Today (Oct 31st) is the 30th anniversary of the Star Fleet Project. The “just for fun” project consisted of Queen’s Brian May, Eddie Van Halen, drummer Alan Gratzer (of REO Speedwagon), Phil Chen (session bassist who played with Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart), and Fred Mandel (session keyboard player who also played as additional keyboard player on Queen’s Hot Space World Tour and The Works). Roger Taylor, Queen’s drummer, provided backing vocals for the title song. It was not meant for the tapes to be released and they had minimal mixing before release.
The article below was first published in The Inside – the all Van Halen magazine published by the staff of VHND.com.
The Making of Star Fleet Project
By Brad Starks
Question: What do Edward Van Halen, Brian May, Fred Mandel, Alan Gratzer and Phil Chen all have in common?
Answer: For two days in April of 1983, these five musicians who had previously known each other only as friends, joined forces at The Record Plant in Los Angeles, California for an informal jam session. The result was unleashed on the public six months later in the shape of the three-track mini LP entitled Brian May and Friends: Star Fleet Project.
While many people have heard of this project, fewer actually own the album and fewer yet know the history behind it.
In The Beginning
The seed for Star Fleet Project was planted by Jimmy May, one of Brian’s three children, who turned his father onto a children’s science fiction television show broadcast on Saturday mornings by Central TV in England. This futuristic live-action Japanese series centered around the secret of F Zero One – the good guys commanded several space vehicles that could assemble into one large robot for land battles (similar to The Transformers), while the alien bad guys flew gargantuan insect-like mother ships that released smaller, laser-equipped fighter ships. Though Brian was intrigued by the show, it was a couple of verses at the end of the theme song that really captured his attention, creating a desire within to make a hard rock version of the tune. Brian, the guitarist for Queen, attempted to get in touch with the song’s writer, British keyboardist Paul Bliss, but was unsuccessful until after the Star Fleet Project was completed.
Several months later, while in Los Angeles, Brian had some free time on his hands and decided to bring his Star Fleet Project to life. To his delight, Eddie Van Halen (whose friendship May values tremendously), bassist Phil Chen (who has a unique percussive approach to the instrument). Long-time friend and drummer Alan Gratzer and keyboardist Fred Mandell all liked his idea and agreed to participate in the “just for fun” engagement.
In The Studio
Day One: Recording began on April 21, 1983 at about noon, with the album;s first cut, May’s hard rock version of the sci-fi theme song, “Star Fleet”. “I thought it was the most adventurous and ambitious thing to try,” described Brian. “We were very up and full of nervous tension. I think you can tell by the way we played. We all didn’t know each other and it was very electric. Everyone looked at each other wondering what the Hell was going to happen next-very funny. The situation produced a strange and different kind of energy.” Clocking in at just over eight minutes, ‘Star Fleet’ begins with May soling over a tapped harmonic intro from Eddie. (The same technique can be heard on the intro to “Women In Love.”) The song features Brian’s trademark multi-layered guitar lines and yards of classic Ed. Three minutes and seven seconds into the cut, Eddie lets loose with an extremely tasty and expressive solo as only he can-tremolo picked runs, screaming pinched harmonics and complex bent-note tapping sequences abound. “With ‘Star Fleet’ I wanted to give Edward a place to just let loose” added May. The song fades out at 5:10 then starts back up again, which was completely unplanned. “Edward has this thing where he can never stop playing,” continued Brian. “So every time everybody else thought we’d finished, he’d be going ‘chak, chacka, chack, chack’. He’s just so inspiring, it’s ridiculous.”
Day Two: The albums second cut, “Let Me Out” was recorded on Friday April 22, and was originally planned to be the only other song for the project. At 7:13, “Let Me Out” features Ed and Brian trading bluesy solos. If you listen closely during the final solo of the song, you can hear Eddie break a string-and keep on playing! “Eddie tortures his top string to it’s audible death and winds up quite naturally on the remaining five” explains May. “First of all, we thought, ‘Well, should we do something about that?’ And then I thought, “No, it’s great, because nobody has ever heard that on a record before.”
The track is only a precursor of what is to come on side two of the album though. “Blues Breaker”, which is arguably the piece-de-resistance of the project was born right there in the studio while Eddie and Brian were talking about their love of Eric Clapton and John Mayall’s classic “Blues Breakers” album. “We were just talking about those sessions, and what it must have been like in those days and everything was a bit freer and easier, “ explained May. “We started kicking around those little riffs which are a bit like the ones on “Blues Breaker” and just let the tape roll as we played about.”
And play they did! “Blues Breaker” (Dedicated to Eric Clapton) slams nearly 13 minutes of pure blues in your face. That’s right, Eddie playing the blues. From Chuck Berry-esque lines to more tremolo runs and tapping, Ed and Brian treat your ears to spontaneous jamming at it’s finest as they play call-and-response to each other’ solos. Fred Mandel lays down a fabulous bed of smokey barroom piano comping, complete with a rousing solo of his own, providing the perfect backdrop for the rare blues treat from the guitarists. “In “Blues Breaker” you can hear us smiling as we search for answering phrases,” describes May. It doesn’t get much rarer than this.
Throughout the two-day session, Eddie used his original red, white and black-striped Frankenstrat through one Marshall head and cabinet. Brian played his own homemade guitar through a couple of Vox AC-30 amplifiers and a Boss Chorus Ensemble pedal. May’s guitar parts were mixed on both the left and the right, while Eddie’s lines were mixed down the middle.
Overdubs were kept to a minimum because Brian wanted to preserve the original feed of the sessions. “There’s all sorts of talking to each other that you can hear if you listen carefully,” he explained. (Most easily directed at the end of “Star Fleet”) “And there’s bits where we slip around. I don’t think it’s a matter for concern. I would rather leave that in there and keep it original.”
Releasing The Album
Originally, there weren’t any plans to release any kind of album. Brian wasn’t sure if it would be in good taste to release it. (Thank God he did!) “I could have put these tapes in a bottom of a drawer and kept them as a private record of one of the best experiences of my life, “ May said. “But the few for urged me to publish.”
“After we played, he called me up about four months later and asked what I thought about putting the stuff out, “ remembered Eddie. “I said, ‘Send me a tape, let me hear it first, because I didn’t remember how it went. And he did and I said, ‘Sure, what the hell? It reeks of fun. Brian is good, he gets a brown sound.” The response from the other participants was equally positive and on October 31, 1983 “Brian May and Friend: Star Fleet Project” made its debut.
|1.||“Star Fleet”||Bliss/arr. May||8:04|
|2.||“Let Me Out”||May||7:13|
|3.||“Blues Breaker”||May/Van Halen/Gratzer/Chen/Mandel||12:48|
Listen to all 3 songs here: