In early 1975, Queen’s career was taking off. They’d notched up a trio of hits in the UK with Seven Seas Of Rhye, Killer Queen and Now I’m Here, while the previous year’s Sheer Heart Attack album reached No.4 in the British charts.
America was catching up too. Killer Queen and Sheer Heart Attack had both gone Top 20 in the US, while the band had arrived Stateside at the start of 1975 for their first headlining tour.
Among their growing army of American fans was a young band from Pasadena, California, who had changed their name a couple of years earlier from Mammoth to Van Halen, after their prodigal lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen and his drummer brother Alex.
In early 1975, Van Halen were carving out a name for themselves on the LA gig circuit. Their early sets leaned heavily on amped up covers of everything from ZZ Top’s Waitin’ For The Bus to Foghat’s choogle-rock classic Slow Ride.
And then there was Queen. At a gig at Pasadena High School on April 25, 1975, Van Halen dropped a cover of the band’s most recent single, Now I’m Here, into their set – and luckily, someone was there to record it on tape.
Audio of the performance has been uploaded to YouTube, and it finds Van Halen pulling off the cover perfectly. Singer Dave Lee Roth might not have Freddie Mercury’s range, but he’s one of the few people to equal the Queen frontman in terms of charisma. And bassist Michael Anthony and Eddie Van Halen absolutely nail those stacked backing vocals. But it’s Eddie who steals the show, heavying up the song’s central riff, and throwing in a couple of blazing solos that point to what was to come a few years later. “Thank you,” drawls Roth at the end. “A little heavy rock.”
Van Halen were certainly early adopters when it came to Queen. Sheer Heart Attack had been out for less than six months, while Now I’m Here hadn’t even been released as a single in the US. Coincidentally, the British band had two nights at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles less than a month earlier – it’s not inconceivable that members of Van Halen had attended the shows.
Eddie Van Halen and Queen’s Brian May met for the first time in October 1978, when Van Halen were opening for Black Sabbath on their Never Say Die tour. Speaking in the brand new issue of Classic Rock, Brian May recalls being invited to a show in Munich by Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, and he decided to check out the support act.
“I got there early, thinking, ‘I wonder who these Van Halen people are? I wonder what they’re like?’” May tells Classic Rock. “And I sat there watching them and my jaw just dropped. Watching Ed was like watching Jimi Hendrix for the first time. I was awestruck.”
After the show, the two began talking and Van Halen revealed the Queen guitarist’s influence on his own playing.
“He pointed out little bits in their arrangements which were inspired by things we’d done,” says May. One of those things was the ‘tapping’ technique which had become Eddie’s signature. “He said, ‘Well, you did that on [Queen’s 1977 album track] It’s Late.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I only played with the idea because I’d seen this guy in Texas doing it.’ I’d done it in the most rudimentary form, then I’d moved onto something else. Whereas Ed basically made the guitar a new instrument.”
The two men would work together on May’s 1983 mini-album, Star Fleet Project, which saw them covering the closing theme of a Japanese kids’ sci-fi TV show.
“It was a step into the unknown for me,” says May of the Star Fleet Project mini-album, released under the name Brian May + Friends. “But it was a chance to have some fun, play with guys I knew and liked, and finally have the opportunity to play with Ed.”
In the same interview, May also pays tribute to Van Halen, who died in 2020. “He was incredibly buoyant, nothing was ever problem for him: ‘Yeah, I can do that’, ‘Hey I can do this.’ I can get depressed about things, I sometimes have to come around at something from a different angle. In all the times I was with him, I never saw Ed get defeated by anything, I never saw that spirit falter.
Check out Van Halen’s cover of Now I’m Here below and read the full story about Brian May’s friendship with Eddie Van Halen and the Star Fleet Project album in the brand new issue of Classic Rock. Order it online now and have it delivered straight to your door.