Adrian Belew

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One of the most unusual and forward-thinking guitarists of his time, Adrian Belew has played with some of rock’s biggest names (Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, King Crimson, and many more) while also attracting a die-hard following for his solo work. Belew incorporates a broad range of sounds and effects in which he mimics animal noises or mechanical rumblings alongside his deft guitar picking, making his own recognizable style that’s fluid and expressive. He established himself as a valued sideman in the 1970s, and stepped out on his own with a pair of solo efforts, 1982′s The Lone Rhino and 1983′s Twang Bar King, that showed he could write songs that were ideal vehicles for his bag of instrumental tricks, mixing up elements of hard rock, funk, new wave, experimental music, Beatlesque pop, and more. While his work with other artists often kept him occupied, he was able to collaborate with others on his own terms — 2005′s Side One was the first of three albums he recorded with Les Claypool of Primus and Danny Carey of Tool as his accompanists — and could also craft exciting music solo, as on 2019′s Pop Sided and 2022′s Elevator, where he gave his muse space to roam free while creating his own backings.
Born Robert Steven Belew on December 23, 1949, in Covington, Kentucky, his first instruments of interest were the drums, and he kept the beat in his high school’s marching band. Not long after his discovery of the Beatles, Belew picked up the guitar, teaching himself how to play and to write original songs. Spending the remainder of the ’60s and early ’70s honing his skills, he opted to change his first name to Adrian in 1975 (for the simple reason that it was a name he’d always admired), and he joined a Nashville, Tennessee-based cover band, Sweetheart, the same year. The group performed in ’40s-era suits and became a popular local attraction, resulting in Frank Zappa checking them out at a show in 1977. With an opening for a guitarist in his touring band, Zappa invited Belew to audition, which heeventually landed. It was during Zappa’s lengthy 1978 U.S. tour (documented in the concert movie Baby Snakes) that David Bowie came to see a performance. This resulted in Belew being invited to join Bowie’s touring band when the Zappa tour wrapped up, and he accepted, touring the world alongside Bowie and appearing on his 1978 live recording Stage and the 1979 studio effort Lodger.
Just as Belew’s latest gig was about to wind down, he received yet another offer too good to pass up. Through guitarist Robert Fripp, Belew met renowned producer Brian Eno, who in turn introduced the guitarist to Talking Heads, then in the midst of recording their 1980 release Remain in Light. Belew laid down guitar for several songs, which led to his participation on the album’s supporting tour (recordings from 1980 and 1981 dates appear on the live compilation The Name of This Band Is Talking Heads). He also contributed to the Talking Heads’ offshoot project the Tom Tom Club, appearing on their self-titled 1981 debut album, as well as their hit single “Genius of Love.” (Although he wasn’t originally given a songwriting credit, it became known years later that Belew helped co-pen the tune.) It was during the Tom Tom Club recording sessions in the Bahamas that Belew began work on his first solo album, issued in 1982 as The Lone Rhino.
Predictably, it wasn’t long before he was offered his next gig, this time with a newly reconstructed King Crimson. He handled lead vocal duties in addition to guitar, joined by Crimson vets Robert Fripp (guitar) and Bill Bruford (drums) in addition to session ace Tony Levin (bass). With the group eschewing their previous prog rock leanings in favor of a more “modern” sound, this version of Crimson issued three outstanding albums: 1981′s Discipline, 1982′s Beat, and 1984′s Three of a Perfect Pair. During this period, Belew found the time to issue a second solo release, 1983′s Twang Bar King. With Crimson on hiatus again in the mid-’80s, he focused on more solo work (1986’s Desire Caught by the Tail, 1989′s Mr. Music Head), session work (most notably Paul Simon’s mega-hit Graceland), and also served as a guitarist and producer with a new group, the Bears (1987′s The Bears, and 1988′s Rise and Shine).
The ’90s kept Belew busy, as he teamed up once more with his old pal David Bowie, who named the guitarist musical director for his massive 1990 Sound and Vision tour. Also during the decade, Belew issued several more solo releases (including 1990′s Young Lions, 1992′s Inner Revolution, 1994′s Here, and 1996′s Op Zop Too Wah, the latter two featured him playing all the instruments). In addition, he guested on other artists’ recordings (Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral and The Fragile), and produced others (Jars of Clay). After an almost-ten-year hiatus, King Crimson reunited, resulting in the 1995 album THRAK and a supporting tour. Belew showed no sign of slowing down in the 21st century, as he continued to tour and record with Crimson (2000′s ConstruKction of Light, 2003′s The Power to Believe), issued a third recording with the Bears (2001′s Car Caught Fire), and appeared on Back Against the Wall: A Tribute to Pink Floyd, an all-star prog and classic rock session in which the participants covered Pink Floyd’s iconic album The Wall in full. 2004 saw rehearsals with the newest King Crimson lineup and additional recordings by the Bears while at the same time recording the first and second volumes of an ambitious run of solo albums called Sides. The first and third of these (Side One and Side Three) had Primus bassist Les Claypool and Tool drummer Danny Carey lending a hand while Side Two was more of a solo affair with only a couple of guest spots. The fourth of these albums, 2009′s Side Four, was a live release by the Adrian Belew Power Trio that featured bassist Julie Slick and drummer Eric Slick. This long-running trio would become Belew’s primary performing outlet over the coming years and was also featured on the 2009 studio album e. In 2013, Belew was invited by Trent Reznor to become the touring guitarist for Nine Inch Nails, and while the collaboration never materialized, he was featured on their album Hesitation Marks that same year. Around that same time, he was also involved in the King Crimson-related spin-off group the Crimson ProjeKCt, who released a handful of live albums including 2014′s Live in Tokyo. 2014 also saw the release of Dust, a collection of demos and studio outtakes. Belew’s interest in electronic manipulation of music led to him create a pair of unique apps — FLUX — which cuts and pastes content on your smartphone while adding unique musical content from the musician that makes it possible to never hear the same song the same way twice — and FLUX:FX, an app for tablet computers that allows users to manipulate effects processing in a unique manner. A 2008 performance for German television was issued in CD and DVD formats in 2015 under the title Live at Rockpalast, and in 2017, Belew teamed with former Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Level 42 bassist Mark King, and keyboard player Vittorio Cosma to form the supergroup Gizmodrome. They introduced themselves with a self-titled studio album in 2017 and a concert recording, Gizmodrome Live, was issued in 2021. Belew was back in action as a solo artist with 2019′s Pop Sided, a set of compositions for guitar and electronics — he handled all the instruments and vocals himself. Another album in the same mold, Elevator, appeared in 2022. ~ Greg Prato & Mark Deming