What do Zappa, Bowie, Talking Heads, Cindy Lauper, and King Crimson All Have in Common? Guitarist Adrian Belew’s Bizarre Animal Noises.

Steve Levandoski
8 min readMar 23, 2024

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Few guitar players make a living imitating animal sounds on guitar, let alone boast a rock n’ roll resume that would impress the snobbiest music dorks, including Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, Cyndi Lauper, Tom Tom Club, King Crimson, and David Bowie. The Mary Poppins of sidemen, Adrian Belew never stayed with one project too long before raising his umbrella and flying off to the next scenario, coming at you in stereo like an infectious disease breaking out of your headphones into your membranes. He’s even got his own Parker Adrian Belew signature guitar, wishing in at a featherweight five pounds, and a Liquid Foot pedal board that can recall his crazy tones from 30 years ago. Here we take a deep dive into his music and enjoy a bit a of gossip along the way,

Sweetheart

“I was in every kind of band you could have, and none of it had made any difference success-wise. There I was, 27 years old, feeling that maybe the world had passed me by.”

-Adrian Belew”

Belew got his start in a cover band named Sweetheart, sneaking his unique style into other people’s songs to the delight of the audience, the ultimate “man, what are you doing here” guy. Then one day, while Sweetheart was playing a gig at Fanny’s in Nashville, a tall mustachioed man named Frank Zappa sauntered in along with his bodyguard.

Frank Zappa

Albums: Zappa In New York, Sheik Yerbouti, Baby Snakes, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 1, You Can’t Do That On Stage Anymore Vol. 6 , Frank Zappa Plays The Music Of Frank Zappa,and Quaudiophiliac

”I didn’t think anything like that could seriously happen.”

-Adrian Belew

Brian Eno had hipped Zappa to Belew’s. Buzz about Belew’s playing had even reached Zappa’s chauffeur driver who drove him to Fanny’s. After making Belew sweat it out for 6 months, Zappa finally called as promised and paid to fly Belew out to audition, marking the first time the Kentucky native ever flew on a plane.

Belew said of the experience:

“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.

“At the end of the day, when it all calmed down and people were finally leaving, I finally got my time to speak to Frank again. I said simply this: ‘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. And he said, ‘OK, then let’s do that.’

“We went upstairs to his living room, and 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.’ We shook hands, and that was an absolute turning point in my life.”

David Bowie

Album: Logan

Reprinted from Mr. Belew’s Facebook in his own words:

“In 1978 I did my first tour of Europe as “stunt” guitarist and singer for Frank Zappa’s band. The night we played in Cologne, Germany. Unbeknownst to me, Brian Eno was in the audience. Brian knew David Bowie was looking for a new guitarist for his upcoming tour. He called David after seeing our show and told David he should come see the guitarist for Frank’s band.

The next night we performed in Berlin. There was a part of the show where Frank took an extended guitar solo and most of the band members, including myself, left the stage for a few minutes. As I walked to the back of the stage I looked over at the monitor mixing board and saw David Bowie and Iggy Pop standing there.

Wow! I couldn’t believe it!

So I walked over to David Bowie, shook his hand and said, “I love what you’ve done, thank you for all the music”. And he said, “Great, how would you like to be in my band?” I motioned back towards Frank and said, “Well, I’m kind of playing with that guy.” David laughed and said, “Yes, I know, but when Frank’s tour ends my tour starts two weeks later. Shall we talk about it over dinner?”

David said he would meet me back at our hotel and sure enough when I arrived back at the hotel David Bowie and his assistant, Coco Schwab, were sitting on a couch in the lobby. As I walked past them they whispered to me, “Get into the elevator, go up to your room, come back down in a few minutes, and meet us outside. We have a car waiting.”

It was like something out of a spy film.

When I came back down and went outside there was a black limousine waiting. The driver opened the door and I got in the back with David and Coco. David immediately launched into all these plans for his upcoming tour, the songs we would play, the staging, and so on, and how much he loved my guitar playing! It was so exciting! He said they were taking me to one of his favorite restaurants in Berlin.

How many restaurants are there in Berlin? 25,000?

We arrived at the restaurant, went in the front door, and who should be sitting at the very first table but Frank Zappa and the rest of the band! So the three of us sat down with Frank and the band. David, trying to be cordial, motioned to me and said, “Quite a guitar player you have here Frank.”

And Frank said, “Fuck you Captain Tom.”

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

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

Frank said, “Fuck you, Captain Tom.”

By this point I was paralyzed. David said, “So you really have nothing to say?” Frank said, “Fuck you, Captain Tom.”

David and Coco and I got up and went back out the front door. Getting in the limo David said in his wonderfully British way, “I thought that went rather well!”

Talking Heads

Albums: Remain in Light, The Name of this Band is Talking Heads.

Belew met the Talking Heads when Zappa played with them on their Remain In Light tour. He is credited on the “The name of this Band is Talking Heads,” a collection of live recordings from the Remain in Light tour. He was probably closest with guitar player Jerry Harrison, since he played on all Harrison’s solo albums and still tours with him to this day. Belew also co-wrote Talking Heads side project, The Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” famously sampled on Mariah Carrey’s “Sweet Fantasy.”

King Crimson

Albums Discipline, Beat, Three of a Perfect Pair, :Vrooom :Thrak, Thrakattak, the construKction of light: Vrooom Vrooom, Happy with What You Have to Be Happy With, The Power to Believe

“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? I did? Well look, Bill Bruford and I want to start a band with you.”

Robert Fripp to a very hungover and Adrian Belew

The new band in question was called Discipline They later decided to continue under the King Crimson umbrella, naming the album Discipline instead. Belew was the first guitar player in King Crimson whose last name wasn’t Fripp. Belew also got to write and sing his own songs in this version of King Crimson, which was the catalyst for his leaving the Talking Heads. That and apparently David Byne was a bigger diva than Mariah Carey back then, even making venerated bass player Tina Weymouth audition to keep her role in the band, which pissed her husband and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz off to no end. This might help explain why the Talking Heads passed up a huge payday of 80 million to reunite.

Cyndi Lauper

Album: True Colors

“When you’ve got great musicians, just let them play. I told Adrian, ‘Can you play like this guy?

Saying that to Adrian Belew, what the heck was I thinking? In my defense, I was under pressure and at the time not used to working with such great players.”

-Cyndi Lauper

As green as she was, Lauper knew when to put her foot down when it mattered. In her words:

“I remember Adrian Belew saying to me, ‘Cyn, what happened to the girl that wanted to have fun?’ “He was looking for that fun thing, and he was right — it kind of wasn’t there, you know? But I didn’t want to write ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Part 2’ — because I was afraid if I did, I would be stuck there forever.”

And the rest is history.

NIN

Albums: The Downward Spiral, The FragileGhosts I–IV, Hesitation Marks

Trent Reznor had the unfortunate and rare opportunity of firing his favorite guitar player. The rest of the band threatened to quit unless Reznor gave Belew his walking papers.

Here is what went down, according to Belew:

“Here’s my version of it, “Now, you might ask someone else, and then they’d say something different, but when Trent called me, he was very excited about the idea that he and I would reinvent Nine Inch Nails. “And he even told me, ‘Don’t worry about learning the songs verbatim. Just get to know them.’ So, I listened to the songs, and I really didn’t try to figure parts out. I did a little bit just out of curiosity. So when I got there, we had 12 weeks of rehearsal time. I thought that’s the amount of time I had with Frank Zappa. I could learn anything in 12 weeks.”

“I don’t mind talking about it now. But at the time, it was so upsetting to me. But after 17 days, he said that some of the guys in the band weren’t comfortable with me. They didn’t feel like I was doing my parts right and that I knew the songs as good as I should. And I said, ‘Listen, I can tell you for sure — this is 17 days in. I’m still working out ideas of sounds and things. I’m not even worried about the songs.’ But those were ‘LA kind of players,’ you know? And in my mind, they have very little imagination, I’ll put it that way. So he said, ‘It’s time for you to go.’”

Solo Albums

Albums: Lone Rhino,Twang Bar King, Desire Caught By the Tai , Mr. Music Head, Young Lions, Inner Revolution, The Acoustic Adrian Belew, Here.

Belews voice is reminiscent of David Brynes, which makes sense after singing backup for him, with a Touch of Here come the Warm jets era Eno, but his guitar playing is still incomparable. In addition to singing and playing guitar on his solo albums, he also played drums. If Adrian Belew never made it as a guitar player, he would have had a smash career as a session drummer. All that time in King Crimson must have made odd meters a snap for him. He has a very strange approach to the kit, but he really makes it work for himself.

See What Adrian Belew is up to today on his blog.

Further Reading:

https://musicaficionado.blog/2020/03/18/adrian-belew-part-2-1981-1984-king-crimson/

https://www.guitarplayer.com/players/adrian-belew-frank-zappa-audition

https://www.billboard.com/music/pop/cyndi-lauper-interview-true-colors-35th-anhttps://guitar.com/news/music-news/adrian-belew-reason-behind-nine-inch-nails-dismissal/niversary-9645206/

https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/music/how-frank-zappa-saved-adrian-belew-from-being-a-weekend-warrior-6590482

https://www.billboard.com/music/pop/cyndi-lauper-interview-true-colors-35th-anniversary-9645206/

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