Longtime Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens cuts to the chase when discussing Randy Rhoads' seismic influence on '80s rock guitar: "It was him and Eddie [Van Halen]."

Stevens first became aware of Rhoads in the late '70s, when the diminutive six-stringer was playing in a little-known rock band called Quiet Riot, who had records out in Japan but were still several years away from stateside stardom. Rhoads fused Van Halen's speed-of-light shredding with his classical influences to further popularize neoclassical guitar playing, a style pioneered by Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and poached by countless guitar players in the '80s.

Rhoads' groundbreaking playing earned him a spot in Ozzy Osbourne's solo band, and his work on Osbourne's first two records, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madmanbecame "the stuff of legend," as Stevens puts it.

Stevens is no slouch himself: Aside from his 40-year partnership with Idol, he's also collaborated with Motley Crue's Vince Neil, Hanoi Rocks' Michael Monroe and even Michael Jackson. Still, he felt apprehensive covering any of Rhoads' songs, which he calls "sacred ground."

When the String Revolution quartet invited him to collaborate on their flamenco cover of "Crazy Train," however, he felt emboldened to reinterpret the metal classic in a way that would pay homage to the original without retreading familiar territory.

In an exclusive interview with UCR, Stevens discusses Rhoads' impact on the '80s hard rock scene and his own playing, and how his and Idol's early influences coalesced into a fruitful, multi-platinum partnership.

Congrats on the new "Crazy Train" cover that you've done with the String Revolution.
Yeah, obviously I was really glad that Randy was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Tom Morello really spearheaded that, so hats off to him. But then I was contacted about it, and there was an email that came through, and I went, "Oh, no. That's sacred ground." You don't want to mess with something that is, as I said, it's sacred ground. But when they told me that it was gonna be done with nylon guitar — would I do a flamenco, Spanish guitar solo on it?

First of all, I knew that Randy loved Spanish guitar. I knew he was continuing to take lessons, and anybody who's a fan of Randy knows about his love for that. You can hear it even in his heavy stuff. So I thought, "Well, this is something that maybe even he would have appreciated, a reinterpretation of it." So that's why I did it, mainly, to throw another slant on something that's so iconic, but hopefully we've done it in a new way. I kept the solo as the composition the same but interpreted it in a different way with nylon guitar.

Did you ever see Randy perform live?
I didn't, no. I remember I used to get the Music Life magazine, which was the Japanese rock magazine. So this is, you know, we're talking late '70s. And I remember seeing the early pictures of Quiet Riot and I thought, "Wow, that's a really cool looking band. Who's the guitar player?" He reminded me of Mick Ronson, who I love, had the quintessential good-looking guitar hero thing going on. And then obviously, that first record that he did with Ozzy was like, "Oh, wow." And I had started on classical guitar when I was about 6 and a half, close to 7 years old, on nylon-string guitar, and I didn't get an electric guitar until I was 13. And when I heard Randy, I could hear all these same influences, the whole classical thing.

And guitar is such a vast instrument. You never stop learning, and I could hear that in his playing. And then I remember when I read an interview with him where he talked about his love for classical guitar, he was continuing lessons, and I identified with that: using influences outside of rock or metal in a new context. And that was the thing that first and foremost drew me to him. And then, obviously, his playing with Ozzy is the stuff of legend now.

Listen to Steve Stevens and the String Revolution Cover 'Crazy Train'

It's absolutely electrifying — not only on record, but live as well. The version of "Mr. Crowley" on the Tribute album has one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.
You know, it was him and Eddie. At that time, those were the guys. That was the next step in the evolution of rock guitar. Those were the two guys. And to this day, at that point in that era, I think those were the guys that influenced all of us who were playing guitar. They were doing new things. It was stylistically new and a new approach, and it's amazing that they both came from southern California. And I'm sure that those two guys were well aware of what they were doing, and maybe that little scene there out of California. Obviously other guys — Warren DeMartini and George Lynch — there was real surge of shit-hot guitar players at that point, which was great.

The simplified version of rock history says that Eddie and Randy were the two biggest game-changers in rock guitar at the time, so it's cool to hear you confirm that. 
Yeah, I mean, 'cause we're all kind of around the same [age]. I'm 62, and Ed was a little bit older, but we all kind of grew up listening to the same stuff, the [Jimi] Hendrix and the Led Zeppelin. And then [Scorpions'] Ulrich Roth, I think, was an influence, and Michael Schenker, as far as early '70s stuff. And it took a little while for guitarists to digest that and kind of create a new thing. And then obviously, you know, '78, Van Halen was then the next logical step.

But I believe that all of us were probably listening to the same stuff, grew up on the same stuff. And some of us took it to the next level. But obviously it comes down to the songs, and Randy had the composition. Same like Ed: great, great compositions. I've played a couple of those things. I did a benefit show with Ozzy once and I had to learn a couple of those things, and dissecting Randy's guitar parts is like diving into a classical piece of music because it's composed. This guy really thought it out. It wasn't like he went, "Oh yeah, here's an E chord, and here's where you go ..." This guy sat and spent hours constructing this stuff, and I believe that's why it lasts, and that's why he's Randy Rhoads.

As all of this is going down in the late '70s, early '80s, take me back to where you were at the time. The first Billy Idol album was just a couple years away. You're a New Yorker, so what was going on in your burgeoning career?
Well, obviously, the New York thing was, I think, what differentiated my view on stuff as opposed to the southern California stuff. Our guitar heroes were [Mountain's] Leslie West — he actually came from Forest Hills, Queens, I'm from Rockaway — so Leslie was a big guitar hero. And then the [New York] Dolls were our introduction into whatever you want to call it: glam, punk. You know, they looked glam, but they sure sounded like a punk-rock band. They sounded closer to the MC5 than they did to Sweet or something like that. And then I was going to the High School of Performing Arts, the Fame school, and I got admitted.

You auditioned for the school; I got admitted on classical guitar. Once I got into the school, because the guitar is not a member of the symphony orchestra, they said I had to take up another instrument, and I kind of lost interest and went, "Well, you know, I kind of suck at everything else other than the guitar." And that's just around the time that Max's was still going, and CBGB was happening with Talking Heads, Television, Blondie and obviously the Ramones — this kind of next step. Because as much as I loved all the bands that I grew up [with] and I idolized and all that, I was a 16-year-old kid and I wanted to make my own thing. And here was a scene of young musicians who were getting record deals, getting recognition, having cool songs, and the emphasis wasn't on the technical ability and being rich and famous. It was more tangible. It was something that I could be part of.

So I had dropped out of high school and I started playing in bands. I joined a cover band that played all the same clubs as Twisted Sister and did the Long Island scene. Then I joined a New York band and moved into Manhattan. And that's when I started writing and learning and working with other musicians. And eventually, I met Billy Idol. So that was kind of the chronological way. And then when I met Billy, even though we grew up an ocean apart, we were influenced by a lot of the same records. He loved Lou Reed and Velvet Underground and all this stuff out of New York, and I loved all the English stuff like Slade.

At that point, I was really into things like the Stranglers and XTC — kind of the next generation, whatever you want to call it, new wave or whatever. So we bonded over all the musical things we both had in common, and also the stuff we didn't have in common, because that's what what makes it interesting. "Oh, have you heard this?" "No." I remember Billy playing me Siouxsie and the Banshees, and I had no idea about it, and I was knocked over with their guitar player, John McGeoch, so it was great. It was great to turn each other on to different things.

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