Adrian Belew first reached my ears on David Bowie’s 1979 album “Lodger.” Sure, he was discovered by Frank Zappa and played on several of his late 70s albums but I could never take FZ music, so I never heard this. Suffice to say, my tale with Adrian Belew begins with “Lodger.”
David Bowie usually took great care at picking a guitarist for his projects, and while I viewed this as a comedown following the stellar turns of Robert Fripp on the previous “Heroes” album, Belew fit the brief of Bowie, Eno and Visconti for the more ethnic palette they explored on this album. Belew’s solos on “Red Sails” were barely controlled bursts of uncontrolled energy that flirted with atonality for an exciting “razor’s edge” performance. For all I knew, Belew might be another flash in the pan, like Earl Slick, who contributed well to “Stationtostation” and then disappeared off of my radar for many years after. But this was not the case. Fate intervened to make Belew the go-to guy for adventurous guitar on a scad of New Wave albums, particularly for the following 12 months wherein his reputation was cast in iron.
He next appeared playing third guitar [along with David Byrne and Jerry Harrison] on the brilliant “Remain In Light” by Talking Heads. While the two Heads kept their guitars thin and funky on the dense, polyrhythmic stew that was “Remain In Light,” Belew added his trademark techno-distorted leads for some heft to compete with the rhythm section on that dazzling album. “The Great Curve” features some excellent soloing by Belew on the fadeout. By now his modus operandi of playing a counterpoint to the main melodies was well established.
Belew stuck with the Heads through their “Remain In Light” tour and when the group split for a break [at the time it was thought to be a break up] he contributed to the solo albums by Heads members. “The Red And The Black” was Jerry Harrison’s debut solo album that explored the heavy textures of the last Heads album and managed to in some ways, take them even further. Any one who is a fan of “Remain In Light” owes it to themselves to hear this incredible album.
Meanwhile, Belew also decamped to Compass Point Studios to join Tom Tom Club on their debut album. Apparently, producer Stephen Stanley didn’t like Belew’s distorted guitar and mixed him down on the resulting record, but “L’Elephant” is clearly a full eruption of the Belew ethos that managed to escape the producer’s scalpel.
David Byrne also roped the peripatetic string-slinger in for his solo magnum opus, the soundtrack to a Twyla Tharp ballet, “The Catherine Wheel.” Belew added guitar and “steel drum guitar” to several tracks while pausing briefly to unpack his suitcase.
Later in the fall of 1981 Belew contributed most significantly on his next major project. When Robert Fripp met Belew at a Steve Reich concert he got the idea of forming a new band and asked the guitarist to join. At first they were called Discipline, but eventually they resurrected the King Crimson moniker for the now titled “Discipline” album. Belew sang and composed lyrics in addition to playing second guitar in the tightly-knit band. Belew’s interlocking leads along with Fripp on the breathtaking “Frame By Frame” are heart-stoppingly precise. This remains a song I can hear and forget to breathe while I’m listening to it.
The next year, Belew took some time off, surprisingly enough. After touring with King Crimson he took the opportunity to record his debut solo album, “The Lone Rhino.” As with the Tom Tom Club, the tone is lighter and more playful than on the Crimson or other Heads material. “Big Electric Cat” answers the question “what if Hendrix had a sense of humor?”
The last album in this initial reputation-making salvo came out the following year when Laurie Anderson released her second album, “Mister Heartbreak.” The single “Sharkey’s Day” is filled with snake-like Belew leads and contrasting thin rhythm playing from him as well.
This was a fantastically busy period for Belew and even if he never played another note, this body of work would have painted him as someone who pushed the boundaries of guitar within a Post-Punk context, and did so both seriously and playfully. Not to mention prolifically. At the time it seemed like Belew was on every album of significance that I purchased! As Charles Martin said at the time of “The Red And The Black,” “here’s Adrian Belew’s 4th album of 1981!” Little did we know at the time there would be even more to come.
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