Rock guitarist Adrian Belew has had a long and distinguished career recording with other rock artists, including Frank Zappa and David Bowie, as well as holding memberships in bands and putting out solo recordings. Noted for his unusual experimentation with the guitar, Belew finally achieved widespread popularity with the release of his 1989 album, Mr. Music Head, which featured the hit single, “Oh, Daddy.” As reviewer Andrew Nash noted in High Fidelity, Belew’s “guitar work has always been distinctive.”
Belew was heading his own band, Sweetheart, and playing small clubs in the southern United States during the late 1970s. At one such engagement he was performing at Fanny’s in Nashville, Tennessee; Frank Zappa was in the audience, and, impressed with what he heard, asked Belew to audition for his band. He did so, and successfully recorded with Zappa for a while. Belew’s reputation for fine and unusual guitar playing grew, and over the years he has played not only for Zappa and Bowie, but for Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Paul Simon.
In the early 1980s, Belew was part of the rock group King Crimson, winning critical acclaim for his contribution to their recordings. But, as he explained to Rolling Stone’s Moira McCormick, he was not happy. “A great band, but not an entirely pleasant experience. It isn’t publicly known, but I had a very hard time in King Crimson.” Belew did derive some pleasure, however, from his solo career during the same period. While he was not widely known to fans, critics noticed the three albums he cut on the Island label, including 1982’s Lone Rhino, which Nash pronounced a “masterpiece.”
When King Crimson broke up in 1984, Belew was looking forward to devoting more time to his solo work, in addition to playing on the albums of others. According to McCormick, “he vowed he’d never be in a band again.” But in 1985 he was scheduled to produce an album for a local Cincinnati, Ohio, band called the Raisins, whose members he had met while he was still performing with Sweetheart. When Belew arrived on the scene, however, he found the Raisins at the point of breaking up. He told McCormick that he spent the night “trying to figure out what I thought about the whole thing. At three o’clock in the morning, it just hit me that I wanted to be in a band with these guys. That I in fact had always wanted to be in a band with these guys, and why didn’t we just start one?”
Thus, with former Raisins members Rob Fetters, Bob Nyswonger, and Chris Arduser, Belew formed the Bears. “We wanted a generic name, one that sounded like a Little League team,” Belew quipped to McCormick. By 1987, they had released their self-titled debut album on IRS’s sister label, Primitive Man. Featuring a blend of
Born c. 1950; children: Audie, Ernie, Iris. Guitarist, songwriter, vocalist, pianist. Has been a professional guitarist since the 1970s; played with group, Sweetheart, in 1976; served as guitarist for various artists, including Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Paul Simon; member of King Crimson, c. 1981-84; member of the Bears, beginning c. 1987; solo recording artist.
Eastern and Western style music, The Bears was called “acollection of fresh, artful pop songs set provocatively askew by the alluring modalities of the Orient” by McCormick. Nash proclaimed that “the Bears sound like a charged-up, adventurous improvement on Huey lewis of the News.”
In 1989 Belew released the album Mr. Music Head on Atlantic Records, which spawned his first solo hit, “Oh, Daddy.” Accompanying him on this track—and in the song’s video, which received much airplay on cable music video stations, is his eldest daughter, Audie. Critic David Hiltbrand of People described “Oh, Daddy” as “a bopping little pop song in which a young girl, her head full of lurid MTV images, asks her rock musician father such logical questions as ‘Daddy, when you gonna put on some stretch pants?’” Reviewer Wif Stenger in Rolling Stone also noted the question: “‘When you gonna be a big star,’—to which Belew responds, ‘Well, don’t hold your breath/‘Cause it’ll make you blue!’” Other tracks, including “Hot Zoo,” “One of Those Days,” and “1967,” have also been singled out for acclaim; Hiltbrand called “1967” the album’s “most sustained achievement.” Similarly, Stenger called the cut “a whimsical, Beatlesque ramble into the attic of a restless musical mind,” and declared that Mr. Music Head contained “some of [Belew’s] most imaginative guitar exploration ever.” In 1990, Belew released another album on the Atlantic label, Young Lions.
Lone Rhino, Island, 1982.
Desire Caught By the Tale, Island, 1987.
(With the Bears) The Bears (includes “Man Behind the Curtain,” “Raining,” “None of the Above,” and “Figure It Out”), Primitive land, 1987.
Mr. Music Head (includes “Oh, Daddy,” “Coconuts,” “Hot Zoo,” “One of Those Days,” “Bad Days,” “1967,” and “Motor Bungalow”), Atlantic, 1989.
Young Lions, Atlantic, 1990.
Also recorded with other groups and artists, including King Crimson, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Paul Simon; also recorded another solo album on Island Records.
High Fidelity, August 1987.
People, August 14, 1989.
Rolling Stone, June 4, 1987; August 10, 1989.
Guitarist, singer, songwriter, drummer, pianist
While he has not achieved mass commercial success in his own right, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter Adrian Belew has performed with a wide variety of rock luminaries for nearly 30 years. His unique impressionistic guitar style has repeatedly earned him Guitar Player magazine's "experimental guitarist" award. He is also a tantalizing pop vocalist in the tradition of the Beatles and Harry Nilsson. The growing number of artists who have sought his talents as a producer illustrates the respect he has attained in the business.
Born Robert Steven Belew on December 23, 1949, in Covington, Kentucky, he changed his first name in 1975 because he had always liked the name Adrian. As a child he sang for friends and family and beat holes in the linoleum on his bedroom floor with drum sticks. After drumming in his high school marching band, he became the singing drummer in "The Denems," a Cincinnati-area Beatles cover band. As mainstream rock moved from the Beatles to Jimi Hendrix, he picked up the guitar and began to formulate his signature style.
First Big Breaks
By the late 1970s he was playing bar and hotel lounge gigs in a group called Sweetheart, astonishing Nashville audiences with a joyous physical style that included pounding and bending the neck and body of his guitar. His showmanship caught the attention of Frank Zappa, who exploited his unusual skills for a year of touring and musical tutelage. Belew's contributions could be seen in the movie Baby Snakes and heard on Sheik Yerbouti and on volumes 1 and 6 of You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore. David Bowie was among those who saw Belew on the 1978 Zappa tour. He enlisted Adrian to play guitar on the 1978 live set Stage and on the 1979 studio session Lodger. After wrapping up a worldwide tour with Bowie, Belew was approached by producer Brian Eno, who connected him with David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Belew played on portions of the 1980 Talking Heads classic Remain in Light and accompanied the band on the supporting tour. This led to Belew's participation in the 1981 debut of the Tom Tom Club, where he co-wrote, without credit, their hit single "Genius of Love." He also briefly played with an Illinois-based band called Gaga, using his recorded drum tracks in live performances.
In 1981 Belew landed a deal with Island Records and began recording his first solo project, Lone Rhino. The album captured many aspects of Belew's thriving talents and presented musical and conceptual themes that recur in his later releases. His guitar, drum, and vocal work is backed with piano and saxophones provided by former Gaga members. The opening track, "Big Electric Cat," was a stunning introduction to the screeching, Hendrix-like attacks that Belew coaxed from his Stratocaster. The song was featured as a computer-generated video that is crude by today's standards but was fresh enough to be seen regularly in the formative days of MTV. "Naive Guitar" and "Hot Sun" were restrained experimental guitar pieces that foreshadow later instrumental releases. "The Man in The Moon" was a touching tribute to Belew's father, who died when Adrian was 19. In "The Lone Rhinoceros" and "Final Rhino," Belew imitated the majestic beast and lamented the imminent loss of the majestic species. "Swingline" and "Adidas in Heat" had a swing-era flavor that recalled his marching band days.
Some critics regarded Belew's next set, Twang Bar King, as a disappointing sequel. The album was constructed in a different vein, offering a tongue-in-cheek self portrait of the rock and roll persona that Belew developed while paying his dues in bar bands. It opened with an energetic rendition of the Beatles single "I'm Down." For an artist who had all of two albums under his belt, covering a relatively obscure Beatles' number could have seemed overly ambitious if not conceited. In Belew's case it was about paying tribute. His passion for the music of his youth was brought home with humility in tunes like "I Wonder," "Another Time," and "The Rail Song."
Showing still another side, Belew released the surprising Desire Caught by The Tail in 1986. The album consisted of seven instrumental tracks featuring Belew on guitar and percussion without accompaniment. It marked the first of many Belew references to Pablo Picasso, underscoring Belew's interest in the visual arts. Virtually all of his cover art was created by his first wife, Margaret, or by Belew himself, and he often commented in interviews that painting informed and inspired his music.
With 1989's Mr. Music Head, Belew broke through as a solo act, scoring success with the single "Oh Daddy!," which featured his daughter Audie on vocals. Like some of the tunes on Twang Bar King, "Oh Daddy!" was a reflection on Belew's place in the music business. Belew played all of the instruments on the album with the exception of bass work by Mike Barnett on two tracks. This set also featured the remarkable "1967," a plaintive acoustic number with strong Harry Nilsson influences, which many regard as his best song. Songs like "Peaceable Kingdom," "Hot Zoo," "Bird in a Box," and "Cruelty to Animals" had the wild cacophonous feel that is a Belew trademark.
In 1990 Belew released Young Lions, featuring the single "Pretty Pink Rose," a duet with co-author David Bowie. The guitar duel accentuated Belew's acrobatics and showed why Bowie wanted him for his Sound + Vision tour.
Belew wound up his Atlantic recording contract with Inner Revolution. The personal album contained multiple allusions to Belew's failed marriage and the hope engendered by his relationship with his second wife, Martha. The vocals were more intimately recorded than his previous efforts, and songs like "This Is What I Believe In," "Big Blue Sun," "Birds," and "The War In The Gulf Between Us" were sparsely arranged. His guitar work was subdued to fit the somber mood.
Moving in the same direction, he released Acoustic Adrian Belew in 1993, proving that some of his most raucous tunes could be interpreted acoustically. A second volume of acoustic numbers, Belew Prints, was released in 1998, featuring more solo tunes and items from his work with the band King Crimson.
Belew continued his homage to the Beatles with the 1994 release Here, the first of several projects to be recorded in his home studio in Nashville. It opened with "May 1, 1990," an upbeat testimonial to his second wife. Three selections from Acoustic Adrian Belew; "Peace on Earth," "Burned by the Fire We Make," and "Dream Life," were reworked with more elaborate instrumentation, and the album, more than any other, provided a warm blend of long, bending electric guitar notes and delicate acoustic work.
For the Record …
Born Robert Steven Belew, Dec. 23, 1949, in Covington, KY; children: Audie, Ernie, Iris.
Professional guitarist, 1970s-; played with group Sweetheart, 1976; served as guitarist for various artists, including Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, Jean-Michel Jarre, and Paul Simon; member of King Crimson, c. 1981-84; member of the Bears, beginning c. 1987; joined reformed King Crimson, early 1990s.
Addresses: Record company—Adrian Belew Presents, P.O. Box 956, Mt. Juliet, TN 37121, e-mail: [email protected]
Turning again to purely instrumental explorations, Belew released 1995's Guitar Orchestra: The Experimental Guitar Series Volume I, which highlighted Belew's ability to imitate wind and bowed string instruments with synthesized guitar and demonstrated the breadth and subtlety of Belew's guitar innovations.
On the 1996 release Op Zop Too Wah, Belew synthesized all the elements of his varied styles. Containing 21 tracks, many of which are presented as couplets, the collection ran the gamut of musical genres, including distorted psychedelia, country rock, beat poetry, blues, ambient samplings, and acoustic ballads. The project had a structure reminiscent of side two of the Beatles' Abbey Road.
Between 1997 and 1999 Belew assembled lost tracks, live bits, and alternate takes on two collections, Coming Attractions and Salad Days. The live recordings illustrated why King Crimson commonly included a short set of Belew numbers on tour. For many years, Belew has been compiling a more ambitious collection of rarities called Dust; it has remained in the post production stage with portions released on the Internet.
In the new millennium Belew has focused on three small group collaborations called Side One, Side Two, and Side Three. On Side One Belew played all of the instruments except for three cuts featuring Primus bassist Les Claypool and Tool drummer Danny Carey. On the shorter Side Two, more of an electronic avant-garde departure, Belew used Japanese Haiku as the basis for the album's lyrics. Side Three, the most adventurous of the trilogy, reunited him with Claypool and Carey, and contained guest contributions from Robert Fripp and flute-saxophonist Mel Collins.
In 1974 guitarist Robert Fripp pulled the plug on the legendary progressive rock outfit King Crimson, declaring that the band was dead "for ever and ever." Fripp auditioned Belew for a band he planned to call Discipline, and then realized he had the essential ingredient for an updated King Crimson. Former Crimson drummer Bill Bruford and Chapman stick player Tony Levin were added. In 1981 they released their debut album, Discipline, supported by an appearance on the ABC variety show Fridays. Critics and fans soon realized they were hearing something very challenging that combined minimalism and new wave pop. Buoyed by solid record sales and a successful tour, they released the similarly styled Beat in 1982 and Three of a Perfect Pair in 1984 before calling it quits.
Ten years later the foursome emerged again with a "double trio" version of King Crimson, adding Trey Gunn on Warr guitar and former Mr. Mister drummer Pat Mastelotto. They released two studio projects, Vrooom and Thrak, and the live sets B'boom, Live in Japan '95, Thrakattack, and Thrak Tour Pack. This version of the band was powered by a heavy industrial sound similar to the second side of Three of A Perfect Pair. Later, with Bruford and Levin out of the mix, they cut ConstrucKtion of Light in 2000 and Power to Believe in 2003. Rumor surfaced that Gunn would be replaced by Tony Levin for a new release in 2007.
Harnessing Adrian Belew's broad, guitar-based palette of sounds helped Fripp to continue King Crimson with the kind of "small, mobile, intelligent" approach he favored. He described Belew's abilities in a Guitar Player interview: "I continue to be astonished by what he can do. The energy and power he brings to bear are utterly astonishing." Fripp also acknowledged Belew's unprecedented longevity as a King Crimson band member, adding that "Adrian is all that you could ever ask for in a front man or as a rhythm player."
Belew's infectious pop sensibilities have provided a balance in the band's repertoire and broadened its audience. His distinctive Hendrix-inspired riffs have relegated Fripp to a lesser role and opened the door to further explorations by Pat Mastelotto and Trey Gunn. Thirty years after its inception the King Crimson franchise is bigger than ever. Fripp launched Discipline Global Mobile in the 1990s as a platform to release live and studio recordings from every era of King Crimson. As a sure sign of the band's increasing popularity, members of other King Crimson lineups have toured as the Twenty-first Century Schizoid Band.
If King Crimson captured Belew's serious side, his output with Cincinnati-based band The Bears documents his fun side. In addition to Belew, the band included Rob Fetters on guitar, Bob Nyswonger on bass, and Chris Arduser on drums. In 1987 they released The Bears, with a single, "Trust." A year later came Rise and Shine, and in 2001 Car Caught Fire. Without Belew, the other three members have released recordings under the band name The Psychodots and have all made solo recordings. The Bears have been a consistent outlet for some of Belew's best pop hooks.
With Frank Zappa
Sheik Yerbouti, Rykodisc, 1979.
With David Bowie
Stage, Rykodisc, 1978.
The Lodger, Virgin, 1980.
With the Talking Heads
Remain in Light, Sire, 1980.
The Name of This Band Is the Talking Heads, Sire, 1982.
With the Tom Tom Club
The Tom Tom Club, Sire, 1981.
Lone Rhino, Island, 1982.
Twang Bar King, Island, 1983.
Desire Caught By the Tale, Island, 1986.
Mr. Music Head, Atlantic, 1989.
Young Lions, Atlantic, 1990.
Desire of the Rhino King, Island, 1991.
Inner Revolution, Atlantic, 1992.
Here, Caroline, 1994.
The Guitar as Orchestra: Experimental Guitar Series, Vol. 1, Discipline, 1995.
Acoustic Adrian Belew, Discipline, 1995.
Op Zop Too Wah, Passenger, 1997.
Salad Days, Thirsty Ear, 1998.
Belew Prints: The Acoustic Adrian Belew, Vol. 2, Adrian Belew Presents, 1998.
Coming Attractions, Thirsty Ear, 2000.
Side One, Sanctuary, 2005.
Side Two, Sanctuary, 2005.
Side Three, Sanctuary, 2006.
With the Bears
The Bears, Primitive Man, 1987.
Rise and Shine, Primitive Man, 1988.
Car Caught Fire, Car Caught Fire, 2001.
Eureka!, TBA, 2007.
With King Crimson
Discipline, EG, 1981.
Beat, EG, 1982.
Three of a Perfect Pair, Warner Bros., 1984.
Vroom, Virgin, 1995.
Thrak, Virgin, 1995.
The ConstrucKtion of Light, Virgin, 2000.
The Power to Believe, Sanctuary, 2003.
With Project Two
Space Groove, Discipline, 1998.
Live Groove, Pony Canyon, 1999.
Billboard, May 14, 1994; April 8, 1995.
Cincinnati Post, February 18, 2005.
Guitar Player, October 1993; April 1994; October 1998; May 2005; June 2003; July 2006.
New Statesman, January 1, 1999.
Rolling Stone, June 4, 1987; August 10, 1989.
All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com, (Jan. 18, 2007).