Adrian Belew, part 1: 1976-1980 (Zappa, Bowie, Talking Heads)

The man who was stolen from Frank Zappa by David Bowie – I give you Adrian Belew.

Stewart Copeland suggested this line in lieu of a resume for the gifted guitar player in a shared interview in 2017. Most musicians would kill to have the two legends in the opening line of their resume, but for Adrian Belew this was only the beginning of a meteoric rise from anonymity to a highly acclaimed musician, performer and sonic sculpture artist. This is a detailed two-part review, looking at the first decade of his unique career, from being discovered in a bar gig all the way to his first solo album and guest appearances on a multitude of musical projects.

At the age of 27 Adrian Belew was playing regional gigs around Nashville with Sweetheart, a cover band that adopted a look of old-time gangsters. Belew remembers: “To be in sweetheart you had to cut your hair 40’s style and wear authentic 1940’s vintage clothing. All the time! Even in the daytime if you were going grocery shopping.” The band members excelled at playing the more interesting repertoire of classic rock radio. However Belew started to get disillusioned with his dream of becoming a musician with a record deal, playing his own material. Doing cover songs in small clubs and bars can only get you that far in the music business.

Sweetheart

But all of this changed thanks to Terry Pugh. Terry who, you ask? Fair question, for Terry the chauffeur is responsible for turning Adrian Belew’s career around. Without Terry, Adrian Belew could have been an obscure, unknown and forgotten cover band guitarist, a faith shared with thousands of bar band musicians, playing endless gigs without a hope of being discovered. Terry was a fan of Sweetheart and on the night of October 18th, 1976 he found himself driving a limo around Nashville with none other than Frank Zappa in the back seat. Zappa, on tour with his band, was looking for some live music to watch after his show at the Memorial Gymnasium in Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Frank asks Terry to recommend a favorite music act in town, and Terry tells him about a band called Sweetheart with a very good guitarist playing tonight at Fanny’s Bar. They walk in, Zappa likes what he hears and 40 minutes later, while the band is playing a cover of Gimme Shelter, he walks to the stage, shakes hands with the guitar player and tells him: “I’m going to get your name and number from the chauffeur, and when my tour is over I’ll call you for an audition.” So enters Adrian Belew the Zappa universe.

After Zappa left town Belew continued to play bar gigs in Nashville. He left Sweetheart and played many uninspired gigs in town. During one gig with a disco band called 110 in the Shade he recalls hearing a long, low drone in the middle of an instrumental. He looked over to see the keyboard player with his head flopped onto the organ keys, passed out. The band toured the circuit, sleeping in their gig van and barely making ends meet. But everything changed when six months after Zappa met Belew he kept his word and called to invite him to Los Angeles for an audition. He also gave Belew some homework: a list of tunes from twelve of his albums to learn before he gets on a plane for the audition. Belew was told to “Figure out how to play and sing this the best you can, however you can.” We are talking Zappa material here, not an easy task for a self-taught musician who could not read music and never played odd time signatures. Belew got on a plane, his first ever flight, and several hours later found himself in the middle of a basement with a Pignose amplifier and a Stratocaster trying to sing and play lots of Frank Zappa songs. In other words, an audition at Zappa’s house: “I was so nervous. I remember doing ‘Andy,’ and ‘Wind Up Workin’ In A Gas Station.’ I thought I did poorly, and I had nowhere to go. I had just flown in, and was driven to his house, so I sat there all day watching everyone else. I watched some really tough auditions, especially for keyboard players and percussionists. I didn’t see any other guitar players, but I was later told that he auditioned 50 guitar players.”

The audition did not go very well for Adrian Belew. The intimidation he felt from Zappa’s band and the constant influx of other musicians coming in to be auditioned was not the setting he had hoped for. At the end of the day he said to Zappa “Frank, I don’t think I did so well. I imagined this would have happened differently. I thought you and I would sit somewhere quiet, and I would play and sing the songs for you.” Zappa, a gracious man when it matters, took him to the living room to continue the audition at a more relaxed atmosphere. Belew: “We sat on his purple couch. I placed my Pignose amplifier face down on the couch so I could get a little bit of sustain, and I auditioned all over again. At the end of it, he reached out his hand and said, ‘You got the job.’”

Belew was part of Zappa’s touring band between September 1977 and February 1978, performing about 70 shows in the US and European cities. The band at that point included Frank Zappa on guitar and vocals, Terry Bozzio on drums, Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, Ed Mann on percussion, Tommy Mars on keyboards, Patrick O’Hearn on bass and Peter Wolf on keyboards. Prior to the tour Belew had the benefit of practicing the material at Zappa’s house for three months, giving him sufficient time to learn the challenging pieces and accumulate five hours of material to play on tour.

Belew’s role on that tour was to complement Zappa’s guitar and vocal duties. As Belew wrote in the liner notes of the Frank Zappa Halloween 77 box set: “Frank either played or sang, never both at the same time, so ultimately my role became covering his parts. When he sang I played his guitar part. When he played I sang his vocal part.”

Being the rookie in the troupe, Belew had to perform all the marvelously ridiculous parts that go with a Zappa show, along with matching customs: “Need someone to wear a flashing helmet and bounce around like a robot? How about Adrian? Need someone to wear a dress onstage? There’s always Adrian.”

During the tour the band recorded live material that would be overdubbed later and released as the double album Sheik Yerbouti. Here is one song featuring Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals, City of Tiny Lites, filmed at the Palladium Theater, NY, Halloween 1977. Imagine the difference in skills required to be on stage with musicians of that caliber, compared to playing covers in a bar band.

Another one from Sheik Yerbouti, this one showing the endlessly humorous side of Zappa – and Belew, who’s imitation of Bob Dylan here is priceless. Belew tells the story: “I was hanging out at Frank’s house one night and he was showing me some music that he would be teaching the band next week and he was writing a song called Flakes. When he played it for me it sounded like a really bad folk song so I started making fun of it. I started singing ‘I asked as nice as I could if my job would…’ and he said ‘That’s it!’”. I can’t tell what’s funnier here, Belew’s Dylan or the harmonica part.

In late January of 1978 the European leg of the tour started, reaching Cologne, Germany on the night of February 14th. Who should be in the audience but Brian Eno, at the time working with the band Devo as producer on their debut album Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, recorded at Conny Plank’s Studio outside of Cologne. Eno, aware of his pal David Bowie’s need of a lead guitar player for his upcoming world tour, places a call to Major Tom, urging him to come see the new guitar phenomena he just witnessed on stage. Not Zappa, the other guy. The following night Zappa’s band performs in Berlin. During a long Zappa solo feature Belew walks off stage and who is standing next to the sound console? Iggy Pop? No. Well actually yes, but more importantly a friend of Pop, David Bowie. Wasting no time, the Major asks Belew “How would you like to be in my band?” Belew points to the man with the goatee soloing on stage “Well, I’m kind of playing with that guy.” Fast forward a few hours later. Bowie gives Belew the celeb treatment and chauffeurs him in a limo to a restaurant to seal the deal. Who should be sitting at the first table but Sheik Yerbouti, not humored by the obvious one-upmanship unfolding before his eyes. Bowie, coolness personified, says “Quite a guitar player you have here Frank.” The exchange that follows as told by Belew is the stuff of legend:

Frank said, “F••• you Captain Tom.”

(note: Frank had demoted David from a Major to Captain)

David persisted, “Oh come on now Frank, surely we can be gentlemen about this?”

Frank said, “F••• you Captain Tom.”

David said, “So you really have nothing to say?”

Frank said, “F••• you Captain Tom.”

The repetition would have made Philip Glass proud.

In a classic Zappa manner, during one of the last shows of his tour with Belew, when the band was playing Yo Mama, he sang the following lyrics as a way of farewell to his protégé:

Maybe you should stay with your David,

He can do your laundry and cook for you,

Maybe you should stay with your David,

You’re really kind of stupid and ugly too

Virtually no time elapsed between the end of Zappa’s tour and rehearsals for Bowie’s tour. Adrian Belew joined Carlos Alomar (rhythm guitar), Dennis Davis (drums), Simon House (electric violin), Sean Mayes (piano), George Murray (bass) and Roger Powell (keyboards) on a tour that would take him to 15 countries and 78 performances.

During the tour Belew was required to play guitar on the song Heroes. Stories abound about how that song was originally recorded in the studio, with David Bowie and Brian Eno asking Robert Fripp to play his guitar parts upon hearing the song for the first time. Fripp recorded three parts, each time without hearing what he already recorded. Producer Toni Visconti continues: “I said ‘Look, let me just hear what it sounds like with the other two tracks. You never know.’ We played it, all three tracks together, and you know, I must reiterate Fripp did not hear the other two tracks when he was doing the third one so he had no way of being in sync. But he was strangely in sync. And all his little out-of-tune wiggles suddenly worked with the other previously recorded guitars. It seemed to tune up. It got a quality that none of us anticipated. It was this dreamy, wailing quality, almost crying sound in the background. And we were just flabbergasted.”

Robert Fripp, David Bowie, Brian Eno

Adrian Belew knew none of this, he was simply asked to come up with a suitable guitar part for the live performance of the song. He tells the story: “They believed it was impossible to play Robert’s parts. No one ever told me, so I figured out how to play them. One day I came in the studio in Lake Geneva and Brian and David were having a laugh and I said, ‘What’s so funny?’ They said, ‘You’re so stupid. You didn’t know you can’t play those impossible guitar parts so you played them.’” And play them he did, as in the brilliant performance here captured live on that tour. Belew plays some of the tastiest notes of his career on this version.

Between the European and Australian legs of the world tour Bowie, Eno and Visconti spent time recording what would become the third part of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, the album Lodger. Recording took place at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland with the working title Planned Accidents. This was Adrian Belew’s first studio recording experience, and in the best tradition of Bowie and Eno, they had far from conventional recording methods planned for him. They said, “What we want you to do is go upstairs in the recording room, put on your headphones and you’ll hear a count-off to the song and just play.” Belew answered “Don’t I get to hear the song?” They said, “No, you just play whatever comes to your mind.” Belew asked “OK, can you tell me what key it’s in?” They said, “No. Just play.” Belew proceeded to play whatever came to him as he was listening to the new songs for the first time. He got only two or three takes per song. When the recording was complete, the guitar tracks would be chopped and placed at various points in the songs, many times at different spots then those Belew played them.

Adrian Belew on the David Bowie tour, 1978

One of the best examples of his guitar work on Lodger is the hit single Boys Keep Swinging. Belew was not the only one to experience the odd recording techniques Eno brought the studio. Using his Oblique Strategies idea cards, Eno asked guitarist Carlos Alomar and drummer Dennis Davies to play different instruments, and they ended up playing drums and bass, respectively.

Working with Eno on his first studio experience left a deep impression on Adrian Belew: “He would find ways to do things that aren’t normal; so he would put you in a situation where you would come up with something that you normally wouldn’t come up with. And so now I try to do that to myself all the time in my own music. I’ll change the tuning of the guitar so I don’t know what I’m doing, or I’ll play an instrument that I am not that competent on. I learnt to think outside the box from him – push yourself, challenge yourself and don’t just do what is expected of you.” Lodger was the first album Belew recorded with Brian Eno, but not the last. Another milestone album involving the two is just around the corner.

When the tour with Bowie came to an end Adrian Belew settled in Springfield Illinois and connected with musicians he knew from his Nashville days, a band called Tonguesnatcher Revue. Together they formed a new band called Gaga, recording material at Cwazy Wabbit studio that was owned by band members Christy Bley (keyboards) and Rich Denhart (bass). They shopped the demos with the hope of landing a record deal, but no label was interested. The band performed extensively with a set that included Belew originals and a couple of tunes by his previous employers, Flakes and Boys Keep Swinging. Sax player Bill Janssen recalls that “Gaga saw the inside of nearly every rock club in central Illinois.” The band opened for Pretenders and Jefferson Starship and at some point landed an opening act slot for Robert Fripp’s band The League of Gentlemen on their east coast dates. During a show in Cincinnati Belew asked his manager Stan Hertzman “What do you think of this music?” Stan said, “I think if they added you and you sang songs and played guitar, it would be great.” That was quite an accurate prediction of what would ensue a couple of years later, but before we get to that chapter we have one more fantastic musical partnership to cover, for who shows up at the last League of Gentlemen US gig at Irving Plaza in New York on July 22nd 1980 but Brian Eno (again!), along with David Byrne and Jerry Harrison from the band Talking Heads.

Tina Weymouth, Adrian Belew

Awed by the opening act featuring the guitar wizardry of Adrian Belew on stage, the three immediately summoned him to Sigma Sound studio in Philadelphia. Earlier that month Talking Heads and Eno spent time at the Bahamas putting together tracks for their next album. For Eno this was the third album as producer for Talking Heads, and this time he took a more active role, following the blueprint he started in 1979 with David Byrne when they started recording their collaboration, My Life In the Bush of Ghosts. Influenced by African rhythms and artists such as Fela Kuti and King Sunny Ade, the band recorded long jams from which Eno cut shorter bits and assembled them into an extraordinary sonic collage. Adrian Belew came into the studio and started setting his guitar gear, playing around with sounds as he was getting ready to record. Eno and David Byrne were overjoyed with what they heard: “We want you to do all that stuff!” And that he did.

One day of recording was enough for Belew to come up with guitar licks and crazy sounds for the album, Talking Heads’ milestone achievement known as Remain in Light. One of the tracks he was asked to play on was known at that point as Fela’s Riff for its similarity to the Nigerian musician’s style. Listen to what happens at 1:53 when Belew comes in. Another great contribution on this track and the whole album is by Nona Hendryx (of Labelle fame) and José Rossy on percussion just before joining Weather Report. One of the highlights of the album, this is The Great Curve:

Belew later said of his playing on that recording: “I was instructed to play what I want, go wild, do all the solos and stuff; for me that was a holiday. Talking Heads music was the most comfortable music I ever got to play, because it is pretty simple music and my ideas and guitar playing just seemed to fit right in.”

A few months after that day of recording Adrian Belew received a call asking him to join the Talking Heads for a number of live shows with material from the album. The band decided to expand its stage lineup considerably to support all the sounds they assembled together with Brian Eno in the studio. That was a formidable band as Jerry Harrison recalls: “David and I sat down and said, ‘Well, how many people do we need to perform these songs?’ And we came up with this list which included a second bass player, another keyboard player, another guitar player, background singers, percussion. And I went out and I was able to hire Adrian and Bernie Worrell (keyboards), and I had been doing a record with Buster Jones (bass) and Dollete McDonald (vocals). So, I came back in the afternoon, I said, ‘We have the most amazing band!’ and it was all done in like three hours.” The band had only four days to rehearse all the songs from the album before their first show, a high-profile performance at the Heatwave festival in Toronto, alongside acts including The B-52s’, Elvis Costello, Pretenders and The Clash. In front of 70,000 people they unleashed a style and sounds never heard before. A follow-up show in Central Park convinced the band to continue with that crew on a world tour to promote the album. Here is Crosseyed and Painless from that tour. Pay attention to Belew’s work here, especially when the song kicks into its familiar groove at 1:40.

Drummer Chris Franz said this about working with Adrian Belew: “Oh, we’d just let him go. No direction necessary. We might have said, ‘OK, the guitar solo goes there,’ but with Adrian, you don’t tell him what to play.” Indeed Belew keeps coming up with great licks, short outbursts of sound at seemingly random places that work amazingly well with the songs.

The European leg of the tour commenced on December 1st, 1980 in London. The night the band arrived in town the whole entourage went out to a dinner in a fancy Russian restaurant, wasting no time in consuming large amounts of vodka and engaging in food fights, like rock n roll bands do. Belew, not a hard drinker, crushed in his hotel room in the wee small hours, dead to the world. Not for long, though. A 9AM call woke him up: “Hello Adrian, I know you’re not one to go raving so I figured it was safe to call you early. Did I wake you up?” A groggy Belew uttered something incoherent, to which the caller replied: “Well look, Bill Bruford and I want to start a band with you.”


And now to part 2 of the article…


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8 replies »

  1. I was at that Irving Plaza gig with League of Gentlemen and Gaga. During the break between acts, I was in the stairwell where I overheard the conversation in which David Byrne asked Adrian to visit the studio where Remain in Light was being recorded. I was also fortunate enough to see that material performed at the Central Park show.

    • I sometimes wonder if the stuff I write about really happened 🙂 Thanks for the validation, that is a great memory.

  2. Overlooked (unless in next chapter) is Adrian’s contribution to Laurie Anderson’s tour and movie Home Of The Brave. It is a terrific music-multimedia spectacle.

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