Adrian Belew

The Two Sides of Adrian Belew: Wouldn’t you rather be in a band of Bears than a Lonely Rhinoceros?

Popular Culture 580
Popular Singers and Songwriters
Ed Shorer
July 23, 1987

[ The following was a paper I wrote for a graduate course while working on my Master of Arts degree in Popular Culture studies at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio. Elephant Talk has been hosting it for many years.  ]

After years of apprenticing with some of those who have been on the cutting edge of popular music in the past two decades, Adrian Belew seems to have finally found his niche. What is interesting, however, is that his niche is not “on the fringe” as his past experience would suggest, but in a band called the Bears, a group of old friends who are making every effort to succeed in the mainstream world of pop rock.

Belew was born in Covington, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati some 37 years ago. As one interviewer reveals, “One of his earliest memories isgoing to a local saloon with his parents, putting a nickel in the jukebox, and singing along with Hank Williams on Jambalaya — and embarassing his parents thoroughly when he substituted ‘son of a bitch’ for ‘son of a gun.'”1 While it is hard to find any traces of Hank left in any of his work, his sense of humor and love of words can be seen throughout.

Adrian Belew began playing drums at the age of 10, but started playing guitar when, as he put it, “the emphasis in music started changing a little bit from the vocal-style groups like the Beatles to more of the virtuoso-musician groups like Cream or Hendrix.”2 During those high school years he sang and drummed with The Denims, a band that did cover versions of Beatles’ songs, while he privately improved on guitar. Comparing that experience to his recent work with the Bears, he says, “The Denims were the other time in my life when I really felt this kind of chemistry in a band. It was very familial, and that’s what the Bears are like today. It’s been a long time between those two things. I didn’t think we could ever get back to that feeling but I think we have.”3

What did go on between those two things is a success story which not only tells of a dream come true, but also reveals much concerning Belew’s development as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist. Times were tough for the kinds of bands that Belew would have liked to have played guitar in in the early 1970s, and so he accepted an offer to play drums in a band that had contracts with a variety of Holiday Inns. As he put it, “I couldn’t bear the thought of playing serious guitar for businessmen who didn’t give a hoot about guitar-playing.”4 While playing drums to such standards as “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” may not have been his idea of having a good time, it did keep him employed for the next two-and-a-half years, and gave him enough time away from the guitar so that when he finally did pick it up again, he could approach it from a very fresh perspective. He began “trying to find new ways of doing things. . . . trying to get sounds that I didn’t think you could get out of the guitar – mostly sirens, car horns, animal noises, and other sounds I heard qin the air.”5 And those are the very sounds that have enabled him to pad his resume with the likes of Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Herbie Hancock, Joe Cocker, Laurie Anderson, Cyndi Lauper, Robert Palmer, Paul Simon, and Ryuichi Sakamoto.

Starting with Zappa, who had seen Belew play with a group called Sweetheart in a Nashville club, he was invited to L.A. to audition for the former’s new band. Knowing Zappa’s reputation for perfectionism and ungodly intricate pieces of music requiring advanced sight-reading capabilities, Belew was justifiably worried; he doesn’t read music. Where his training in music suffered, though, his “bag of sounds” saved the day, and he was hired for one year in a most unusual capacity: “I would do costume changes and little skits, like running around the stage like a robot or doing a Bob Dylan imitation.”6 In another interview he reveals that he imitated Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney as well, citing his bar band experience as his training.7 Fortunately that was not all, he was also given “a certain amount of space to create my own solos, a lot of sound effects.”8 The result on record is Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti.

Had Zappa not been planning to take time off to edit his film, Baby Snakes , Belew may have remained a member. Zappa’s move freed Belew to play with Bowie, which in turn brought him to the attention of the Talking Heads’ David Byrne, whose troup he subsequently recorded with and joined for a 12 week tour. Having made the above connections, he found it quite easy to find work as a session guitarist on a number of other group’s records, but he found that it didn’t suit him, desiring instead the depth of commitment that comes from working in a band for an extended length of time. The band that he found such a home with, for four years anyway, was a band of whose first record he remembers thinking, “‘Good Grief! This is great.’ And I played it and played it and played it till I just about wore it out.”9 The year was 1969, and the album was In the Court of the Crimson King , the brainchild of Robert Fripp. Now, 12 years later, he would be asked by Fripp to form a new group, Discipline, with ex-King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, and session bassist, Tony Levin. The band’s name was soon changed, though, largely because of Belew’s being uncomfortable with the term. “For me, being the kind of person I am, I’m not real disciplined. I’m kinda loose, and being an American, the term discipline is not a good, friendly, outgoing term, you know.”10 During this stage Belew was growing by leaps and bounds. Even before he joined King Crimson, he had signed an agreement to record a solo album for Island Records. His agreement with King Crimson called for him to work two to three months, two times per year, which allowed him roughly the other half of the year free to work on solo projects.11 Still, once again Belew felt the apprehension that comes with “sitting at the foot of masters.” Thinking of himself as “kinda loose,” he thought, “I’m not going to be able to be a spokesman for this gang of intellectuals.”12 But once he stopped trying to emulate Fripp and started to be himself, a most unique blend was found wherein both Fripp’s disciplined, precise playing and Belew’s looser, more soulful playing could coexist. As Melody Maker reported in 1981, “The reliance on complex ostinato figures, the playing off of one slightly out-of-phase musical rhythm against another which contemporary rock has borrowed from sources like Reich and Riley, can all be heard in this new Crimson.”13 Small wonder it is that Fripp and Belew first met at a Steve Reich concert in New York.14

Belew’s initial interest in the guitar was in making it sound unlike a guitar; and he is still interested in “being able to create a million different things with the guitar.”15 What stands out most about his playing are those sounds which he wrangles and strangles out of his barrage of ordinary looking guitars. As one journalist put it, “Who else do you know who can make his axe sound like an elephant being abducted by aliens into a flying saucer? Lime jello laced with radio static? How about a vacuum cleaner in heat?16 Former King Crimson drummer, Bill Brufford, adds another dimension when he says about Belew, “When people speak through their instruments they lay themselves wide open.”17 The fact that Belew has been a drummer for 25 years should not go unnoticed. Even though the alien sounds described above are the core of Adrian Belew’s music, there is unquestionably a steady beat which keeps qit all tied to the ground. As he puts it, “When I solo, my choice of notes is usually not as important as my choice of rhythms.”18 For a brief period before joining King Crimson, he formed a band called Gaga which had no drummer, but instead used his own recordings of drum sounds on tape whenever they performed live. And for his first solo album, Lone Rhino , he layed down all drum and percussion tracks.

Belew gets his rhythmic sounds in a variety of unconventional ways which includes retuning, picking beyond the nut or bridge, leaning heavily on his tremelo (he didn’t call his second solo album Twang Bar King for nothing!), and the highly unorthodox practice of firmly grasping the upper body with his right hand, and pulling the headstock with his left in what looks like an attempt to break the guitar in two. Of this he says, “It’s a very physical, emotional approach. When I’m bending the neck and the notes start feeding back, I actually feel it come through the guitar. My whole body hums with the guitar. We are one, as they say.”19 He learned this technique from Bears guitarist Rob Fetters, who in turn got it from Ted Nugent in 1968. Belew continues to do it not only for the sound – he actually started the practice because he kept breaking tremelo arms – but also because “It looks good too.”20

His con ventional-looking guitars are not necessarily so, however, for these days he is not without his Roland synthesizer guitars, which he is always in the process of writing tape-loop programs for. His programs, all of which can be played in live performances, now number over two hundred. Still, I think it was Dylan who said, “You can’t please all the people all the time,” and there are those who not only see nothing unique in Belew’s playing, but go so far as to say, “unless the mood you’re in is reflective almost to the point of self-hypnosis, you may groan as you hear yet another metallic ostinato come undulating out of your speakers.”21 This comment being in reference to a King Crimson concert, I can’t help but feel the writer was referring to Fripp rather than Belew.

Adrian Belew is nothing short of magnetic in concert. Called “a mad mix of Kerouac and Hendrix and Huck Finn,”22 he plays with a self-conscious smirk that comes from knowing that he’s been your guide into realms of the unheard. As Bruce Dancis put it, “Belew fully comprehends his abilities and his accomplishments, but when performing before a live audience, he plays with the unconcealed joy of a kid allowed to stay up late when his parents have company.”23 Having been hired to jump around while he played with Frank Zappa and David Bowie, his apprenticeships seem to have paid off. One critic during his Twang Bar King phase in 1983 put that work down saying, “The flashy arrangements came off as camouflage for limited inspiration . . . ” while at the same time praising his live performance in the following terms: “The songs came together as wholes, not patched-up parts, and it was possible to appreciate Belew’s cleverness in context instead of at the expense of the music.”24 The contrast between live performance and recordings is equally blaring between King Crimson’s and Belew’s solo efforts. With his own band doing his own show he draws a review which says, “Belew’s resourcefulness and on-stage exuberance made for an instant and enduring rapport with the delighted crowd. Like a kid at Christmas time, Belew broke mid-set to demonstrate his tape loop machine before breaking into ‘Ideal Woman’ which included a tape of candid comments on the subject.”25 Even though he was considered the frontman for the evening, of King Crimson’s performance it was said, “There was neither lighting nor staging to speak of, and next to no chat with the audience. It was rather like being allowed to sit quietly in the corner and watch the band rehearse.”26 In another solo performance he was described as “Colorfully garbed in fiery purple, [projecting a] cartoonish whimsy that’s reinforced by his ironic, if occasionally over-cute songs about animals, love predicaments and day to day urban living.”27 Contrast this, qfinally, with these terse words: “The trouble with guitar heroes is that they often accentuate technical prowess and instrumental overkill at the expense of true inspiration. This was the case with King Crimson, who were as cold and clinical as they were instrumentally brilliant.”28

It is in these diametrically opposed approaches to performance, that it is most easily understood why Belew chose to leave one of the leaders of the fringe, “Art Rock” movement with a huge underground following in the proto-urban world, and joined forces with a group of guys from the midwest; Cincinnati in particular. The Bears, at least, know how to have a good time. Of King Crimson, Belew once said, “Fun didn’t seem like the right thing for King Crimson.”29 This statement becomes a little easier to understand with the knowledge that Belew’s heroes are Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny, and the Beatles.30 As mentioned earlier, Belew always reserved time during his stint in King Crimson to work on his own solo material. Lone Rhino and Beat were both released in 1982, the former being his first solo effort, the latter his second album with King Crimson. Both have lyrics written and sung by Belew, but the former is much more colorful and uptempo than the latter. It is almost as if the intellectualism that roots King Crimson serves to anchor Belew into drawn out passages that have the potential to soar, but rarely get off the ground. Especially with a title suggesting the playfulness of the beat generation (the opening cut, “Neal and Jack and Me,” is presumably about being holed up in a hotel room with Kerouac’s beat classic, On the Road ), one expects more. Still, given the tightly structured tunes that King Crimson is known for, Belew appears to have had the freedom to “noodle” around with his stockpile of bizarre sound effects, and was encouraged to develop more. He must find it ironic that whereas he once was “getting further and further from wanting to do the normal pop song, the kind of thing [he] was brought into the band to do,”31 he has ended up forming a band who is intent on “making it” in the pop market. Although Laurie Anderson had grown to hate guitars, she hired Adrian Belew to play on her second album, Mr. Heartbreak . As she puts it, “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.”32 As already emphasized, Belew’s own compositions also make use of such sounds, but his lyrics are just as valuable, complementing the sounds with words which add the detail necessary to complete the overall message of the song. In Belew’s compositions there is a marriage between lyrics and melodies whether he is writing of animals, fear, loneliness, or words themselves.

In “The Lone Rhinoceros,” he laments the sad circumstances of a rhino pent up in a zoo with a touch of humor in the first person:

I stand alone in my concrete cell
e people stare and toss me coke cans
I guess it’s better than being poached
but I’d give my horn just to see my homeland . . .

Throughout the song come charging one of Belew’s most distinct sounds; that of a rhinoceros crying out to the world. And we empathize. In “The Momur,” Belew imagines that his wife has turned into some ungodly creature who tries to kill him with a broom while he is innocently enough watching cartoons on t.v. When the momur takes his favorite guitar, smashes it on the floor, and even dances around on top of it, the most frenetic of broken guitar sounds can be heard while Belew intones a cautious, “I thought I might get sore . . .” “Matte Kudasai” (“Please Wait” in Japanese) is a song filled with sadness in word and sound:

Stare by the windowpane
Pain like the rain that’s falling
She waits in the air, matte kudasai
She sleeps in a chair in her sad America . . .

It is a melodious dirge aided by Belew’s seagull-like guitar sounds reminiscent of a big, soft, cartoon balloon of thought filled with reflections. Adrian Belew loves words. As he says, “I think of myself as not a very articulate person. But I do study the dictionary a lot and read lots of words, because I think it’s part of being a lyricist to understand words.”33 Inarticulate? You be the judge. In “Elephant Talk,” he crafts a clever song in which the verses are based on the alliter ation of letters from the alphabet, from A to E. All are synonyms for “talk.”

Talk, it’s only talk
Arguments, agreements, advice, answers, art, announcements
It’s only talk
Talk, it’s only talk
Babble, burble, banter, bicker, bicker, bicker, brouhaha, boulderdash,
It’s only talk
(On to D)
Talk, talk, it’s only talk
Debates, discussions, these are words with adidas time
dialogue, do-it-all, diatribe, discension, declamation,
Double talk, double talk

So where is the elephant? In between each verse is the sound of a charging elephant that rivals the rhinoceros in intensity. It can be imagined that the seemingly inarticulate cry of the animal is in fact representative of our own cries; the need to communicate with words.

His images often make appearances in other songs, as well. The momur shows up as somebody’s father on another album, and the adidas held centerstage in “Adidas in Heat,” a Zappa influenced piece with time changes every few bars. This reworking of images suggests the sincerity with which he approaches his craft; they are more than flippant thoughts that just happened to be there. During his time with King Crimson, Belew’s lyrics came as a result of some very unorthodox approaches. In “Thela Hun Ginjeet” (an anagram for “Heat in the City”), there is a long narration resulting in part from carrying a tape recorder into a seedy part of a city only to be confronted by a group of ruffians apparently out to do him harm. When they turn on the tape recorder and hear his comment, “It’s a dangerous place,” the music builds, Belew’s voice cracks as he continues to narrate the experience, and we are on the edges of our seats waiting to find out how the story ends. This was based on two unrelated incidents which Fripp secretly recorded while Belew narrated. On Belew’s Twang Bar King album he makes use of the tape recorder in collecting opinions concerning “the ideal woman.” What results is a humorous song bursting with reality from the streets of Cincinnati.

A most unusual approach was taken in writing the lyrics for “Indiscipline.” It is a song that is “talked” rather than sung. It is about carrying around something for days and days, becoming so involved in it that he doesn’t know what to think. He becomes so confused that he exclaims, “I repeat myself when under stress, I repeat myself when under stress,” five times. Once again the music matches his level of anxiety, building to a climactic frenzy in which he shouts, “I WISH YOU WERE HERE TO SEE IT. I LIKE IT.” What “it” turns out to be (though it is not revealed in the song) is a painting which his wife had been working on. The lyrics are simply rearranged snippets from a letter that he received from his wife while on the road touring.34 If there is one thing clear about Adrian Belew, it is that he does not want to be limited to one thing. In 1982 he said, “I don’t really consider myself a guitarist. I consider myself more than that. I want to be a producer, writer, singer, instrumentalist, whatever . . . maybe ev en make films some day. I don’t believe in limiting myself.”35 Since that time he has gone on to produce the Raisins, the Cincinnati group out of which the Bears grew, and in 1984 released a one-hour video cassette entitled Electronic Guitar , in which he demonstrates how he creates his seemingly endless tones.

In a 1986 article entitled, “What’s Adrian Belew Doing on the Club Circuit with a Band of Bears?” they suggest that he’s doing it because it’s so much fun.36 Perhaps even more central to his current activities lays in thinking about two of the animals associated with Belew. As a “lone rhinoceros” amongst the group of highly skilled individuals that made up King Crimson, he must have felt alone indeed. And, like the rhinoceros, many found King Crimson’s music too unusual, and hence, ugly. Mainstream America was repulsed. While it must have done much to develop his outdoor survival skills, it didn’t do much for his peace of mind. Even in something so basic as the songwriting process, with King Crimson there was the attempt to go into the studio and purposely not pay attention to each other, with hopes of heading in the same direction. At times it did work, but the one song that Belew cites as successful in that vain is “Dig Me,” a song about a car that is slowly decomposing. Belew likes it because the song, like the car, sounds like it’s falling apart; not unlike King Crimson. That was on their final album.

As a “bear,” Adrian Belew has found a home with a group of friends whom he has known for over ten years. “We’re real close friends – these guys were there the night I had my first child nine years ago, so it’s a real family feeling.”37 The Bears make every effort to write songs together, working out everything first on acoustic guitars. Belew’s original idea was to be, “Two-guitar and two-singer based, with interesting but danceable rhythms, a little bit of “Eastern overtones that come from the guitars and drums.”38 As Robert Palmer reported Belew saying in the New York Times almost two years ago, “We’re all from the Midwest and have similar tastes. We started out listening to albums like the Beatles’ “Revolver” that channeled all sorts of fresh ideas and sounds into concise three-minute pop songs and that’s our approach.”39

On stage they appear to be milking the formula for all it’s worth. Besides establishing a “trademark sound,” they have devised a Bears “handshake” where the performers and the audience clench their “paws” as if to attack, and growl at each other. Belew says, “I think it’s a great way for people to make contact with us.”40 Certainly a long, long way from the intellectual entertainment of King Crimson, the Bears are having a ball. Adrian Belew is a family man, and the Bears’ songs, too, reflect the stability of a content family life. “Honeybee” sends a message loud and clear to any groupies waiting in the wings:

I got plans, I’m working on being a holy man
Honeybee, don’t come so close to me
Watch your hands
You can’t put a hold on a family man, oh no
There are also love songs to two of his children in “Wavelength”:

My heart went out to her
It won’t return
She may be helpless, but she’s radiant
She doesn’t need to speak
She reaches me
On a wavelength
and in “Superboy”:

I see you as a real live Superboy
Wide-eyed in a world brand new
Can’t wait to get your hands on the machinery
Made me think there’s nothing you won’t do

Some critics may not like the new direction that Belew is taking. One reviewer said, “his lyrics are often embarassing, and his endlessly repeated choruses felt more like hammerblows to the head than hooks.”41 Three weeks ago in Cincinnati, however, I witnessed a packed house clenching their fists in the Bears handshake and chanting “Bears, Bears, Bears . . . .” Five years ago Adrian Belew predicted his future with incredible accuracy. He said, “What I hope to accomplish eventually is to fit avant-garde sensibilities into pop forms so more people can enjoy them. That’s what I was shooting for within King Crimson and my own albums.”42

Where King Crimson failed to attract a larger mass audience, the Bears may well succeed. But certainly not without sacrificing “something.” At the above Bears concert, Belew made references to the upcoming release date of the compact disc of their album, shared news of recording a second album, and even urged the audience to call their local radio station if they really liked what they were hearing. On the other hand, we can be sure that King Crimson would do (to quote one of the Bears’ songs) “None of the Above.” They were too avant-garde for that.

Adrian Belew is still finding a release for his more esoteric side, however. Just last year he released his first instrumental album, Desire Caught by the Tail , which is filled with his two instrumental loves: guitar and drums. He plays all instruments. For a “minimalist” album, it overflows with the sounds of an orchestra.

Adrian Belew’s life in music has always consisted of two distinct sides: In the beginning it was drums and guitar, next it was as a solo artist and group member, and finally it is in mainstream pop and esoteric minimalism. It is interesting to note that the balance continues: compared to the differences that existed between King Crimson’s albums and Belew’s solo works from the same period, a much wider gap exists today in Belew’s and the Bears’ current albums. Since oriental themes do indeed exist in Belew’s music (his songs between 1981 and 1983 were published by Saiko Music Co.- “saiko” means “the greatest” in Japanese) it seems appropriate to view the two sides of his output in terms of a yin-yang relationship wherein the two are not in opposition to each other, but instead are complimentary to the point of making up one whole. All of this points to Belew’s higher purpose: “My whole goal in life is to wake people up to newer, more exciting and adventurous music. Maybe that sounds cliched, but I don’t care.”43 Nor do his fans, who are growing daily.


1. Bruce Dancis, “Adrian Belew, One Step Beyond,” Guitar Player , 16 :20-38, June, 1982.
2. Ibid.
3. Larry Nager, “What’s Adrian Belew Doing on the Club Circuit with a Band of Bears?” Musician , 90:64-68, April, 1986.
4. Jane Lupo, “Adrian Belew,” Trouser , 9:9, July, 1982.
5. Bill Milkowski, “Adrian Belew,” Down Beat , 49:54-55, June, 1982.
6. Op. cit., Dancis.
7. Op. cit., Lupo.
8. Op. cit., Dancis.
9. Ibid.
10. Melody Maker , 56:27, October 31, 1981.
11. Billboard , 94:10, April 10, 1982.
12. Op. cit., Dancis.
13. Melody Maker , 56:22, October 17, 1981.
14. Trouser , 9:22-25, March, 1982.
15. Moira McCormick, “Creem Showcase,” Creem , 18:62-63, September, 1986.
16. “Adrian Belew, Lone Rhino,” Creem , 14:54-55, September, 1982.
17. Freff, “Crimson, Organizing Conflict in Time and Space,” Musician , 70:28-32, August, 1984.
18. Op. cit., McCormick.
19. Op. cit., Dancis, p. 29.
20. Op. cit., Nager, p. 68.
21. Creem , 14:57-58, October, 1982.
22. Op. cit., Freff.
23. Op. cit., Dancis.
24. J.D. Considine, “Adrian Belew, Twang Bar Menagerie,” Musician , 62:37, December, 1983.
25. Billboard , 95:61, October 15, 1983.
26. Trouser , 9:37, May, 1982.
27. Variety , 312:164, September 28, 1983.
28. Billboard , 94:35, September 11, 1982.
29. Op. cit., Trouser , 9:22-25, March, 1982.
30. Op. cit., Dancis, p. 28.
31. Op. cit., Freff, p. 32.
32. Laurie Anderson, in New Sounds, A Listener’s Guide to New Music , John Schaffer, Harper and Row, Publishers, N.Y., 1987, p. 248.
33. Op. cit., Freff, p. 32.
34. Op. cit., Trouser , 9:22-25, March, 1982.
35. Op. cit., Milkowski, p. 55.
36. Op. cit., Dancis, p. 65.
37. Op. cit., McCormick, p. 63.
38. Ibid.
39. Robert Palmer, “The Pop Life,” New York Times , November 20, 1985, sec. C, p. 29.
40. Op. cit., Nager, p. 66.
41. Variety , 321:126, January 1, 1986.
42. Op. cit., Lupo, p. 52.
43. Op. cit., Nager, p. 68.

Selected Discography

Solo Albums:
Lone Rhino (1982)
Twang Bar King (1983)
Desire Caught by the Tail (1986)

King Crimson Albums:
Discipline (1981)
Beat (1982)
Three of a Perfect Pair (1984)

Bears Album:
The Bears (1987)