'You can never deny the immense talent': Steve Vai on first David Lee Roth band vs. Van Halen

When David Lee Roth left Van Halen the first time, he assembled a new set of sidemen who were arguably the musical equal of his former group. Just don’t ask guitarist Steve Vai to compare the two.

Vai, of course, was joined by bassist Billy Sheehan and drummer Gregg Bissonette in a band that would record two consecutive Top 10 albums with Roth — 1986′s Eat ‘Em and Smile (which went to No. 4 on the Billboard charts) and 1988′s Skyscraper (which went to No. 6).

Interest in Roth’s career away from Van Halen eventually cooled and he has since rejoined the fold, releasing the well-received A Different Kind of Truth earlier this year. But fans still fondly remember Roth’s earliest solo recordings.

Skyscaper, which would go platinum, included the Top 10 hit single “Just Like Paradise.” Eat ‘Em and Smile was home to “Yankee Rose,” a track that began with a memorable “conversation” between Roth and Vai’s guitar.

Back then, comparisons were inevitable with Van Halen, which had moved on with frontman Sammy Hagar. It didn’t help that Eat ‘Em and Smile was produced by Ted Templeman, who had also worked with Van Halen.

Vai, who left after Skyscraper for his own solo career, sees it as a matter of taste.

“‘Better’ is such a subjective term, you know?,” Vai told Justin Tedaldi of Examiner.com. “I just don’t respond to these competitive comparisons. They’re useless and meaningless, because if it’s better for one person and not for another, then they’re both right. Your opinion is the important thing.”

While Roth was having his own successes, Van Halen’s 5150 became the group’s first-ever No. 1 album, spawning three hit singles in “Why Can’t This Be Love,” “Dreams” and “Love Walks In” in 1986. Two years later, “When It’s Love” went to No. 5 for Hagar and Co.

Along the way, guitarist Eddie Van Halen became a musical inspiration to many, including Vai.

“You can never deny the immense talent, rock credibility and iconic historical contribution that Van Halen made,” Vai adds. “So, if you like Van Halen better than the Eat ’Em and Smile band, then you’re right. And if I like Eat ’Em and Smile better than Van Halen, then I’m right. But I don’t like one better than the other. The Eat ’Em and Smile band was fierce. And that’s it.”

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on David Lee Roth and Van Halen. Click through the titles for more …

VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012): It’s interesting that A Different Kind of Truth doesn’t always go for the easy hook (recalling Fair Warning), something that may surprise late-arriving fans of keyboard-driven pop successes like “Jump” (and certainly the subsequent period with David Lee Roth’s successor, Sammy Hagar). Some of the material requires more than one listen to completely absorb, and Anthony’s cloud-bursting tenor is missed at times. But A Different Kind of Truth has a way of burrowing in. That’s largely thanks to the presence of Roth, of course. He’s always good for spandex-splitting laugh or two.

SHOWS I’LL NEVER FORGET: DAVID LEE ROTH, JUNE 24, 1988: What will always stick with me about that night was the showmanship. For whatever Roth might lack in vocal chops, he’s always made up for in stage presence and performance. On that night, he was on top of his game, bouncing around all over the stage, kicking and leaping with manic energy. At one point, he rappelled from the lights to the stage. He performed “Panama” from a boxing ring suspended from the roof of the arena and then rode a surfboard over the crowd back to the stage as he sang “California Girls.” It was a production drenched in the excess of the late 1980s, and I loved it.

SOMETHING ELSE! FEATURED ARTIST: VAN HALEN: A long-waited reunion with original lead singer David Lee Roth has Van Halen back in the news … and us digging through some old albums. Here’s a look back at a few favorite moments with Roth — and yes, Sammy, too — including “Runnin’ with the Devil,” “Hot for Teacher,” “Jamie’s Cryin,’” “Good Enough,” “And the Cradle will Rock” and “Ice Cream Man.” Let’s start shredding!

ON SECOND THOUGHT: VAN HALEN – A DIFFERENT KIND OF TRUTH (2012): I stand corrected – and pleasantly surprised, too. When I went into my first listen of Van Halen’s A Different Kind of Truth, I was expecting a steaming pile of mediocrity. Instead, the album is loaded with big, crazy riffing from Eddie Van Halen. As I listen to the record, I keep coming back to one word – swagger. That could be a complete review of this album in itself. It’s something that the best work from Van Halen has always had, and something that, for me, was often missing in the post-DLR version of the band.

Something Else!

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