Brian May’s ‘Moment of Great Joy’ in Studio With Eddie Van Halen
Brian May recalled a “moment of great joy” working with Eddie Van Halen on 1983's Star Fleet Project, saying all the musicians “smiled and smiled” during the “spontaneous” sessions.
Before that album, the Queen guitarist was enjoying some downtime from his main band, as the musicians had “sort of had enough of each other for a while.” Since he was in Los Angeles, he decided to call Van Halen and suggest a collaboration.
“I called, and Eddie said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, strangely enough, I have an idea in my head,'” May told Guitar World. “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!’”
He placed follow-up calls to REO Speedwagon drummer Alan Gratzer and Rod Stewart bassist Phil Chen and also invited Queen keyboardist Fred Mandel along. Agreeing to join in, Gratzer noted, “It’ll feel like you’re cheating on your wife!”
May reflected: “I think we’d all got to the point where we’d worked hard in the studio with our respective bands and it had almost become a job. ... 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.“
Listen to Brian May and Friends' 'Star Fleet’
Despite being mostly unplanned, the Star Fleet Project sessions took only two days, with most of the second day used to “clean it up,” May said. “And there was no pressure, but boy, was there adrenaline! It was just so exhilarating, like setting off down a big ski slope at  miles an hour. It was an amazing feeling. I looked around and just smiled and smiled.“
He explained that he’d intended to provide a platform for Van Halen’s soloing skills with the Star Fleet theme. “I wanted to play in a sympathetic way to him, to supply the great rhythms that he could play to,” May said. “I wanted to be the perfect rhythm guitarist, and I grew up as a rhythm guitarist, so that’s natural to me. But when we were trading solos ... we were feeding off each other. ... We’d never played together before, and yet the chemistry is there. It was as spontaneous as anything could be.”
While they felt their way through the other songs, May had a better idea of what he wanted Van Halen to do with the title track. “He’d done the ‘Beat It’ solo, and I wanted him to have that kind of feeling about it,” May recalled. “I think he did three different ones, all of which were utterly brilliant. Our jaws all dropped. And I remember, at the very end of the soloing section, there’s a little harmony run-up, so we overdubbed that together live but as an overdub. And that was one of the great moments of my life, I’ve got to say – because we did it once and we got it right. ... That’s a tiny little moment but a moment of great joy, playing with this guy. I was awestruck by his playing.”
Asked what he took from from the experience, May replied: “I learned about confidence. I learned that I could make a couple of phone calls, organize a session and just go in and play. I thought until that point that I only existed, musically, as a part of Queen. So that was me seeing a door and opening it. I think I became a more interesting performer because of it, maybe a more interesting person as well. It was a good boost for me to think, ‘I don’t have to just be a member of a band.'“