After seeing David Byrne this past weekend, I listened to every Talking Heads album I owned on vinyl. Hearing the quick-paced, choppy guitar riff in “The Great Curve” off the innovative “Remain in Light” (1980), reminded me of the guitarist playing “Stay” alongside David Bowie in 1978, on the German television program, “Musikladen.” When looking at the musicians credited for each song on the back of the inner sleeve for “Remain in Light,” I found out the guitarist playing with Bowie was featured on this record. His name is Adrian Belew.
Slightly under the radar when compared to other Bowie guitarists such as Mick Ronson and Carlos Alomar, Belew is a unique versatile multi-instrumentalist, who toured with Bowie during his “Isolar II – The 1978 World Tour,” which was Bowie’s most visionary and inspiring tour. Belew is also known for playing with Frank Zappa in the late seventies, Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club, Nine Inch Nails, and he even fronted King Crimson from 1981-2009. When Belew joined one of the greatest progressive rock bands of all time coming off a seven-year hiatus, Belew the group with a touch of new-wave and dance rock.
While fronting King Crimson, Belew also worked on a solo career. He released his first solo effort in 1982, entitled Lone Rhino. To say the least, this album is very avant-garde.
The buzzing from the guitar synthesizers and African polyrhythms landscape you heard on Remain in Light surround you on the opening track and single, “Big Electric Cat.” There is a vigorous automative rasp here, which is comparable to Robert Fripp’s heavy fuzz playing for Bowie on “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)” (1980).
The next track, “The Momur” sounds contemporary for 1982, like a classic Meat Loaf hit; even if there are waves of wild and frenzy synths. However, its lyrics reflects a sense of quirkiness Belew might have picked up when playing guitar alongside Zappa. Belew’s vocals and call and responses with his guitar effects are amusing, especially since he plays most of the instruments here on the album. “Stop It” has a bouncy Talking Heads-esque party tone to it, especially as it reaches the bridge with the creeping synths and guitar headstock strings. This all reflects off the spirited and raw saxophone in the background, which dominates the track, along with some shouts here and there.
Belew’s vocals throughout the album is like a mix of David Bowie and David Byrne. You can tell Bowie’s and Eno’s Berlin Trilogy had an influence here, especially on the tracks, “The Man in the Moon” and the ambient instrumental “Naive Guitar.”
The start of side two, begins with “Hot Sun,” where the strained and jumpy ambient synths lead right into “The Lone Rhinoceros.” The gloomy and anxious piano chords and bass, the intense wailing guitar, and animal sounds all form a commodity Belew fears about the large mammal. The lyrics show Belew’s fascination with animal nature, as he sings about how rhinos are suffering from poachers and are on the verge of going extinct. “Swingline” and “Adidas in Heat” reflect the bizarre and experimental rock Belew explored, while playing guitar with Zappa. However, both tracks also serve as a precursor to what Belew would bring to King Crimson, throughout the early eighties, minus the wackiness. Also, The brass in “Swingline” also echoes Phil Collins’ “I Don’t Care Anymore” and “Adidas in Heat” is the closest Belew got to recording Zappa doo wop that sounds like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Animal Grace” is interesting, as it has a nice texture to it rhythmically and is full of sonic waves. It breaks into a jam of effects and skittering drums.
On the final track, “The Final Rhino” Belew added an innocent improvised piano piece his four-year daughter, Audie Belew, played while her father secretly recorded her. He later added in his own guitar lines to the closing of the album, which blends and closes the album fittingly.
Belew is without a doubt an underrated guitarist and multi-instrumentalist. He had plenty to offer, especially after playing with Zappa, Bowie, and Talking Heads. Not many people are aware of Belew’s influence, especially when it comes to his impressionistic and eccentric guitar style. “Lone Rhino” serves as a pioneer of ’80s art pop.
It is both comical and depressing that I am just finding out about this guy mostly now, who has been behind some of my favorite albums of all time.
Classic Tracks – “Big Electric Cat,” “The Momur,” “Stop It,” “Hot Sun” and “Adidas in Heat”
Ehh – “Naive Guitar” and “The Final Rhino”
Listen to Adrian Belew’s “Lone Rhino” here.