of the clothes we had in the Eat ’Em and Smile videos, and the fat suit that Dave wore in ‘Goin’ Crazy,’ those were all meant for the movie, initially.” Bissonette adds, “ ‘Goin’ Crazy’ and ‘Yankee Rose’ were a big part of the proposed look of that movie. Even though Crazy didn’t happen, the videos sure did, and they were amazing. To this day, nobody makes videos like that.”

In June, Roth unleashed an all-out promotional campaign. He talked about his new band, album, and upcoming tour to the press with enthusiasm, telling a reporter, “If you love Van Halen, if you like rock and rolling, you’re going to be blown away. We’ve got all kinds of new tricks to show you.” He was much less sanguine, however, when it came to the current incarnation of his former band. Responding to the salvos fired at him over the prior months by Hagar and company, Roth stated, “Whenever you have a big ugly divorce, there’s hurt feelings. On the other hand, Sammy’s only angry because he knows I’m better than he is.”

On July 7, Eat ’Em and Smile finally dropped. Driven by the success of “Yankee Rose” at radio and on MTV, the album would peak at Number 4 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart. In the weeks that followed, Warner Bros. Records would also release the Van Halen–esque “Goin’ Crazy,” and the Sinatra standard “That’s Life” as singles, pushing sales of the LP over one million copies by the fall.

The Eat ’Em and Smile tour, which began in August, likewise did big business, from the first date onward. Vai, who’d never played arenas before, says that in fact the tour’s sold-out opening night provided him with one of the most vivid memories of his career. “It was just amazing to be on that tour, but being on the stage that first night was a shock. You realize you’re now a rock star performer. There are 20,000 people out there, and you’ve got to deliver. At one point, Dave did this thing where he just stops and puts the mic out to the crowd. The screaming went on for like 10 minutes. It was so loud that Billy and I were looking at each other because we were scared. It was louder than our amps. I just thought, what’s happened? Because this is wild.”

Every night the four musicians, along with tour keyboardist Brett Tuggle, would blast through a setlist packed with new Roth favorites and classic Van Halen tunes, interspersed by flashy solo segments by Bissonette, Vai and Sheehan. But as Sheehan explained to Guitar World, the solo performances of the two guitar players became more engaging as the tour progressed, thanks to the input of Angelus and Roth. “We needed to come up with something to entertain everyone. At the start of the tour, I did my solo the same way I always did it, and Steve did his own solo, too. Although the musicians in the crowd may have loved it, I’m sure a lot of the other people were yawning… So Pete Angelus suggested that we do a guitar duel—and it’s a riot.”

Sheehan says with a smile that Roth’s advice was to “make it like a contest, like a tractor pull. That was the phrase he used. So Steve would come out there and start playing, I’d come up behind him and stop him and push him out of the way and play a while, then he’d push me out of the way. Then we’d push each other, and chase each other around until we’d get to the end when we’d have this big grand finale.” Over the course of the next six months, Sheehan, Vai and the rest of the band would play over 100 dates, entertaining arena audiences all across the continent.

Today, members of the group are both nostalgic about and proud of their accomplishments during these years. Sheehan, who’d leave the group in early 1988, says, “My experience with Eat ’Em and Smile and Dave was just amazing and incredible. On tour, places were packed, there were gorgeous girls, and everybody was at the top of their game.” Vai adds, “Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect, and all the elements came together. You could put on the biggest stage show, and you could wear anything you wanted, and boy did we ever. But what was most exciting to me is the rawness, intensity and attitude of the music.” Bissonette remarks that since “the David Lee Roth band was my first big rock gig,” these years will always have a special place in his heart. “Dave,” the drummer says, gave “me my platinum musical passport, good over the world. It’s been the coolest.”

Today, both fans and band members are hopeful for a reunion of the classic Eat ’Em lineup. This is especially true after the Hollywood fire marshal blocked Roth, Vai, Sheehan, Bissonette and Tuggle from performing at an oversold Lucky Strike Live on November 25, 2015, in what would have been their first performance together in decades. Vai says ruefully, “The Lucky Strike thing was almost like rock star interruptus. People say the fire marshal stopped us minutes before we went on, but it was seconds. I was standing behind the curtain with a hot guitar in my hands and I was ready to start. I did everything I could to get us to play, but we just couldn’t. Afterward I thought we’ve got to do something together, because there’s just too much cool energy here.”

While everyone’s schedules are packed, there’s a shared desire among the principals that they should all reconvene at some point soon, assuming Roth will light the fuse again. Sheehan observes, “It’s all up to Dave. This is his game. If he wants to do it, I’m so into it. Ideally, it would be great to record a song or two and then go out and do a bunch of shows: Europe, USA, maybe South America, Japan. It would be great, to get everybody together again, to do it all again, just for the hell of it.” Vai says, “I think that would be really nice to honor the legacy of the Eat ’Em and Smile album and band. There doesn’t have to be any big commitment. It would just be about getting out there and bringing it home, the way we used to do it, while we still have the juice, which we do.” Last November, Roth appeared to leave the door open to a reunion, suggesting to fans on his way out of Lucky Strike Live that one day the group might have to book the Hollywood Palladium and give it another go.

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