It was the moment the planets aligned for two otherworldly guitarists. It was the moment Eddie Van Halen and Brian May became lifelong friends.
“A couple of days after I heard the news about Eddie [passing away on October 6th], I went back to ‘Star Fleet’,” May recently told Total Guitar. He was referring to the 1983 three-track mini album called “Star Fleet Project” – a one-off project featuring Eddie, drummer Alan Gratzer (REO Speedwagon), bassist Phil Chen (Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart) and keyboardist Fred Mandel (Queen). May aptly named the band “Brian May & Friends”.
“I started revisiting all the feelings I had when we were in the studio doing that, and it sort of healed my soul a bit,” said May. “I thought, ‘Yeah, this is what I should be doing at this time.’”
May said “Star Fleet Project” had actually been on his mind only a week before Eddie had passed.
“I was looking at reissuing all my solo albums, and ‘Star Fleet’ obviously is one of them,” May said. “At some point it would be lovely to revisit it in depth, but at the moment I’m not. It doesn’t feel right now.
“To be honest, I’m confused about what is the best thing to do,” he continued. “I think it needs a little time for the dust to settle. But talking with you about it in Total Guitar, I think, is okay…”
Brian May & Friends – “Starfleet” Video:
Here are more excerpts from May’s interview with Total Guitar:
Let’s start with your first encounter with Eddie. What are your memories of that?
“I think of him as a boy back then. He was quite a bit younger than me. It was backstage in Munich when Van Halen were supporting Black Sabbath. I knew a little bit about Van Halen and luckily I got there to see them, because I was there to see Tony [Iommi, Sabbath guitarist], and usually you’re late to a show if you’re just going to see your mate.
“But I got there in time to see Van Halen and I was utterly blown away by Eddie. I just thought: I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. It was almost too much to take in. I remember thinking: I don’t want to believe this (laughs). It was similar to watching Jimi Hendrix for the first time.“
In the years that followed you became good friends. So how did Star Fleet Project come about? Was it always conceived as a vehicle for you and Eddie?
“It was not consciously conceived. Or not premeditated. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Queen had taken a break – we’d sort of had enough of each other for a while. And for some reason I always felt like a different person in LA. I’m naturally quite shy and retiring, but in LA I feel I can call people. And one morning I thought, why don’t I call Eddie Van Halen? Maybe we could get together.
“So I called and Eddie said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, strangely enough, I have an idea in my head…’ Because my little boy had been watching this science fiction series and I always thought that the theme tune for it would be a great vehicle for all-out guitar playing. And Eddie said, ‘I’m up for it!’ So that was the beginning. I said, ‘I’ll call a few people and we’ll get in there…’”
“So I called and Eddie said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, strangely enough, I have an idea in my head…’ Because my little boy had been watching this science fiction series and I always thought that the theme tune for it would be a great vehicle for all-out guitar playing. And Eddie said, ‘I’m up for it!’ So that was the beginning. I said, ‘I’ll call a few people and we’ll get in there…’“
“Of course we all loved music, but there are moments when you feel pressure in the studio, the album has to be made, deadlines and whatever, and sometimes it gets tense. But this was different – we’re all friends, and whatever happens here is a bonus. So it was full of joy.”
And you recorded the whole thing in two days?
“Well, really it was one day to do the session and the second day to clean it up and sort things out. So it was basically an afternoon. And there was no pressure, but boy, was there adrenaline! It was just so exhilarating, like setting off down a big ski slope at a hundred miles an hour. It was an amazing feeling. I looked around and just smiled and smiled.“
“Where do you put the pickup? He said none of the guitars he’d used had it in quite the right place, so he moved his pickup. His guitar looks very individual, but the thing that really made it so individual in sound is because he tuned where that pickup was – to like a hundredth of an inch – to get the right harmonics to make the brown sound. And he had to have the right amp, of course. So we talked a little bit about that. But to be honest, it was more about, ‘What shall we play?’”
Did you swap guitars for fun?
“Yes, he played my guitar and I played his guitar. And I sounded like me on his guitar and he sounded like him on my guitar [laughs], which reassured us that it’s basically all in the fingers at the end of the day. No matter what guitar Eddie picked up, it sounded like him. And I saw him pick up Phil Chen’s bass, and he sounded like Eddie Van Halen on Phil Chen’s bass! So, yes, it’s in the fingers.”
I wonder whether Eddie may have learned something from you and the experience of Star Fleet Project – because Van Halen’s following album, 1984, was a bit of a left turn, with Eddie experimenting with synthesizers.
“I don’t know. I think Edward liked the melodic side of what I did within Queen. I can remember having discussions about that. And he wasn’t a person to do lots of guitar harmonies like I do, but he liked the colourful side of our arrangements. I just don’t know whether that was an influence or not.”
How will you remember Eddie?
“He was always smiling. We all know he was a technical prodigy, but what he did, he did with such lightness and humour. He didn’t need to take it seriously. Eddie was always generous, always fun. I miss his energy. I’m thankful I had the chance to have moments with him, but I feel so sad that he’s not around. All I can say is I miss him. I miss his presence in the world.”
You can read the entire Total Guitar interview with May HERE.
Brian May & Friends – ‘Star Fleet Project’ [Complete Album]: