Adrian Belew, part 3: 1981-1984 (guest appearances and solo albums)

The two previous articles in this series covered the meteoric rise of Adrian Belew from a talented yet unknown musician in a cover band to his work with Frank Zappa, David Bowie Talking Heads and as a full member of King Crimson. The third and final article focuses on his guest appearances in the early 1980s and his first solo albums. This is an amazing output in its variety and quality, and even more impressive given that all the projects covered in this article have been produced while King Crimson was a very active outfit that released three albums and performed around the world.

When the world tour with Talking Heads to promote the album Remain in Light completed early in 1981, Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz invited Adrian Belew to the Bahamas to record a side project they named Tom Tom Club after the building they rehearsed in. Adrian Belew stayed 3 weeks in the Bahamas for these recordings, which proved to be a pivotal point for all artists involved. The two members of Talking Heads saw with the short quirky danceable tunes they created, a success bigger than any of Talking Heads’ albums up to that point. One of them was the mega summer hit Genius of Love. For Adrian Belew this recording led to his first record deal that yielded 3 solo albums. More on that later.

Tom Tom Club’s album is notable for Adrian Belew fans as one of the first released recording with what would become his trademark sound of animal noises, generated by his guitar and a unique blend of sound effects (There were earlier recordings of animal noises, but they were released later – read on). Here is L’Elephant from Tom Tom Club’s debut:

In 1981 all Talking Heads members were busy with side projects and Adrian Belew was involved in all of them. After Tom Tom Club, Adrian Belew participated in David Byrne’s project ‘Songs from the Broadway Production of The Catherine Wheel’. This was a musical score commissioned by Twyla Tharp for her dance company, which was released as an album. Belew was a natural pick for Byrne, and he is credited on various tracks with steel drum guitar, End guitars, and as in the following piece, floating guitar. Brian Eno plays vibes, Jerry Harrison on clavinet:

One more solo project from the Talking Heads family was Jerry Harrison’s first solo album The Red and the Black, with many tracks not surprisingly continuing the blueprint of Talking Heads’ album Remain in Light. Adrian Belew plays on a number of tracks on this album, contributing solo guitar. Here is the opener to that album, Things Fall Apart:

Belew reflected on this period in his career: “When I listen to the records I made in the early 80’s, and I made quite a few in quick succession, there is a definite sonic vocabulary which comes through. It’s as though I had the same few tools and kept working them different ways. Why? Because that’s exactly what was happening. My pedalboard, which is the guitarist’s toolbox, was really quite limited, unlike pedalboards of today. I had maybe 6 pedals?”

A fine example of using all of these pedals on a single track is one more fantastic collaboration, this time with a jazz and fusion giant. Immediately after completing the recording with the Tom Tom Club in the Bahamas, Adrian Belew flew to San Francisco to play on Herbie Hancock’s album Magic Windows on one tune, The Twilight Clone. Like many other creative artists around that time, Hancock was looking for that Talking Heads African rhythmic style and Adrian Belew added the secret sauce for that track. Along with the Brothers Johnson (Louis on bass and George on rhythm guitar), Paulinho da Costa on percussion and Herbie Hancock on synths and Linn Drum programming, Belew adds a nice touch on this heavy funk number. Belew: “I remember Herbie being at a few early King Crimson shows and when he finally had me alone in the studio he kept asking for more and more tracks to be added. I loved it and I love the result.”

Also in 1981 Belew was invited to record with eclectic Japanese artist Ryuichi Sakamoto. Before he rose to world fame with his excellent soundtracks for Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Sakamoto maintained a solo career in parallel to his membership in the group Yellow Magic Orchestra, a hugely successful electronic pop band in their native land. Belew had no idea how popular Sakamoto was until he boarded a plane to Tokyo for the recording: “I picked up a magazine which just happened to have a feature article about Ryuichi Sakamoto’s band Yellow Magic Orchestra. The article said in Japan YMO were bigger than the Beatles and couldn’t even walk down the street without being mobbed. Those were the people I was going to record with!”

The recording Belew was invited to play on was for Sakamoto’s third solo album, Left-Handed Dream, a collaboration with British singer Robin Scott. It is a mixed bag of songs and instrumentals, indicative of the sound that dominated pop production around the world in the early 80s. The recording took place at Sony studio, a state of the art digital recording facility located at the top of a skyscraper. The popularity of Sakamoto in Japan generated a lot of interest in the upcoming album, and Belew remembers the swarming of music industry people around the studio: “There was a large control room with comfortable couches, it seemed always full of people. Journalists, photographers, friends? I’m not sure who all the people were, but very few of them spoke any English. The control room was surrounded by expansive glass windows looking into the recording room. I would go into the recording room, put on my headphones, pick up my guitar and record a track and when I would finish the song the entire entourage watching in the control room would stand up and applaud!”

Here is a track from the album with some fine guitar playing by Belew:

During Adrian Belew’s stay in the Bahamas to record with Tom Tom Club, he met Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, by then a millionaire record mogul. The best part of that meeting is discussed later in the article, but one outcome from it was that Blackwell casually got the guitarist to guest on two more albums. Belew remembers: ”As our conversation was ending Chris asked if I had met Robert Palmer. Robert lived in an apartment right across the road from Compass Point and was currently making a new solo record. Would I like to play on a track? Sure. Also Joe Cocker was coming in to work with producer Mutt Lange. What would I think about putting something on one of his songs? Sure.”

Robert Palmer’s album Maybe It’s Live, mostly consisting of tracks from a 1980 live performance, also includes the studio track Si Chatouillieux, a collaboration between Palmer and Belew:

We will skip a few more guest appearances around that time, including albums by Joe Cocker (on Sheffield Steel), Ex- J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf (on Lights Out) and Garland Jeffries (on Escape Artist), and reach 1983, when Adrian Belew was a guest musician on Joan Armatrading’s album The Key. The recording took place in Sweden at the studio of the country’s best export after Volvo, the mega successful pop band ABBA. Sparing no costs, the band built a state of the art studio with all the trimmings, which Belew remembers as “a digital wonderland with glass enclosures giving you a ‘fish in a fishbowl’ feeling.” It was not an easy recording experience, starting with the fact that it took place in the land of the midnight sun, where some days of the year have 18 hours of sunlight: “The days in the studio seemed long and the nights were anything but sleep inducing.” Worse still was the attitude of the chanteuse towards him. When he landed after a red eye flight from Illinois to Sweden, he was picked up in a Volvo (what else?) limo and dropped at the hotel, welcoming a fast approaching sleep. Not to be, for “I heard a deep gruff voice from behind me, ‘You Belew?!’ It was Joan Armatrading. ‘Get your gear and come over to the studio now!’ Something about her bedside manner was a little scary to me.” The manners did not improve during the first few days of recording. The turning point came with a song that later become a staple of her live performances, (I Love It When You) Call Me Names. Belew recalls: “I played using the right-handed fretting technique made famous by Eddie Van Halen. When I came back into the control room she sheepishly approached me. ‘Can you show me how you do that?’ she asked. After that we were fine.”

The album’s sound is as 80s as it gets, a showcase for producer Steve Lillywhite’s bombastic sound. Still, Belew’s solo toward the end of the song cuts through magnificently. King Crimson band mate Tony Levin on that addictive bass line.

1984 brought with it one of my favorite Adrian Belew collaborations, with the very unique and talented Laurie Anderson.

In the later part of 1983 Laurie Anderson was working on her second album, a follow-up to her milestone debut Big Science that featured the hit O Superman. That single was part of a large stage production named United States, a multimedia event that included songs, instrumentals, spoken word and animations all wrapped in Anderson’s ruminations about life in the United States. It developed and evolved between 1979 and 1983 and was later released as a mammoth five-LP package. Belew recalls witnessing her shows: “I saw her performance twice and was pretty overwhelmed by it and didn’t say anything to her, didn’t introduce myself, and really didn’t think we’d ever work together or anything. Then one day I just got a call from her.”

That second album called for more sonic experimentation, and being an active artist in the thriving art and music New York scene, Anderson found Belew’s number. She could not do better than make that call, for he was a perfect match for the album, Mister Heartbreak. The sonic quality of that record is fantastic, with contributions from bassist Bill Laswell, percussionist David Van Tieghem and Anderson generating otherworldly sounds from her Synclavier. Belew is featured on four tracks on the album.

Anderson said about that second album in 1984: “I spent a lot of time after the first record saying how much I really hated things like guitars and bass and drums. Next record I did it was guitar, bass, drums.”

The album includes one of both artists’ career highlights, the tune Sharkey’s Day. Adrian Belew recalls the recording session of that song: “When I came into the session for what would become Sharkey’s Day it was a very different sounding track. As so often happens there was no vocal and the track was in a basic form without changes. The primary focus was an instrument which sounded like a jews harp. In fact the track had a surprisingly ‘hoe down’ kind of feel.”

This is why people call on Adrian Belew. The sounds he generates with his guitar can elevate seemingly average tracks to something completely different. Belew continues the tale: “I gravitated toward a very aggressive sound from a pedal called the Foxx Tone Machine, an octave fuzz pedal whose sound resembles the solo sound in Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. Later Laurie told me the energy of what I chose to play so changed the song she had to completely let go of her original intentions and re-write the song entirely.”

Sharkey’s Day is a sonic collage with all manners of sounds and vocals weaved in and out while Anderson sings and recites surrealism:

And Sharkey says: All night long I think of those little planes up there.

Flying around.

You can’t even see them.

They’re specks!

And they’re full of tiny people.

Going places.

And Sharkey says: You know?

I bet they could all land on the head of a pin.

And the little girls sing: Ooooeee.


He’s Mister Heartbreak.

The song was released as a single, edited down to about half its length. Here is the full album version in all its glory:

Commenting about Laurie Anderson choosing him to play on the record, Belew said: “She didn’t consider me a guitarist, she considered me a person who makes sounds. And that is attractive to her, of course. When we did our recordings together she would always say, ‘Now, make this kind of sound.’ I would just give her endless options of different sounds.” Anderson corroborated this statement, saying: “I can say that I don’t think Adrian Belew plays guitar; I don’t know what that is he plays – it’s some kind of animal.”

Taking a break from the recording studio one sunny day, Adrian Belew and Laurie Anderson went for a stroll in the village area of lower Manhattan. Belew continues the story: “For some reason she bought some cigars. We came upon an outdoor flea market and I found a Mexican straw sombrero which I bought. We returned to the studio and Laurie shared the cigars with me and the studio crew. I put on my new sombrero, went out into the recording room and began playing a happy little Mexican-sounding piece of music I improvised on my guitar synthesizer.”

That un-named piece became the music for the credit roll at the end of Laurie Anderson’s next project, the fantastic live performance film Home Of The Brave. Filmed during three weeks in the summer of 1985 at the Park Theater in Union City, NJ., it contained music from the albums Mister Heartbreak and USA mixed with new tracks. Belew had the privilege of playing two beautiful guitars with art made by Anderson that matched specific songs: a brown one with a telephone graphic for Sharkey’s Day and a blue one with a lightning bolt and palm tree setting for Blue Lagoon. For the guitar buffs reading his, the lightning bolt guitar is s a Fender Mustang with a full-blown early Roland guitar synthesizer system built in, a black Kahler tremolo, black Bowen locking tuning keys, Lace Sensor pickups, and a rosewood neck.

A third prop featured a rubberneck guitar which Belew puts to good use in the following clip, showcasing his acting talents. Look! Up on the stage! It’s a guitar player! It’s a juggler! It’s Adrian Belew!

The cast for the film included an eclectic group of talented artists. In the clip you also saw Joy Askew on keyboards, David Van Tieghem on percussion, Richard Landry on saxophone, Dolette McDonald and Janice Pendarvis – vocals. If you stuck all the way to the end you also saw a cameo appearance by none other than William S. Burroughs. Adrian Belew shares a funny memory: “late in the afternoon one day I went down to one of the dressing rooms to find a haggard older man in a crumpled brown suit sitting on a chair engulfed in a large cloud of pot smoke. I had been told William S. Burroughs may take part in the film but surprised to see the legendary writer sitting there alone like he just popped out of one of his books! I introduced myself, he offered me to smoke with him and I politely declined. He pointed to his pot stash and in his low croaking voice he said, ‘I love this stuff!’. He paused to exhale another cloud of smoke and said, ‘It makes me think!!’.

Oh, and that Mexican sombrero – it also makes an appearance atop Belew’s head in one of the scenes. If you didn’t get it by now – go find the movie and watch all the way through.

Still in 1984, and a Laurie Anderson connection, is Adrian Belew’s participation in Jean Michel Jarre’s album Zoolook. The French electronic music maestro was heavy into sampling at the time, using his Fairlight CMI sampler to great effect. Influenced by Laurie Anderson’s unique use of voice in her early 1980s albums, he asked to sample her voice and then used it on the album triggered from a keyboard.

Working with Laurie Anderson led to yet another guest appearance by Adrian Belew, this time on one of the most successful albums of the 1980s. We are branching out of the time period of this article by two years, but I could not skip that one. After the commercial failure of his previous album, Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon changed direction and late in 1985 started recording songs with South African musicians, a mixture of pop, a cappella, zydeco, isicathamiya (made famous with Ladysmith Black Mambazo), rock, and mbaqanga (or township jive). Looking to enrich the sound palette even farther, he learned through Laurie Anderson of Belew’s contributions to her projects. He asked the guitarist to bring his latest rig, which included the then-new Roland GR-700 guitar synthesizer. Belew recalls that he was so enthralled with the GR-700 that he had written nearly 200 different sounds and stored them on small cartridges.

Arriving early in the studio, Adrian Belew met legendary producer and sound engineer Roy Halee, a long time collaborator with Paul Simon starting in the 1960s with Simon and Garfunkel. Belew, who had no idea what Paul Simon’s new music sounded like, was quite surprised when Halee started playing him tracks he and Simon recorded. Belew remembers: “I honestly thought Roy had mistakenly put up the wrong master tapes because what I heard confused me. It was obviously some sort of South African music, not Paul Simon music. As usual there was no singing on the tracks yet. I sat there quietly listening, slightly embarrassed for Roy, but just then Paul arrived.”

Belew went straight to the source and asked him what gives. Paul asked Roy to play the tracks and proceeded Paul Simonizing them for the unfaithful: “He began singing phrases right into my ear, so close to me it gave me chills! He did that with a few of the songs. It was a remarkable experience having Paul Simon singing quietly in my ear. It certainly sounded like Paul Simon songs then! I realized then he had made a major transition in his work.”

The large collection of sounds Belew had in his arsenal of cartridges was put to good use. Paul Simon and Roy Halee were quite interested in this early form of sound bank, years before gazillion of factory sound banks became available from synth and software manufacturers: “We spent four days, just Roy, Paul, and me pouring over my 200 synthesizer sounds to find things which fit the songs. Paul was very detailed and painstaking in the parts he asked me to play.“

Adrian Belew contributed his guitar synth accompaniment to a number of songs on Graceland. One of them is the opener Boy in the Bubble with a few but memorable notes at 2:10. He had a more substantial part in the big hit You Can Call Me Al, working with Paul Simon on that song: “For You Can Call Me Al he had in mind a saxophone section. I had written a variety of saxophone emulations from baritone to alto which had a realistic yet unorthodox quality. He spelled out each part exactly as he wanted them for the iconic beginning of the song. They may have added real saxophones later but my synthesized saxophones are definitely there as well. I’m sure very few people realize that. I’ve heard that part many times as I’ve traveled the world. It’s my own ‘proud secret’ to know that’s me.”

Here is the video clip of the song with Paul Simon and Chevy Chase. This must be one of the funniest clips filmed for a pop song, not to mention the fantastic fretless bass work by Bakithi Kumalo.

Adrian Belew’s contributions to Paul Simon’s album did not go unnoticed by the legendary singer, and he reciprocated in the best way he could: “Paul was the first person to send me a gold record so I’ll never forget him for that. I had probably played on other gold records by then but no one else had been as thoughtful.”

Miraculously, during all that hectic schedule of studio work plus recording and touring with King Crimson, Adrian Belew managed to kick off his solo career with a number of solo albums. His quest for a record deal failed multiple times in previous years. He remembers: “My manager and I had approached nearly every record label in New York City and been shown the door by all of them. I recall the remark of one high level record exec who told my manager, ‘tell Adrian to stick to playing guitar for Bowie and forget about making his own music!’”

That meeting with Chris Blackwell while recording with Tom Tom Club? Well, not only it got Adrian Belew a few guest appearances on other artists’ albums, but more importantly but he was finally able to ink a recording contract with Blackwell’s Island label. This story sounds like a happy fairy tale end to the previous gloomy paragraph, but it is true. It also marks the beginning of a fantastic solo career: “Chris had a beautiful home in a cove on the ocean. He and I sat in his living room talking when something remarkable happened. Chris asked, ‘You’ve done a lot of high profile guitar work in a very short time, Adrian, but what are your real goals?’ I said I had only started playing guitar to be a songwriter, that I had a lot of what I considered first rate material. Chris Blackwell said very casually, ‘I’ll give you a record deal.’ He didn’t even ask to hear my music! Within weeks his label Island Records officially signed me to a 3-record deal resulting in my first run of solo records.”

The recording of Adrian Belew’s debut solo album took place in 1981 between the recording of King Crimson’s Discipline and the beginning of their world tour. During that time he went back to Compass Point Studio in the Bahamas with his old mates from the band Gaga and recorded the album Lone Rhino. The cover of that album featured a photograph by Kojo Tanaka capturing a rhino amidst a flower field with an oxpecker on its back. Adrian Belew and his guitar were airbrushed into that ‘National Geographic’-like landscape.

My favorite track from that album is The Lone Rhinoceros, featuring Belew on guitar, vocals, drums, and of course – animal noises. The song was written one night at David Bowie’s house near Lake Geneva. Earlier that day Eugene Chaplin, a recording engineer, was in the studio and invited them to his late father’s house: Charlie Chaplin’s estate Manoir de Ban, a few miles away from Bowie’s house. After screening the 1957 film The King In New York, Belew learned about a rift that existed between Chaplin and his son Michael, who played as a kid in the movie. Years later the son wrote a book called ‘I Couldn’t Smoke the Grass on My Father’s Lawn’ and became estranged from his father. The song Belew wrote was a metaphor for a lonely person, trapped in a life where he felt like the last of his kind.

The song is also significant for featuring the first recording by Belew of a guitar imitating animal noises, committed to tape a couple of years earlier in 1979. He was recording an early demo version of the song at Cwazy Wabbit studio in Illinois and at the end of that demo he recorded what he described as “my (mistaken) interpretation of what a rhino might sound like. The sound seemed so difficult to reproduce I ultimately used that very performance of the rhino sound for the proper version on the album.” History in the making, for these noises landed him so many of the guest appearances mentioned above and many more over the following years.

Belew’s fascination with using the guitar to make it sound like anything but a guitar has roots that started at an early age: “I always had an ear for sounds. Even when I was a kid, one of my favorite things was Mel Blanc’s sounds on all of those old cartoons. I always analyzed sounds, wondering whether I was able to do that on a guitar. How do you make it sound like a bird or a car?” As he became acquainted with the world of effect pedals, it opened up a whole world of possibilities and he started realizing his quest for otherworldly sounds: “My education was really based on figuring out as exactly as possible what other people were doing on records. I’d listen for hours and pick out the exact parts, and of course you have to try and pick out the sounds, too. So I started collecting fuzz tones and eventually wah-wah pedals and flangers and anything that would make a sound.“

In 1983 Adrian Belew released his second solo album Twang Bar King with a similar lineup to his debut, this time adding fantastic drummer and Nashville music legend Larrie Londin. Belew commented about Londin: “Larrie was a powerful locomotive of a drummer who had worked with everyone from Chet Atkins to Elvis but mostly made his way playing in the studio for some of Nashville’s most popular artists. He jumped at the chance to do something different.”

Twang Bar King was recorded during a lull in King Crimson activity when the band was recording the album Three of a Perfect Pair. Adrian Belew recalls the recording setup: “I had rented a small bare-bones rehearsal space in the back room of CV Lloyde’s music store in Champaign, Illinois and decided to use that space. It wasn’t that the space sounded particularly good but it was convenient. So I rented a mobile studio truck from Full Sail Recording School in Orlando where my engineer Gary Platt ran the school’s curriculum. We parked it behind the music store in the alley which soon became over-run with cables winding like snakes from truck to building.” Here is Paint the Road, an energetic instrumental from Twang Bar King.

Time to end this article, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than quote Adrian Belew’s reply after being asked about his aim when he works on new musical projects: “My whole goal in life is to wake people up to newer, more exciting and adventurous music. Maybe that sounds clichéd, but I don’t care.” Sounds just right to me. Maybe I should use that quote as a motto for this blog.

Thank you Adrian Belew for providing wonderful insights into the making of the music mentioned in this series of articles. And most of all, thank you for the music.

Previous articles in this series:

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13 replies »

  1. I have seen him throughout the years in Cincy! Ludlow Garage this past year, always a great showman!

  2. Thanks for a great piece! One small correction: Champagne, Illinois is actually Champaign, Illinois.

  3. Every once in a while a broken clock tells the correct time & the record execs were right on this one… as a collaborator he is an essential piece of any ensemble that really takes the group to a higher level but as a solo artist it’s just all gimicks and that’s just a waste of time & vinyl… I really appreciate him fronting KC for three years though & I got to see them LIVE for Three of a Prefect Pair… that was EPIC
    He is really talented but he needs to work in a creative band… his best work was always when he had other talented guys around him- Frank Zappa, Bowie, Talking Heads [Love the work on the Catherine Wheel] Herbie Hancock… finally King Crimson… these were the settings where he did his best work… after all music IS a language & you want to communicate with others not just sit in a room & essentially talk to yourself…

  4. His first two solo albums — Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King — combine creative childlike whimsy with technical virtuosity.

  5. Saw him about four times solo; and then twice with his group, “The Bears”. It changed the way that I listened to music.

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