Playback: The Making Of An Album

Brian May's "Star Fleet Project" with Eddie Van Halen

As told to Jas Obrecht
Put in Internet by Gonzalo Plaza R.

Star Fleet Project, a three-cut mini-album credited to Brian May & Friends, documents the rare airing of two rock's foremost guitarist in an informal jam setting: Brian May of Queen and Eddie Van Halen, winner of Best Rock Guitarist in this issue's Readers Poll. The sessions took place in Los Angeles on April 21 and 22, 1983, three month after Brian's Guiatr Player cover story. Also in attendance were Alice Cooper keyboardist Fred Mandel, REO Speedwagon drummer Alan Gratzer, and Phil Chen, bassist for the Rod Stewart band. "Star Fleet", the project's single, contains brief example of May's layered guitar technique, a signature sound on many Queen hits. May and Van Halen swap hot blues solos in "Let Me Out" and "Blues Breaker", which total 20 minutes. Here Brian shares his thoughts on his album and forthcoming video.

I hope people will take Star Fleet Project [Capitol, MLP 15014] in the spirit in which it was done. It wasn't made for release in the beginning, but I think it should be fun for some poeple to listen to. All the mistakes were left in; I've even written that on the album. I wanted to leave the rough edges because I want people to feel like they were there. I didn't want it to sound like it had been worked on and messed around with too much.

The musicians on the project are some of the best friends I have in the business, and also the people I respect most from a playing point of view. I asked them if they would come in and play around with me. They all said, "Yeah, we'd like to". Luckily, they all had a little break in their schedules, and they could come in. This project brought out unusual things in all of us; we really worked on each other a lot. This is not Edward and me, but Phillip, too. He's very different style of bassist from what I've been used to. He is one of the originators of a style. I've always watched him and thought it would be interesting to play with him because he has this very percussive style which you'd almost think wouldn't fit into rock'n'roll, but, in fact, it propels it along. He's very good. I've known Alan for quite a while, but I had no idea what it would be like to play with him. When you hear people's record, you have no idea, really, what they would be like to play with. But it was great. the incredible thing about him is his consistency. He could go for 12 hours, and if you picked up his tempo from the begining, it would be the same as the end. He's like a rock, particularly on the blues thing where you just feel that solidity which gives the track a sort of integrity. I really like that.

There weren't any rehearsals, except that we played around at each other's houses a little bit, acoustically. I'd been to Edward's studio in his home, and I played a little with him - nothing very organized. I value Edward's friendship more than anything, really. I have total respect for him as a player, but what's important to me is that we're good friends. I wanted to make sure I didn't waste anybody's time, so I did a little bit of preparation. I made a rough demo of the format of "Star Fleet", which originally was a theme tune for a Saturday morning science fiction serial for kids in England. There were just a couple of verses of this song on the end, which really caught my imagination, so I tried to get in touch with the guy who had written the song, Paul Bliss, and couldn't at the time. So I pressed on and did some arrangement around a couple of verses and wrote extra middle bit for it. Later I got in touch with him, and he said it was a pity that I coudn't find him in the early days because he's got some more verse in the middle - which I'm dying to hear - but it was too late for the project. My song does follow his musical theme, and I used the verse he wrote. He's a keyboard player who has done a lot of writing for various people.

When we recorded this, we went into the studio about 12:00 midday. We already knew rought what we wanted to do because we talked about it, and played them a couple of demos. We worked till about 11:00 at night. A lot of it was talking rather than playing, but we did a lot of playing, too. There's a lot of stuff which isn't on the album, obviously, but I think the most listenable music is there. There isn't much else that you would call "songs" on the rest of it. It's just a lot of playing around, a lot of different rhythms. I don't think it would be of as much interest. "Star Fleet" was done on the first day. I thought it was the most adventurous and ambitious thing to try. 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 and was wondering what the hell was going to happen next - very funny. I went home totally exhausted with a splitting headache, but very happy.

The next day we all knew each other, and it was much more relaxed. We did "Let Me Out" and then a lot of blues jamming around and a few other bits and pieces. I used the guitar I always use, which I made with my father years ago. I didn't have my whole pedalboard business. I just had a couple of Vox Ac-30 amps and a Boss (Chorus Ensemble) pedal to stereoize them, which is the way I like to play these things. So generally in the mix you hear me in stereo on the left and right through those two amps, and Edward in the middle with his echo floating around each side. That will proably help you figure it out. If you hear it on head phones, it's very obvious who does what: My stuff is in each ear, and Edward's in the middle. At the end of one song, one of my amp blew up, so I had to put me on one side and him on the other. And the amp was brand new! Ed was playing his regular guitar - the original red one - and a Marshall top and a Marshall cabinet. He has slightly more edge to his sound than mine, which is sort of thick. There is very little vibrato bar from either of us.

In a way, Eddie's and my playing sound much more alike here than it does with our respectives bands, particularly on the blues stuff. Electric blues is where I came from originally. Way before Queen formed, I used to play blues. One of my first inspirations was Eric Clapton on that John Mayall Blues Breakers album (London, LC50009), the one with the Beano comic book on the cover. The same with Eddie. We got to taking about that, and that's where the "Blues Breakers" track came from. That was totally unplanned. We were just talking about those sessions, and what it must have been like in those days when everything was a bit freer and easier. We started kicking around those little riffs which are a bit like Blues Breakers, and just let the tape roll as we played around. Although "Star Fleet" was sort of structured, I wanted to have a bit of arrangement and a little bit of trading off together, and then I wanted to give Edward a place to just let loose. It was built around wanting to have this bit where I could just lay down the chords, and he would let loose in the middle. That track begins with Edward doing fingerboard tap. Later on he does the line with harmonics, and I layered in the harmony guitar parts. Then at the end, we did a climb together. That was a great feeling, because we just stood on each side of the board and worked out roughly how it should be. We said we have to start here and end up there - go up in more or less semitones, but get to the right place at the right time. That was fun - he played his better than I played mine!. The song fades and then starts up again, which was completely sponteneous. Edward has this thing that ha can never stop playing (laughs). So every time everybody else thought we'd finished, he'd be going, "chack, chacka, chack, chack". So those plucked chords there are his. He's just so inspiring it's ridiculous.

There was no overdubbing at all, except to produce the harmony guitar on "Star Fleet". I didn't want to overdub because I wanted to preserve the original feel. We kept everything. There's a place where Edward breaks a string towards the end of "Let Me Out". 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". There's all sort of talking to each other that you can hear if you listen very carefully, and 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.

I worked on "Star Fleet" a little to make a single version. I wanted to have something which was instantly accessible, so I made a little introduction on the single version instead of sort of long preamble on the mini-album. So the single gets into the song very quickly, and it lasts about half the length. I made it to tell people about the album. I've been working very hard on making a video for "Star Fleet". The people who made the series, which originally was Japanese, heve very kindly given me access to footage that I'm using. We're putting a whole little story together using the original shots of theirs. I'm also telling the story - a sort of figure who appears, a background narrator. It's amazing how long it takes. I've been working on the Queen material and trying to do that, and it's nearly killing me. But I'm very enthusiastic about the way it's turned out, because I love the series and want people to be able to share the feeling of that, too. It's great stuff. The hero of the piece is called Shiro, who is the chief pilot of Star Fleet. And he flies along with his friends, three little space rockets which detach from the main X-bomber. At one point whene things get really bad - when he's under fire from the enemy - the three modules join up to form one and become this robot which is controlled by him. The robot can go down and fight on land. He smashes tanks with his fists, fires torpedoes, stamps on stuff with his feet, and all kind of things. It blows my mind. It's most amazing the way it's put together. The models are incredible. My experience working on the soundtrack for Flash Gordon came in handly for this. It's very similar, actually. I think I should go into this full-time.

There weren't any reservations from the other musicans as far as releasing Star Fleet Project. Everyone was very positive and has been wonderful to me. In the begining I didn't want to put it out because I thought it was private, and I didn't know if it would be in good taste to release it. I played it to a feww friends, and they said, "Really, you should, because a lot of people would like to hear this stuff". So I spoke to each other of the guys individually, and they all said, "Hey, do what you want with it. We'll be happy". The only thing which was really hard was getting the paper-work done. These days people's contracts are such complete maze. It took literally a couple of months to get through all the paper-work that was necessary from management and record companies. And that's with the best will in the world; nobody was trying to make it difficult. Queen was leaving Elektra at the time, which was the final piece we had to get into place before we could put anything out. It's a big headache, but I think it's worth it. I want people to know that this is just a one-off thing, a piece of fun. It's not like anyone's leaving their group or anything; there's no hint of that. We're all very much involved with our bands activities. This was just a little trip out.