38: Adrian Belew Families Tree
Breadcrumb trails lead to musical treasures.
w/ Frank Zappa
Adrian Belew was discovered by Frank Zappa, who made an exception to his rule about band members needing to be able to read music and instead taught Belew all of his parts in person. Belew sings lead on this:
w/ David Bowie
Then Belew was nicked by David Bowie, and played on Lodger, Stage (live lp) and eventually became music director for Bowie’s Sound and Vision tour. Bowie would guest on Belew’s early 90s solo record Young Lions, on two tracks (below).
w/ King Crimson
Next (sort of concurrently with Talking Heads and solo work) Belew joins an incarnation of King Crimson to make their greatest records. (I have more to write later about the importance of this era to me - the era when Prog Rockers figured out how to write concise songs that showed their proficiency without mentioning any stupid English fairy tales.) The HEIGHT of that success might be this song:
I love this song, and it’s only made better by the pink suit. He looks, in medium shots here, like Gob from Arrested Development. (Somebody should mash this and The Final Countdown up.) (No they shouldn’t.) I do not love King Crimson generally - except for these particular records with this lineup: Discipline and Three of a Perfect Pair. Art rock that seriously rocks.
The other people in this lineup were Math Guitarist Robert Fripp, whose band it was; Bill Bruford, veteran of all prog bands on drums; and bassist Tony Levin (seen in the video below playing the Chapman Stick, a sort of bass one plays by tapping on any of its 78 strings (I’m estimating. Click here for the truth). He's also Peter Gabriel’s bassist.
w/ Talking Heads
Belew was a member of the expanded Talking Heads. He plays on their incredible Remain in Light and their first live album The Name of This Band is Talking Heads; he played on Jerry Harrison’s solo projects, David Byrne’s Catherine Wheel record, and with the (barf) Tom Tom Club* - whose Tina Weymouth denied him songwriting credit for tracks he helped create. Talking Heads internal drama was all ugly, at whatever level of involvement.
w/ Laurie Anderson
Laurie Anderson was a big deal for me when I found her, towards the end of High School. I taped her Home of the Brave from the TV and watched it many, many times. Adrian Belew’s totally fun here - in costume, miming on a rubber guitar, dancing all crazy. I should talk more about Laurie Anderson soon.
Belew also played on Graceland (Paul Simon), True Colors (Cyndi Lauper), with Jean Michel Jarre, Herbie Hancock, Mike Oldfield, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nine Inch Nails - all over the place, generally pretty cool music. (Minus Tom Tom Club *.)
First Solo Era
His solo records are oddball, angular, experimental music mixed with Beatles-style songs. Belew is crazy for animals, and has written songs about rhinos, birds, lions, dying cars, and Big Electric Cats. His first three albums are so out-of-print that they’re not on Spotify (*since I wrote this, Desire Caught by the Tail has shown up), but a compilation called Desire of the Rhino King has most of the tracks, and Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King are not hard to find on vinyl. Desire Caught By the Tail, his third, was instrumental and experimental, and killed his deal with Island.
Second Solo Era
The records after that have their moments, but it was via these records that I began to form an opinion: it is a terrible idea for an artist to play ALL the instruments on a record AND PRODUCE it (Prince’s Sign of the Times is an exception). There’s something missing when that happens, in my experience. They do feature some great stuff, though. Mr. Music Head is solid, aside from starting with a gimmicky father-daughter duet which charted somewhere.
He also made a real stab at pop-hit rock with his band The Bears, who are fun but inconsequential.
Pretty recently, Belew found a couple of young siblings he found at The School of Rock in Philadelphia and hired them. Here’s the Adrian Belew Power Trio.
So Many Mans!
That’s all for this week. I have noticed, by the way, the overrepresentation of male artists with guitars thus far in Music of the 80s. It’s accurate - this was the place I grew up in first. But fear not: we’re only in the middle of the 80s, and have yet to fall in love with (the aforementioned) Laurie Anderson, Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, Cyndi Lauper. But I will. I’ve seen the ending of this story, and the musical scope definitely expands as our hero grows up.
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Peace out -
*I try not to hate bands. I ignore tons, but I try not to waste time hating music I don’t like. But I hate the Tom Tom Club. I hate their inanity, their sound, their radical whiteness, and the fact that they - 3/4 of the core Talking Heads - could make music that bad. (I imagine that it also demonstrates why David Byrne had to hire 5 additional musicians, including Bernie Worrell of Parliament/Funkadelic, when he wanted to make the band funky. I have not ever gone and spent time trying to glean their value, which I do sometimes for bands I dislike, because I know it’d be a waste of time. I HATE the Tom Tom Club.
PS: after finding all these songs on YouTube, I found a video by Belew discussing his career, from 2007. I could have saved us all a LOT of time by just showing this.