When Eric Clapton Felt ‘Insulted’ by Eddie Van Halen, Brian May
It might have seemed like a match made in Heaven: the young American upstart paying homage to the British icon who’d led the way. Instead, a well-meaning gesture from Van Halen and Brian May drew nothing but ire from Clapton.
The subject of that ire was Star Fleet Project, a mini-album led by the Queen guitarist, who invited Van Halen to join the fun. And fun it most certainly was; inspired by the theme tune to kids’ science fiction TV show Star Fleet – known outside the U.K. as X Bomber – May decided to give the music a makeover. He then added two more tracks, including a double-lead jam titles “Blues Breaker,” with the tag “Dedicated to E.C.” and the result was released on Oct.31, 1983.
“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,” May said in 2020. “But this was different – we’re all friends, and whatever happens here is a bonus. So it was full of joy.“ He continued: “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.“
The issue came when they sent a copy to Clapton, hoping he’d be as pleased with their work as they were. He wasn’t. “One side was a kind of a fusion thing – really very interesting, great to listen to – and the other side was a blues jam,” he told Musician magazine in 1986. “It was so horrible. And they dedicated it to me. They sent me a copy, and I put it on, expecting something, and, you know, I was almost insulted that they should send this to me.”
He went further: “[B]ecause they both... they can't play! They took turns to play solos, and just went head-at-it, with everything they knew. And there was no dynamics, no build-up, no sensitivity. I was very disappointed.” (May had a different take, saying: “[W]hen 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.”)
Listen to Brian May and Eddie Van Halen Perform 'Blues Breaker'
Slowhand also criticized Van Halen for appearing to have learned the wrong lessons from him, specifically that he was paying homage to the previous generation of blues greats, and laid no claim to having created the concepts behind what he performed. “[I]f he was that tuned into me and missed that point, then he missed the whole point,” Clapton said. “it's crazy for him to have learned that much from me. I mean, he could have just been aware of what I was doing, and then said, ‘Oh yeah, well, that's a bit like Buddy Guy,’ or, ‘That's a bit like so-and-so,’ Put it all in perspective. To get obsessive about one person…”
He insisted there was still time for the younger man to find a new perspective, arguing: “He should check [Guy] out. To illustrate that, I did a tour a couple of years ago where we'd been on the road for about a month, and it was getting slightly stale. … We dropped into Chicago, and I went down to see [Guy] at the Checkerboard. We got up and played, and I came to life again. It was like being with Muddy [Waters] for half an hour; the whole thing was revitalized.”
For his part, Van Halen admitted he’d been disappointed when he got to see Clapton live at last during his Derek and the Dominos era. “To be honest with you, I was expecting something more powerful,” he told Guitar World in 1992. “If I would’ve seen Cream, I probably would’ve been blown away, because that’s the era of Clapton that I really loved. The show was more of a Doobie Brothers kind of thing – there was like this tambourine and bongo player. The power wasn’t there… I tried to get backstage; unfortunately, Eric had already left, but we did get to meet the tambourine player!”
But there was also a suggestion that he’d been following Clapton’s path in discovering more influences, although no word on whether he’d taken the advice Slowhand had offered via the press. “Since the last five or six years I really haven’t been into any one guitarist,” he revealed. “I like everybody. I’ve listened to [Ritchie] Blackmore and [Jeff] Beck…” He reflected: “But the main guitarist I’d say that influenced me to play the most was Clapton. I used to love the way he played. He was real smooth and a lot of feeling. Every review I ever read of the album or my playing, it’s always Blackmore, Beck and [Jimmy] Page influences. But I never really sat down and copped their licks like I did Clapton.”
Speaking in 2021, the level-headed May noted that there had always been some distance in philosophies between himself and Slowhand. “I love Eric Clapton, he’s my hero, but he has very different views from me in many ways,” the Queen icon said. “He's a person who thinks it’s OK to shoot animals for fun, so we have our disagreements, but I would never stop respecting the man.”
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