Since he isn’t nearly as well-known as he should be, let’s make one thing clear: Adrian Belew is one of the finest guitar players alive. With his cubist’s sense of abstraction and his zookeeper’s arsenal of wild, experimental guitar noise, Belew has enjoyed a two-decade stint as one of rock’s premier musicians. But typecasting him as merely an instrumental genius — or as any single thing, for that matter — is a futile exercise. Because behind all that elastic guitar skronking (use your imagination), Belew’s heart is pure pop.
Much like, say, Steve Cropper, Belew is one of those musicians who has changed the way we hear music, without us even realizing it. As a session player, Belew has pushed some of the finest avant-pop artists ever recorded — Frank Zappa, David Bowie, the Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, King Crimson, Peter Gabriel, Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Nine Inch Nails — to their greatest heights … all the while reinventing himself and his own techniques at every turn. Like Van Morrison or Brian Eno — two idiosyncratic genii who view the process of making music as much more interesting than the final result — Belew’s deconstructive approach to his art and craft achieves an almost spiritual purity.
“For me, it helps to break my habits,” Belew recently told one interviewer. “The beauty of [starting over] is similar to changing your guitar to a new tuning — suddenly, you’re back to zero. You’ve got to come up with new ideas, and the chord shapes you normally use don’t work the same, so you’ve got to find new ones. So you tend to write new sounds and new styles in that new tuning.”
Belew’s impulse to redefine himself is the reason he’s so sought-after by established musicians — and also why his own work isn’t better-known among the general public. As a solo artist, his career has careened from high-strung noise-pop to all-instrumental, guitar mood pieces back to a more accessible, albeit skewed, songcraft. Lone Rhino and Twang Bar King (both Island Records, 1982 and 1983) are, remarkably, still unavailable on CD; the master tapes are rumored to have been lost. The instrumental explorations on Desire Caught by the Tail (Island, 1986) gave way to the distinctive song stylings of Mr. Music Head andYoung Lions (both Atlantic, 1989 and 1990) and Here (Caroline, 1994). And that’s just what he produced in the off-moments when he wasn’t dueling neck-to-neck with the legendary Robert Fripp in the five albums he recorded with the resurrected King Crimson, or getting positively Beatle-esque in his late ’80s midwestern pop band, The Bears.
Born in Kentucky and raised on Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, Belew quickly mastered all the usual late-’60s Hendrix/Beck/Clapton bar-band guitar work, but soon found himself growing bored. “I had gone through the blues phase and had learned all the great traditional rock-guitar licks,” he said recently. “I knew all that stuff and pretty much felt that I wanted to develop my own voice on guitar. So the first thing I had to do was eschew all those old habits. I had to stop getting the same sound as other guitarists.”
That approach spawned his trademark style, in which the guitar, coupled with several choice effects, literally had no limits. “The thing that inspired me the most was trying to get sounds out of the guitar that I didn’t think you could get from a guitar,” Belew said of that time. “Mostly, it was environmental-type sounds, just sounds I was hearing in the air. I was still playing in cover bands, but I began incorporating these guitarlike effects into the tunes. I was simulating car horns, seagulls, elephants and other nature sounds. And that’s when Frank Zappa stepped into the picture.”
Discovered by Zappa one night in a Nashville club, the mad genius himself asked Belew to join his band, and it wasn’t long before Belew was the toast of the late ’70s progressive-music scene; in no time, he was playing with David Bowie, Brian Eno, the Talking Heads, etc. — a great melting pot of impetuously jittery, post-punk superstars. Audiences found Belew’s roaring guitar noises as appealingly abstruse as David Byrne’s stage personae; soon art students everywhere put down their paints and picked up guitars, and the college-rock boom was on. Many think Belew’s greatest moment of this period came on the bouncing, instantly recognizable riff that made the Talking-Heads spinoff Tom-Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” so memorable. Trust me, you’ve heard it … if not in the original, then in 1995, when Mariah Carey transposed the song, riff and all, into her hit single “Fantasy.”
Belew, of course, has never been one for resting on his laurels, so when he found himself lead singer and co-lead guitarist beside King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, Belew pushed the staid, analytical guitar-maestro into a new era of danceable, Dada-esque sophistication. Since then, things have stayed pretty much on course for Belew (meaning he’s done anything and everything he’s wanted to, with few parameters). Salad Days (Thirsty Ear, 1999), his latest CD, happens to be an entirely acoustic affair, a sort of Adrian Belew Unplugged that showcases his songwriting and vocal ability — talents which often get overlooked with all that guitar skronking going on.
People lucky enough to catch Belew on his current tour will be able to hear his present project, a more aggressive undertaking that the guitarist calls “Belewps.” Not unreminiscent of Fripp’s Frippertronics, Belew has devised an interesting way to accompany himself: “Normally, you think of a loop,” he explains, “and you play something into it and the [loop effect] plays that figure back internally. I’ve been trying to work with loops you can interact with — add to, interrupt and constantly change — while you’re playing.
“This is all done with an expression pedal,” he continues. “Every time you bring the expression pedal in, you’re tapping into the loop, turning it on or off, or adding to it. … It’s a new generation of drum sounds and guitar sounds. I changed all my gear … to inspire myself to move in new directions, and I discovered a way to sound like two guitar players at once [laughs]. It’s best described as interactive looping — if you plan the parts ahead and your timing is very precise, you can actually be your own rhythm guitarist.”
After all the histrionic guitar noises fade away, though, Belew remains the odd little boy from Kentucky. When asked about his first encounter with drawing curious noises from a musical instrument, Belew had this to say, a comment that also serves to illuminate the way great talent often finds inspiration in the banal: “Once, on [The Tonight Show], I saw a comedian named Maury Amsterdam. Amsterdam played a comedy writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show, but in real life he was an accomplished cellist. That night on Carson, he played the cello while he told jokes, and at one point he demonstrated how he could make the cello sound like seagulls. This intrigued me very much. I decided I could do the same with electric guitar, and it still intrigues me.”