Now Spinning Classic Album Review by Chris Wright
When the original line-up of Van Halen was ended with the departure of lead singer David Lee Roth to embark on a solo career, few doubted it would be a big success.
And so it turned out to be, at least for the first few years…
Perhaps less predictable were some of the musical stylings that Diamond Dave would encompass during the course of his first three records.
The 1985 EP Crazy From The Heat was, in part, a wild departure from the Van Halen days, with the medley of pre-WW2 Louis Prima songs Just A Gigolo and I Ain’t Got Nobody dividing fans. Some applauded the versatility and sense of humour. For others, however, it was a step too far down the showbiz schmaltz path.
In retrospect, however, this was not altogether unpredictable for rock’s ultimate extrovert frontman. That he pulled it off so convincingly and successfully was not just a tribute to his undisputed talents as a singer and performer. It also expanded his audience.
And while the excellent Ted Templeman-produced 1986 debut album Eat ‘Em And Smile broadly saw a return to a more familiar hard-rocking style, it ended with a more than passable version of the Frank Sinatra standard That’s Life.
No question about it, Diamond Dave had accumulated an audience to match his well-known ego. The album made the number four spot in the Billboard 200, with two million sales, and was extensively toured with the superb band line-up of Greg Bissonette on drums, Billy Sheehan on bass and dazzling guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who came to the notice of a more mainstream audience, having previously played with Frank Zappa, among others.
A Roth/Vai co-production, Skyscraper, the 1988 follow up, received a similarly positive reception and sales and was toured internationally. It also spawned two big hit singles in the acoustic Damn Good and the catchy rock/pop crossover Just Like Paradise, supported by that memorable video of Dave indulging in his hobby as a very accomplished rock climber.
Featuring the same line-up as the debut album and the addition of Brett Tuggle on keyboards, Skyscraper continued the theme of occasional out of character songs, with an arguably less than effective cover of Beach Boys’ classic California Girls, first featured on the Crazy From The Heat EP, and a reprise for Just A Gigolo and I Ain’t Got Nobody.
Although pleased to have it in my collection, I find that all these years on, Skyscraper is a slightly incongruous pick’n’mix of various styles and, while it unquestionably has its moments, today it sounds more than ever like an artist struggling to find an identity, because it actually consists of several different ones…
With the departure of Vai to pursue his own solo career and the recording of Whitesnake’s Slip Of The Tongue, this presented David Lee Roth with an opportunity to maybe refocus and find a clearer direction for his music.
The result was the early 1991 release of A Little Ain’t Enough.
Right from the get-go, the ingredients for the album were mouthwatering. Roth recruited then red hot Canadian producer Bob Rock, fresh from his triumphs with Motley Crue’s Dr Feelgood in 1989 and concurrent work on Metallica‘s career/genre-changing The Black Album.
This immediately suggested a more straight-ahead rocking approach, as did the inspired choice of studio venue, Vancouver’s Little Mountain Studios, renowned for its powerful rock acoustic. Aerosmith’s comeback albums Permanent Vacation and Pump (and others), were both recorded there, among many other notable records for Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams and Motley Crue, as well as parts of The Black Album.
Roth also hired 19-year-old Jason Becker to replace Vai on lead guitar, giving this young man his big break – and how he rose to the occasion!
A Little Ain’t Enough is, in my opinion, easily the best David Lee Roth record, not least for its unity of purpose, delivering a much more coherent track list of mostly heavy material, but still retaining Roth’s ear for musicality, augmented by Rock’s very straight-ahead style.
The album kicks off with the title track and, right from the first few notes, you know that this is revitalised a Roth, with a memorable song, accompanied by a clearly well-financed and highly amusing video, that became a number three single in America.
A Little Ain’t Enough still sounds great today and is arguably in the Van Halen class of combining a hard rock sound with a commercial edge. Some great guitar from Becker here.
Next up is Shoot It, a really catchy little rocker. This could easily have been another single.
Lady Luck then drives into view with its chunky riff structure. Just three tracks in and it’s already clear that Dave’s vocal performance on this record compares with anything in his already lengthy and storied career. This one really swings.
Track four is the fabulous Hammerhead Shark. The whole band is on top form and this is another one with unrealised single potential. Becker’s guitar work here is amazing and reinforces the view that I’ve held ever since the release of this album that Jason was second only to Eddie Van Halen as a great guitar foil to Dave’s superb and unique voice, as excellent as Vai was/is.
It all gets distinctly more bluesy on the slower, but nonetheless powerful, Tell The Truth, another single, though a less successful one. By this point in the record, you’re aware that things haven’t let up for a second. The quality is sky high, and it stays that way right to the last note.
Becker’s striking performance on Baby’s On Fire, together with a powerhouse Gregg and Matt Bissonette rhythm section, creates a thunderous platform for Dave to ride over majestically with one of his most stunning presentations.
Things don’t let up for a second with 40 Below. If this were a Van Halen record, the reception would have been rapturous for this one. It has a blistering pace, but Dave’s diction is still crystal clear; a tribute to his capabilities and Rock’s astounding production chops.
The number six Billboard hit Sensible Shoes is another bluesy excursion with Dave centre stage for a song that really allows him to raise his considerable game, injecting massive amounts of personality. Another memorable video was produced for this one.
The action switches up again for the irresistible Last Call, a brilliant tune that switch hits on tempo throughout.
There’s no let up as we hurtle into the last three tracks of A Little Ain’t Enough. The Dogtown Shuffle features a dramatic Brett Tuggle keyboard intro, followed by some real Diamond Dave swagger and another outstanding contribution from Becker. There’s no reason this couldn’t have charted, given the opportunity.
The pace quickens for the penultimate outing here, the frenetic It’s Showtime. A killer fast riff with the whole band flying supersonic and Dave singing the heck out this one at the top of the mix. No prisoners taken. If you didn’t know better, you might be tempted to say “Eddie” rather than Jason, such is the quality of his playing on this one. Can there be a better tribute!
We finally come to the closing track Drop In The Bucket. Don’t let the almost delicate acoustic intro fool you. This is the Grand Finale in no small measure, with a celebratory feel, perhaps exuding the fact that all the protagonists here knew it was a job really well done. Clocking in at just over five minutes, it’s a fitting showcase for what has to be the most consistent song set Dave ever produced in the solo years.
There were no novelty tracks here. Instead a cornucopia of good things that should have elevated Dave to new heights.
Unfortunately, the stars weren’t to align in a way that was deserving of the amazing content of A Little Ain’t Enough.
Grunge had, of course, taken hold around the time of the release of the record and, suddenly, classic rock was not exactly flavour of the month and I still maintain that, had this been released just two or three years earlier, it would have garnered much more attention and respect.
Worse still was the ill-fortune that befell poor Jason Becker with a diagnosis of the neurodegenerative ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, during the recording sessions. While he was able to complete the record, he was unable to take part in the international tour supporting the album, replaced by former Lizzy Borden axeman Joe Holmes.
I caught up with the tour in Peterborough, England and, although it was a great night overall with Dave putting on a fine show surfing over the crowd and singing from a boxing ring at the back of the auditorium for a few numbers, there was a strong and saddening sense that Jason was sorely missed. This tour would undoubtedly have launched him as major new talent.
These unfortunate circumstances signified choppy waters ahead for Dave’s career. While it contains some occasionally very impressive and enjoyable music, the Nile Rodgers-produced 1994 follow up Your Filthy Little Mouth was a comparatively rudderless outing and seemed to suggest that Dave was again struggling to find a coherent direction, having previously landed firmly on his feet with the ultra-focused A Little Ain’t Enough – exactly the right album released at exactly the wrong time…
For me, there’s never been a time that A Little Ain’t Enough hasn’t been on regular rotation. Now 30 years old, it’s a reminder of how quickly things can change in music.
I have two versions – the original US LP and the original UK CD, both excellently mastered by the late, legendary George Marino. They still positively leap out of the speakers. A remastered CD was issued in 2007, however I’ve never felt the slightest need to deviate from the originals. An all analogue recording, this is now very difficult to find on perfect vinyl, but well worth seeking out.
Incredibly, Jason continues to make music, defying the odds after over 30 years with ALS. Dave, of course, rejoined Van Halen a couple of times, including what was, of course, to be their final tour in 2015. And we should also give an honourable mention to his excellent 1998 DLR Band album, with some tracks featuring the amazing John 5 on guitar, that was quite a return to form. If only the audience was still there (perhaps I’ll revisit that one soon).
Chris Wright | Now Spinning Magazine