Adrian Belew is the alternative-minded guitarist’s “guitar hero;” a relentless pioneer of effects and master of six strings sounds imitative of zoo animals . . . or imaginary creatures from other galaxies! You know the otherworldly breaks in Talking Heads’ “Born Under Punches” and “The Great Curve” (arguably the most visionary guitar recordings of the ’80s, or at least the most unusual)? That was Adrian Belew. The disjointed six-string shrieks on tracks like “D.J.” and “Red Sails” that David Bowie closed his “Berlin Triology” with on the Lodger LP? That too was Belew. The riff from Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” (sampled umpteen times on hip-hop records)? Belew wrote it. King Crimson’s reinvention on Discipline? Yep, Adrian Belew.
His career is all over the map. From playing with Frank Zappa’s late ’70s band, to Paul Simon’s Graceland, producing Jars of Clay mid-90s CCM cross-over hit “Flood,” and laying down key parts on several Nine Inch Nail albums, to the 15 studio albums under his own name, Belew’s discography is just as unique as his singular approach to guitar shredding. As a result, his influence has spread wide – from virtuoso disciple Steve Vai to Nashville pro Jerry McPherson. In Trent Reznor’s words, “Adrian Belew is the best fuckin’ guitarist alive!”
Adrian and his Power Trio – bassist Julie Slick and drummer Tobias Ralph – recently kicked off two months worth of shows, their first tour since Belew and Slick turned their attentions to the Crimson ProjeKCt in 2011. They’re playing a wide variety of Belew’s solo material, as well as Zappa’s “City of Tiny Lights” and his King Crimson classics (“Elephant Talk,” “Dinosaur,” “Frame by Frame,” “Three of a Perfect Pair,” “Heartbeat,” “Walking on Air”). With Belew heavily pre-occupied with his innovative music app FLUX (more on that below), there’s no telling how many years it may be before they tour again. Go see them while you can (just don’t expect them to play “1967”).
Of particular note is Belew’s stop at ACM@UCO on Thursday, November 20th for both a concert and a (free, open to the public) masterclass. Adrian is an outspoken proponent of contemporary music schools, and in fact started his trio after discovering Julie Slick and her brother Eric (now in Dr Dog) at the Paul Green School of Rock in 2006. “When ACM was first getting started 6 years ago, Adrian was one of the first people Scott [Booker] and I were able to meet with and tell the story of what the school would and could be…and he made the promise that someday he would visit,” ACM@UCO concert and masterclass organizer Derek Brown said on Facebook. “That day is coming and I strongly encourage anyone that wants the OKC entertainment culture to continue to advance…and for more shows like this (shows that OKC usually gets shafted on) to visit our city, to buy a ticket and support this show.”
A virtual “scrapbook” of videos of Belew demonstrating his utterly unique guitar techniques, some of his defining performances, and reviews from throughout his illustrious career follows below:
On Frank Zappa
Adrian regularly credits his time with Frank in the late ’70s as the basis of his entire career, calling it “the school of Zappa.” In addition to being his education on how to record in the studio, master an album, be a traveling musician and have your own business, Belew made connections, improved his playing, and learned how to play in odd meters (now one of his signatures).
“I remember the first thing that Frank Zappa ever said to me. He sat me down and said, ‘You know. I don’t really play in 4/4 time that much. I use odd time signatures.’ That was the beginning of my time with Frank Zappa, and that comment was one of the great understatements of all time,” Andrew told guitarinternational.com. “I was in a bar band in Nashville playing covers of Bowie and Rolling Stones tunes. Frank was in town and asked the chauffeur to take him to see a good band. Well, we happened to be the chauffer’s favorite band, so he brought Frank to see us. I saw him walk in from the back and just watch us, which made me a little nervous. In the middle of ‘Gimme Shelter,’ he came up to the side of the stage and reached over and shook my hand. Later he got my name and number from the chauffeur, and not too long after that he gave me a call to come audition for him. This was in 1977, I was familiar with some of Frank’s work, but I had never played it. I borrowed a bunch of his records from a friend and then realized how hard it was to play… We began three months of rehearsal, and it was pretty tough rehearsal. Ten hours a day, five days a week. I’d spend my weekends with Frank, and he’d prep me before the week’s rehearsals, so that I was ready when we went to play with everybody else. I needed a little more coaching than everybody else. During those weekends, I’d watch him arrange pieces of music and it was just amazing. For those three months it was just a joy being around him, because I picked up so many things. He’s a wealth of knowledge. He showed me various guitar exercises, like one where you take a basic D chord, move it up the neck, but pick it with different accents on different strings as you’re moving it. They were tough to do, but after all that time learning his technique and music – I ended up knowing five complete hours of Frank’s music – you feel like you can master any style that you encounter. During those same weekends, Frank exposed me to the recording and mastering process. We’d go up into the studio every night and he would show me the science of mastering: how to pace songs, how to sequence songs, how to link them together on tape. That was a whole new world to me and it was a fantastic learning experience.”
Two Stints with Bowie
Belew left Zappa to tour with Bowie – dig his tapping, whammy dives and screaming solos in the videos above – and ended up playing a crucial role on Lodger, the final album of the “Berlin Trilogy.” Bowie relied on Belew to supply Lodger’s “out there” sounds, often recorded with experimental techniques and edited together afterwards in jarring ways. In a 2001 interview with Uncut producer Tony Visconti explained, “Adrian Belew was a champion because he’d do whatever strange thing that was requested of him.” Although Lodger was largely deemed a flop at the time of its release (partly the result of its poor mix), it’s been re-evaluated in recent decades as a overlooked Bowie classic. Read Stylus’ reappraisal for instance, which notes, “although Adrian Belew is all over this album, it’s not until ‘Red Sails’ that his guitar work really shines…As the track fades out to Bowie’s nonsensical syllables and the chaotic howl of the taped-together composite solo, it hits you just how good Belew’s work here, whether edited or left alone, really is. You couldn’t possibly play the solo on ‘Red Sails’ without editing, but as with the other guitar parts on the album it is a thing of acerbic beauty, unfolding out towards the avant-garde while still carrying the tune.”
Bowie signed with Rykodisc in the spring of 1989 and decided to tour his first greatest-hits revue. Adrian was brought back by David as both the lead guitarist and band leader/ arranger. Together they spent months arranging how to perform songs from the many phases of Bowie’s back catalog with a small band (sans the backup singers and horn sections that characterized the preceding Glass Spider tour). With artistic director La La La Human Steps, the pair used samplers, short films projected on a state of the art screen behind the stage, and avant-garde acrobatics to present a theatrical trip through two decades of hits. 1990’s “Sound + Vision” tour revitalized Bowie career while offering the final live renditions of many signature Bowie songs. It also spotlighted Belew’s “Pretty Pink Rose.”
Belew explained in 1992 how the tour came together, “He called me while I was on tour for Mr. Music Head and we spoke about the idea of doing the Sound and Vision tour and also doing some new music together. He also offered the idea of using my touring band—Rick Fox and Mike Hodges. We’ve always been good friends and so far, it’s been the best tour I’ve ever done.”
Watch This Video Now!
Words can not express how much Belew meant to Talking Heads’ landmark fourth album, Remain in Light, or their 1980-81 concerts with an extended ten-piece line-up. Suffice to say, watch Belew draw out of his guitar some of the strangest sounds ever heard in the live concert video above. No really, words can not do this justice – watch the above video (then listen to disc two of the 2004 reissue of The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads ASAP). Pure genius.
“They were disheartened by the progress they were making at the time I came aboard,” Belew told Chicago Tribune in 1989, explaining that he didn’t just add unique sounds to the album, but re-energized the entire process. “Both [frontman David Byrne and producer Brian Eno] got excited by the sounds I made, even when I was just checking my equipment.” Of particular note from Belew’s time with Talking Heads are his much discussed solos on the studio versions of “Born Under The Punches” and “The Great Curve.” Paste’s list of “Ten Awesomely Weird Guitar Solos” describes the former as “a string of notes that sound more like a 56k modem than a guitar…the solo in Born Under Punches’ organized weirdness proved to be a look into the future. And although the solo sounds out of this world, it’s still accessible and fun; its bleeps and glitches are still melodic in their own right.” The latter was included in Guitar Player magazine’s 2007 Ultimate Resource for Guitarists book in the “50 Greatest Guitar Tones of All Time” chapter and named by Gibson one of the Top 50 Guitar Solos of All Time: “Belew coaxes animal-like shrieks from his guitar, creating impressionistic beauty with sounds that, in the hands of a lesser guitarist, might come off as mere noise. Belew gave the solo an even more ebullient flavor in live shows – his screaming dive bombs, spot-on sustain, and synth-enhanced tone creating the sonic equivalent of a riveting abstract painting.”
Belew’s profound curiosity in sound and the imagination with which he applies that to innovating guitar techniques and discovering unforeseen possibilities of his gear separates him from other players. Like his idol Jimi Hendrix, he is a visionary in constant search of new sounds. For Belew it began with his attempts in the ’70s to break away from the well-worn patterns every guitarist played. He began substituting common licks with “sound effects” such as imitating a car horn. Over the years he came to master animal noises, as demonstrated below by signature songs “Elephant Talk” (with King Crimson), “L’Elephant” (with Tom Tom Club), and his own “Lone Rhinoceros.”
Belew explained to thenewyorkoptimist.com: “I can do a whole catalog of sounds like animals or orchestral or percussive or electronic and as time went on and I vindicated myself in the world of guitar I realized that you had to have something that’s all your own you cant continue to play the same things that your predecessors playing that you learned from their record’s so what I figured out which was special and unique is my love of sound. Pure sound. I tried to make the sound of an elephant with my guitar, And then once I began to be successful at that I realized well those things are only gimmicks unless you can put them into some musical format. You know you have an elephant sound you write a song called elephant talk and that sound has an actual place to live and a meaning to be there.”
Watch Belew demonstrate his animal effects at 4’30” in the 1984 instructional video below:
He’s mastered train sounds too, as on “The Rail Song.”
King Crimson Remade
After pioneering progressive rock in the late ’60s, and continuing to evolve their sound through two line-up changes in the early ’70s, King Crimson spent the entire second half of the decade on hiatus. Crimson leader Robert Fripp re-united with drummer Bill Bruford in the early ’80s to create a new band originally called Discipline. Belew was asked to join, and came to make crucial contributions as a guitarist, composer, lyricist and frontman. With bassist Tony Levin completing the quartet, it wasn’t long before they rechristened themselves as the fourth “King Crimson” line-up. For the first time, there were two guitarists in Crimson, a necessity to explore Fripp’s vision of the period: creating a “rock gamelan” via interwoven guitar parts reminiscent of Indonesian gamelan music. Inexplicably, the sound of their interlocking guitars also fit beside the outer edges of the era’s artiest new wave. Fripp would characteristically play odd meter arpeggios while Belew contrasted him with a broad range of effects, unique textures and unconventional techniques.
Dual guitar phasing was their trademark, as in “Frame By Frame” where Fripp and Belew begin together with the same repeated pattern in seven, but Fripp eventually omits the last beat (so his pattern in six loops out of time with Belew, still in seven). Fripp comes back in sync with Belew’s every seven repetitions.
Belew is a huge Beatles fan, and the influence of Revolver is particularly noticeable in much of his ’80s and ’90s solo material, showing a complete other side to his artistry than the guitar freakouts and prog workups he’s best known.
“My favourite album is Revolver,” he explained to dprp.net, “because I feel that’s when The Beatles really started to develop into a studio entity. They began to use the studio in ways that nobody else has ever used it on that one single record. Everything from backwards tapes to string quartets. Of course Sgt. Pepper’s…was another step forward, but for me, Revolver had it all right there. That’s when I realised more than anything I wanted to be a recording artist and not so much a pop star; someone who takes the studio as their instrument and does things with it.” He adds that even with “Yellow Submarine” “have sound effects…the sound of water and the sound of guys on the ship, John Lennon’s pirate imitations, and even a brass band! It’s comical, and it’s not the greatest song they ever wrote, but it’s still somewhat innovative in a recording sense.”
In addition to his Beatles-inspired originals, Belew laid down the disturbing texture of Tori Amos’ cover of “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” one of many tracks from her Strange Little Girls album he appears on.
“I’m from the sixties,” he explained to guitarinternational.com, “and the records that meant a lot to me, Revolver by The Beatles, of course Sergeant Pepper’s as well, but Revolver was my favorite. The first Jimi Hendrix record was stunning in a way that, suddenly there was a whole change in electric guitar happening in that one record.”
Some Press Clippings
. . . from 1982, 1989, 1994 and 1996:
With Nine Inch Nails
Belew appears on four Nine Inch Nails albums, spanning 1994’s The Downward Spiral through last year’s Hesitation Marks. The April 1994 issue of Guitar Player details the beginning of their partnership: Belew contributing “texture generating guitar” to “Mr. Self Destruct” and then ring mod guitar to “The Becoming.” Belew’s was told to play freely, focusing on rhythm and noise.
A big Belew fan, Trent had the guitarist contribute to “Just Like You Imagined,” “The Great Below” and “Where Is Everybody?” on The Fragile; fourteen tracks on Ghosts I–IV and six on Hesitation Marks. Belew and Reznor were credited as co-writers on “25 Ghosts III” and “27 Ghosts III.”
Primus/ Tool Supergroup?
A planned trio with Primus bassist/ frontman Les Claypool and Tool drummer Danny Carey never came to be, but recordings the trio made together were released on Belew’s 2005 album Side One:
But This Is Just The Tip
Belew has relentlessly created and collaborated under a spotlight since the ’70s, when Zappa first placed him there. It stands to reason then that the music mentioned above is just scratching the surface. Here’s a list of some other recordings to start digging deeper into his work:
- Frank Zappa “City Of Tiny Lites”
- Tom Tom Club “Genius of Love”
- Jerry Harrison “Worlds In Collision”
- “Big Electric Cat”
- “The Momur”
- King Crimson “The Howler”
- “I Wonder”
- Laurie Anderson “Sharkey’s Day”
- “Oh Daddy”
- “Men In Helicopters”
- “Young Lions”
- Crash Test Dummies “God Shuffled His Feet”
- Nine Inch Nails “Mr Self Destruct”
- “Of Bow and Drum”
- Nine Inch Nails “Just Like You Imagined”
- Nine Inch Nails “The Great Below”
- Tori Amos “Heart of Gold
- King Crimson “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic – Part IV”
- King Crimson “Level Five”
- King Crimson “EleKtrik: Live in Japan” (full concert)
- Porcupine Tree “DeadWing”
- Porcupine Tree “Halo”
- “Beat Box Guitar”
- Nine Inch Nails “All Time Low”
- Nine Inch Nails “In Two”
- full concerts with his band The Bears from 1987 and 2004
- and this full, pro-shot 2008 Power Trio concert with the Slick siblings
. . . Still Evolving
“I’m not done yet,” Belew, now 64, recently said. “I still have a lot of new ideas.”
True, the ’80s are home to Belew’s most revolutionary and best known work. But he’s never stopped evolving or exploring. In 2014 he seems as curious and creative as ever. Since the late ’90s he’s continually evolved a completely singular system of pedals and digital devices allowing him – among many other options – to loop his playing in real time so it sounds like two guitar parts, and in this decade he switched to a midi set-up run-through a laptop. Belew explains much of this, as well as demonstrates some of his techniques in the video below. He also recalls how he came to (unintentionally) write an orchestral piece (jump to the 28″ mark for that).
Following a wildly successful Kickstarter, Belew will release his FLUX music app on Novemeber 25th. Belew officially describes it on the campaign page:
“FLUX is an ever-changing variety of music, songs, sounds, and visual art, that comes at you in quick, surprising pieces–the way life does. You get exposed to a lot of interesting content quickly. And every listen is a new, unique experience, that will never happen again for you or anyone else. While songs do repeat over time, the song forms themselves are short and varied. Songs even appear in multiple versions, with different lyrics and instrumentation. Sometimes a longer song will play in its entirety, but most often you’ll only hear a portion of it, which may be interrupted by something else: a startling sound effect or a common everyday noise. There are hundreds of these songs, pieces of music, and sonic “snippets”, along with engaging visuals randomly changing with the music. A content management system has been built that let’s us assign probabilities to tracks, determining how and when they appear. This ensures that FLUX never plays the same way twice.
FLUX also includes pictures, lyrics, studio notes, backstories about the songs, and interactive ways to share your FLUX experience with your friends via social media. By the way, when you like something, press the “favorite” button, and it will appear in a playlist, where you can hear it anytime you want.
One thing that surely makes FLUX unlike any traditional record, CD, or download: it’s never finished! I plan to update the FLUX stream with new content (new songs, more snippets) on a regular basis, making it an evolving creative platform that continues to surprise you.”