Released on 7th July, 1986, David Lee Roth’s ‘Eat ‘Em And Smile’ is celebrating its 30th anniversary this week. The first solo long player from the then-former Van Halen frontman, the landmark release featured the virtuoso talents of Steve Vai on guitar, former Talas bassist Billy Sheehan and rhythmic powerhouse Gregg Bissonette. Now rightly regarded as a classic, with the likes of the MTV bothering ‘Yankee Rose’and ‘Goin’ Crazy’, not to mention the sublime ‘Ladies Night In Buffalo’ and frenetic ‘Shy Boy’ all nestled within its grooves, it’s an album that no home should be without. We caught up with Billy Sheehan in 2014 at Sonisphere in the U.K. to talk about the album and how he came to join the band in the first place. Crazy from the heat: Eamon O’Neill.
Hi Billy, tell me about how you came to join David Lee Roth’s solo band.
It was pretty awesome. Dave called me, I was in Buffalo, New York with my band Talas and I got three phone calls in one week: One was from the William Morris Agency wanting to sign us and put us on tour. Another was from Gold Mountain Records run by Danny Goldberg – he was Nirvana’s manager years later – he was a pretty big guy in the music business and he wanted to sign us. And then the third phone call we got was from David Lee Roth who was going to do a movie and he wanted me to be in it.
That would be the ‘Crazy From The Heat’ movie. From what I understand the song ‘Going Crazy’ was meant to be on the soundtrack.
The whole record pretty much was meant to be the soundtrack. I still have the script. My archives are extensive! Of course that was the cover story, as he wanted to start a band but he didn’t want me to go around telling people. I inadvertently called Ed Van Halen and said: “Dave’s coming down and he wants me to be in his movie”; [Eddie Van Halen] “WHAT! What are you talkin’ about?!” And I go; “well, I’m supposed to be having a meeting with him tomorrow”. He goes; “call me after the meeting and let me know what happened”. And then Dave asked me to start the band but I thought, I can’t call Ed now because that will be, you know, ratting Dave out.
David Lee Roth was still part of Van Halen at that point.
Yeah, that was the summer of ’85, June / July. But I’m the only person in the world that who has ever played with every member of Van Halen. I’ve played with Gary Cherone, Sammy Hagar. I’ve played with Michael Anthony - we did a show together with Ken Hensley from Uriah Heep, and we did ‘Stealin’’ together. I’ve played with Al and Ed, I’ve played with Dave. I didn’t play music with Wolfie but I played with him coming home on a plane one time when Ed was tired and wanted to sleep, and I was travelling with Ed so I entertained Wolfie when he was a little kid. We did colouring, games and words stuff.
Who’s been your favourite to play with?
Oh I love David Lee Roth, and I’m still a fan of David Lee Roth. But I love Ed and Al too. And I love Michael, so you know.
Do you look back fondly on those days with David Lee Roth?
Absolutely, it was great, great stuff. We get together myself, Steve Vai, Gregg Bissonette and Brett Tuggle who was the keyboard player on that tour and we have a reunion almost every year and we just sit down with a few beers and tell stories of all the things that had gone on. We were very thankful that Dave came and put that thing together. It was a huge adventure for all of us, for me Steve and Gregg.
Was it a big step up from where you were at?
Yeah I was driving a 1977 Ford Pinto, and they had a problem on those cars that if they smashed from behind they’d blow up, and I was driving that around until I got the call and I flew to California. I gave it to my brother to sell and that was the end of that.
You were in based in Buffalo in upstate New York. Is that where the song ‘Ladies Night In Buffalo’ comes from?
It is. I took a break from our rehearsals and went back home and when I got back they said; “What did you do?” and I said: “I went out on Ladies night in Buffalo” and they were like: “What!?’ God, ladies night in Buffalo!” So that’s where the song came from.
Would you say that ‘Eat ‘Em And Smile’ is the better of the two albums that you did with David Lee Roth?
By a huge margin. I didn’t like ‘Skyscraper’. It just was kind of stiff and strained. We didn’t play it together as a band, we didn’t write it together as a band. It was not a pleasant experience.
Ted Templeman produced Eat ‘Em And Smile’ which had much more of a live band feel to it, didn’t it?
Yeah, Steve wanted to double all his parts and Ted said no, and thank god, because you lose all your urgency and immediacy.
Finally, don’t you think it’s a shame when bands split up and great songs get buried, never to be played live again, like ‘Goin’ Crazy’ for example?
We did it on the tour. I have a full professional video shot of that tour that no one else has I don’t believe. I couldn’t put it out of course because it’s Dave’s thing, but who knows, some day!
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