Guitarist par excellence Adrian Belew was discovered by Frank Zappa in a small club in Nashville, only to be poached by David Bowie for a globe-straddling tour. The Press has the lowdown.
The extraordinarily inventive Belew caught the eye of Frank Zappa one night in 1976, while playing as the guitarist for local cover band Sweetheart at a small Nashville biker bar. Zappa had just played a show in town at a big arena and, as usual, was prowling for some interesting local talent. This weird group of people walked in and immediately Belew knew they were the real deal. He remembers thinking: “Wow, that’s Frank Zappa.” With Zappa was his bodyguard John Smothers and other assorted characters from his entourage, who proceeded to place themselves front and centre.
The guitarist started playing and singing the best material he had for the new arrivals: Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, the Stones, Steely Dan. After 40 minutes Zappa was impressed. He got up, walked up to the stage and shook Belew by the hand saying, “I’m gonna get your name and number and I will call you when my tour’s over. I’d like to audition you.”
Six months later Belew was desperate; he was behind on his rent, his car had broken down, and Sweetheart had long split up. He was in a crummy Nashville hotel room one day when the phone rang. It was Frank Zappa.
Normally not one to audition musicians who couldn’t read charts, on this occasion Zappa took a chance. After a tough audition session requiring Belew to learn and play 12 super-tough, complicated songs, he offered Belew the job. Then it was onto rehearsals: eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week for three solid months. Frank took Belew under his wing, putting him up at the Zappa home in LA, before embarking on an extensive international tour.
So entered Adrian Belew into the Zappa circus. Between September 1977 and February 1978, the band performed about 70 shows in the US, Canada and European cities.
When they landed in Cologne on 14 February 1978, Brian Eno happened to be in the audience; he was working with German electronic group Cluster at the time. Naturally Eno and Belew got to talking after the show and Eno mentioned David Bowie was looking for a new guitar player for his upcoming tour. The very next night Zappa rolled into Berlin, where Bowie was living at the time. During Zappa’s long extended guitar solo – when most the band left the stage – Belew noticed Bowie and Iggy Pop standing by the monitor board. He walked over.
“Mr Bowie, I just want to thank you for all the music you’ve made. I’m a real fan of your work.”
“Great, how would you like to be in my band?”
Belew pointed to Zappa out there in the middle of the stage and said, “Well I’m kinda working with that guy.” Ever the gentleman, Bowie laughed, “I know, but let’s talk about this. I’ll meet you back at the hotel and we can go and have some dinner.”
Belew’s head was spinning when he arrived back at the hotel, and upon his arrival saw Bowie sitting discreetly in a corner with his assistant Coco Schwab. Belew looked around, walked over, and in a hushed tone, Bowie whispered, “Just go on up to your room, don’t say anything, and come back down in five minutes. We have a car waiting outside.”
Belew thought he was in a spy film. Five minutes later he came downstairs, walked outside and a driver opened the door to a big black car. He got it the back seat and there was Bowie, who started going crazy, telling Belew how much he loved what he was doing, the songs they would be playing, and the elaborate plans he had for the world tour.
Eventually the car arrived at Bowie’s favourite Berlin restaurant. The three of them got out of the car, walked through the front door, and at the very first table sat Zappa and his entourage. Totally busted.
What else was there to do other than walk over and sit down to a very uncomfortable silence. Bowie broke the ice: “Frank, this is quite a guitar player you have here.” Zappa, looked at him, and took a long drag from his cigarette.
“Fuck you Captain Tom.”
Not only had Zappa demoted Bowie from Major to Captain, but when Bowie responded with, “Surely we can be gentlemen and talk about this”, again it was, “Fuck you Captain Tom.”
By this time Belew was wishing he could find a hole to crawl into, but not intimidated, Bowie wasn’t giving up, and tried one more time. “So you don’t really want to talk about anything Frank?” “Fuck you Captain Tom” was Zappa’s response again. So they got up, left the restaurant, and sitting in the back of the car Bowie said, “I thought that went rather well.”
It should be noted that Belew never thought he was leaving Zappa’s band for good. Indeed, a few days later Belew found himself at the back of the tour bus with Zappa heading for London’s Hammersmith Odeon to complete the tour.
They got down to business. Belew had accepted the Bowie offer and Zappa understood. The agreement was that Belew would finish the European tour with Zappa, who would then keep the band on retainer while he finished editing the Baby Snakes film. In the meantime, Belew would join David Bowie for a four-month tour and return to the Zappa band after that.
But as history shows, things didn’t work out that way. Zappa didn’t end up editing the film at that time, instead starting a different band, replacing Belew with a couple of other guitarists and singers, and kicking off a world tour in August 1978. Meanwhile Bowie’s Isolar II tour – a career high for the English star – covered the US, Canada and Europe, before extending into Australia, New Zealand, and finally Japan.
While Belew’s stint with Bowie was relatively short, lasting just 18 months, as lead guitarist he was integral to arguably Bowie’s greatest-ever ensemble, which included Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis. Belew played on the double-live album Stage, and also contributed to Bowie’s next album, Lodger.
The following year the guitarist would work with Talking Heads and the Tom Tom Club, before going on to become the singer, second guitarist and frontman (as well as occasional drummer) for King Crimson between 1981 and 2009, one of the longest tenures in King Crimson by anyone other than founder Robert Fripp. He also returned to working with Bowie, acting as musical director on the 1990 Sound+Vision Tour, while also playing guitar and singing.
Within the space of just a few years, Belew went from being behind on his rent, driving a broken-down Volkswagen and playing for a Nashville-based cover band, to touring and recording with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and King Crimson.
He has also recorded with such artists as Herbie Hancock, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Jean Michel Jarre, Laurie Anderson, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails, formed the Adrian Belew Power Trio, Gizmodrone with Stewart Copeland, and thus far has recorded about 20 eclectic solo albums.
A true rags-to-riches rock’n’roll tale.
Adrian Belew: Six Highlights (1978 – 1982)
The following is a brief selection of songs from the Zappa and Bowie years, career defining moments with Talking Heads and King Crimson, and a track selected from his first solo outing.
- Blackout – David Bowie (Stage 1978)
This double live document of Bowie’s 1978 world tour, Stage includes healthy doses of Belew’s Fender Stratocaster art-rock stylings all over a good chunk of Ziggy, and Station to Station, as well as transforming King Crimson alumni Robert Fripp’s parts from “Heroes” via his own technophilian splendour: be it leaning heavily on his tremolo, or the unorthodox practice of grasping the upper body of his guitar with his right hand, and pulling the headstock with his left; either way, his note-bending style is unmistakable.
2. City of Tiny Lites – Frank Zappa (Sheik Yerbouti 1979)
One of Belew’s showcase numbers on stage with Zappa’s band, here he takes the lead vocals with flare and charm. Recorded live at London’s Hammersmith Odeon in January 1978, it wound up being included on one of Zappa’s most commercially successful albums, the double-LP Sheik Yerbouti – the only ‘studio’ album featuring Belew. Listen out for the song’s monster two-note riff at 2:17 underneath the moustachioed guitar-God’s face-melting solo.
3. Red Sails – David Bowie (Lodger 1979)
On Lodger, Brian Eno sampled and constructed various guitar parts from fragments of Belew’s playing to produce some otherworldly solos. None more so than on avant-pop masterclass Red Sails where Belew’s physical approach dramatically fires off, snakes and cuts through in all its unedited glory. This Neu!-influenced swashbuckling Bowie classic is a high point on Lodger, bridging the sound of the late 70’s new wave and the dawn of the 80’s new romanticism.
4. The Great Curve – Talking Heads (Remain in Light 1980)
Adrian Belew recorded his solos over the basic track of this then-untitled song, then David Byrne wrote a song around it. It’s fair to say that it features some of his wildest guitar moments on record. The solos on The Great Curve at 1:53 and 5:28 are characterised by his unmistakable feedback-drenched fuzz tone, huge intervallic skips, and serrated dive bombs over Talking Heads’ funky frenetic afrobeat.
5. Elephant Talk – King Crimson (Discipline 1981)
His initial interest in the guitar was making it sound unlike a guitar, and on Belew’s first outing with a brand new King Crimson line-up, he wrangles and strangles his guitar creating a unique blend on this approachable LP opener. The resultant album stands tall in their immense catalogue and finds Robert Fripp’s disciplined, precise playing and Belew’s looser, more unconventional style coexisting seamlessly.
6. Swingline – Adrian Belew (Lone Rhino 1982)
The guitarist extraordinaire’s signature sound included an animal squall that became the centrepiece for warped-pop songs like Tom Tom Club’s L’elephant and King Crimson’s aforementioned Elephant Talk. That sound is stamped all over his diverse and relentlessly creative debut as a solo artist. He also handles the drums, giving space and feel to his artistic creativity and emotional expression.
Frank Zappa: Black Napkins – Live At Palladium New York (1977)
David Bowie: Live at Musikladen – Extra Pro Shot (1978)
Talking Heads: Live in Rome – Full Concert (1980)
A big thankyou to Pete Cruttenden who edited this article.