When Brian May First Heard Eddie Van Halen: ‘Whoa, What Is This?’
The Queen guitarist enlisted the six-string wunderkind to be part of an all-star collective which also featured REO Speedwagon drummer Alan Gratzer, as well as bassist Phil Chen (Rod Stewart), who May had met through Queen’s John Deacon. Keyboardist Fred Mandel, who had performed with Queen on their tours for Hot Space and The Works, rounded out the lineup.
Star Fleet, the Japanese science fiction series, was the catalyst which brought the group together. The program had been a regular presence on Saturday mornings at the beginning of the ‘80s, something which May watched each week with his four-year old son, Jimmy. He had the idea to round up some of his friends to record a version of Star Fleet’s theme song.
They gathered at the Record Plant for two days of casual jamming with no plan to release the recordings and everyone quickly returned to their normal daily routines. May, as Van Halen would later recollect, took a listen and contacted the guitarist, asking how he felt about putting the material out. “I said, ‘Send me a tape and let me hear it first,’ because I didn’t remember how it went," Van Halen is quoted in the liner notes. "He did and I said, ‘Sure, what the hell?’ It reeks of fun. Brian is good. He gets a brown sound.”
In May’s telling, every note that the musicians played has now been collected in an expansive new release, The Brian May + Friends Star Fleet Sessions Box Set, which features a wealth of material outside of the raw session takes, including vintage radio interviews, live tracks, plus freshly mixed versions of the original three-track EP.
During a conversation with UCR, May shared his memories of the sessions.
What was the experience for you personally, going back to these tapes?
It was a big emotional thing. I was prepared, but actually, the reality was pretty life-changing, I must say. ... Just listening to it, it felt like I was back in the room with those guys. It was just an incredible moment, something which could never be repeated and never was. I got very full of joy, because that adrenaline all came back. But also, there was of course sadness, because Edward is no longer here and Phil is no longer here. Even if we wanted to, there would be no way we could get back together and experience that kind of feeling again. But the best thing [about doing this project] was that I’m here to rescue it. I’m here to pull all of this stuff out of the murky past, take the dust off of it and make it all spanking beautifully new and put it out there so it’s immortalized for all time.
How did you decide to do fresh mixes for the original EP tracks?
I never liked the way we mixed it in the first place. It was done in a rush. I think in a sign of the times, we over-treated some things. There was too much stuff on the snare, which has always annoyed me. It obliterates a lot of the subtleties. I wanted to strip it back down and make it sound a lot more like it was when we were sitting in the studio doing it. There’s a little bit of EQ going on to optimize the sound, there’s a little bit of effects, to give you a spatial effect. But basically, it’s much closer to the way it was in that moment in 1983. There’s nothing in the way, there’s no blurring.
One can imagine that things could have gotten competitive between you and Eddie, but you don't hear that at all in these recordings.
I would say there was no competitive element. There was just such joy in listening to him. He was always very complimentary to me. He’d always say, “Look, so much of what I do comes from you.” He told me that Van Halen played Queen songs when they were learning their trade. I think there’s a piece on the internet of them playing “Now I’m Here.” I was just filled with joy listening to him. Of course, I could never play like that. There’s no way on earth. If I studied guitar for a hundred years, I’d never be able to play like Edward played. So that doesn’t even come into my mind.
What comes into my mind is what a joy. ... I get to be a kind of fan who actually can interact and look this guy in the eyes while he’s doing his thing. We can trade licks and we can trade ideas. What an incredible opportunity. ... It doesn’t feel competitive, it just feels great.
Listen to 'Star Fleet' by Brian May + Friends
I know that Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi played a part in how you met Eddie.
I met Edward at a Black Sabbath show. I think it was in Munich at the Circus Krone. Van Halen were supporting, so I got there early. I didn’t know who they were — I had no idea – but I like to see support bands, because you never know what you’re going to see. I sat there with my jaw on the ground thinking, “Whoa, what is this? Where did these guys come from?” I was already entranced with Edward. Tony introduced me to Ed backstage after and we had a couple of pictures taken, which I treasure. But both Tony and I looked at each other, as much as to say, “Where did this child come from?” [Laughs] You know, how did this happen? Again, it wasn’t a feeling of competition in any way, but just a real excitement, seeing something new and full of joy. And of course, Tony’s one of my very best friends in the business, always has been. We go way, way back and we often talk about Ed and what a beautiful guy he was.
How did you bond with Tony originally?
That’s difficult to say, really. I first heard about Tony from a girlfriend of mine, who used to come to our gigs. It’s very, very early days and everything I’m playing, I’m thinking I know what I’m doing. She used to come to the gigs and go, “You’re nothing compared to Black Sabbath. You’ll want to hear Tony Iommi play.” I’d go, “Oh, for God’s sake he can’t be that great!” [Laughs] But then I heard the first Black Sabbath album and thought, “Oh, actually this is great!” After that, I think I went to see a Black Sabbath show, but I can’t remember where it was. I got invited backstage and we instantly hit it off.
As you mentioned earlier, you knew you couldn't play like Eddie did. But were there things he was doing that you tried to figure out?
None. I don’t think I did. Because I have my own ways of doing things. We talked a little bit about what I did on “It’s Late.” Because I sort of did an embryonic bit of tapping on [that song] many, many years before. But I got that idea from some guy in Texas and I wish I knew who he was. I saw him in a bar playing and he was doing this thing, bending a string and then banging his finger, his right hand, onto it. [May imitates the sound.] It sounded like a sort of yodel. I was amazed and I thought, “I’m going to do that.”
I went up to him after that, we were in the bar and I said, “I’m going to steal that, I’m telling you.” [Laughs] I never bumped into him again. I wish I knew who he was or what his band was. It’s gone. But Ed and I talked a little bit about it, because he wanted to know where that came from. He said, “I saw you do that” and everything. But of course, Ed, I’m playing around on one little thing and then I’d moved on to something else. Ed seized upon extra ways of playing the guitar like that. He played it like a keyboard and he took the guitar to a different place.
He made it a different instrument. It’s a colossal thing that he did. I compare it with Jimi Hendrix, who I think made the guitar into something that it had never been before that. Even though there were great guitar players around, Jimi Hendrix came along and made a new instrument. There’s no getting away from it, and I think Ed did the same thing. Suddenly, there were new ways to play. He was extraordinary. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing for all time.
Watch Brian May Discuss 'Star Fleet'