How Frank Zappa Helped Guitarist Adrian Belew Play With the Greats

Adrian Belew plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, September 27, and at the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, September 28.
Adrian Belew plays the Boulder Theater on Friday, September 27, and at the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, September 28. Glass Onyon PR

In the span of just a few years, guitarist Adrian Belew went from being behind on his rent, driving a broken-down Volkswagen and playing for the Nashville-based cover band Sweetheart to touring and recording with Frank Zappa, David Bowie, Talking Heads and King Crimson.

But back in 1977, a 27-year-old Belew was thinking that he might have missed the bus, and that nobody was recognizing what he was doing. He was playing with Sweetheart in a Nashville bar when Zappa, who was in town on tour, stopped by to hear the band after getting a tip from his chauffeur, a friend of Belew’s.

“Frank did change my life, of course,” Belew says. “Sometimes the most unexpected thing happens like that, and you’re either ready for it or you’re not. And I think I was ready. I did my very best. I sang as great as I could. And I played as best as I could. I guess, evidently, I impressed him enough to at least give me an audition.”

Belew was then thrown into the world of Zappa, rehearsing five days a week for three months. During that time, Belew, who couldn’t read music, would spend the weekends at Zappa’s house. He learned his music by rote, with Zappa showing him how to play the lines on guitar.

“It was a very important time for me,” Belew says. “Very important not just in musical ways, but being around Frank. I was learning how to have my business, how to be an international touring artist, how to make records, how to master records — how to make a film, even. All of that in one short year.”

Belew says he that while was developing into his own kind of player during his stint with Zappa, there wasn’t room for wildly unique guitar sounds that he’d later be known for.

“I think what was more important with me and Frank was that I was a good performer and could sing in a lot of styles and play guitar,” Belew says.

Next, Belew started touring with Bowie after the two met in Cologne, Germany, in 1978. Over the next year and a half, the singer wanted Belew to play as wildly and as crazily as he could.

During his time with Bowie and Talking Heads, Belew says, his role was to really stretch out on guitar.

“That’s when I feel like I kind of did just that,” he says. “That’s when I think I found myself.”

And the next thing that happened in what Belew calls “that crazy streak of happy things” was joining a new incarnation of King Crimson, which he would be a part of for the next three-plus decades, in 1981.

“That, for me, was when I finally got to the point that I’d been wanting to get to all along, where now I’m writing the material,” Belew says. “I’m the lyricist, I’m creating the melodies. I’m playing guitar. I’m the frontman. And in fact, I’m even in a partnership with the guy named Robert Fripp on guitar.”

While a member of King Crimson, Belew also started releasing his own albums, beginning with 1982’s Lone Rhino, which showcases his genius of creating guitar sounds through effects that mimic animals, particularly a cat on “Big Electric Cat” or a rhino on “The Lone Rhinoceros.” Since then, Belew has released dozens of solo albums, sometimes playing all the instruments, like his most recent effort Pop Sided, which dropped last March.

Belew has been adding music to his FLUX app for IOS since releasing it in 2014, but he had another batch of three- and four-minute tracks that he describes as “really nice sing-along songs.” He says King Crimson and the Beatles, both bands that were influences when he was young, were reference points for Pop Sided.

For Belew, a pop song first has to be memorable.

“Everyone talks about a hook,” he says. “I don’t really look at it that way. I just look at it that the melody has to be strong enough that it interests you, but you also can maybe remember it. Obviously, there are so many different things that the subject matter can be, but I tried with this record to sound kind of like a four-piece band playing songs.”

Lyrically, Belew explores everyday things. The theme of “Wait to Worry” is “just wait until it happens, then you can worry,” while “The Times We Live In” reflects his motto of just being nice to people.

“I like to be tactful and have fun," he says. And I see a lot right now in our current society of people being mad, angry, hating each other, doing all that stuff. I’m not talking really about politics, although that’s probably at the center of it. I’m talking about 'Why can’t we all learn to be nice again?' Because I preferred it that way. When you really can have conversations about your differences, I think that makes for a better society.”

On his current tour, which stops at the Boulder Theater on Friday, September 27 and the Bluebird Theater on Saturday, September 28, Belew is playing a few songs from Pop Sided in a set list that includes nearly thirty tracks. While he's toured with a trio over the past thirteen years, he’s added guitarist and keyboardist Saul Zonana to the band along with new drummer Jordan Perlson and longtime bassist Julie Slick.

Part of why he made the band a quartet was so he could play material involving more musicians.

“This has allowed us now to move out to a lot of material of mine that I never could do before,” Belew says. “Some of the piano songs and songs with more harmonies. Songs like ‘Superboy’ from the Bears or something like that.”

With Zonana — who has opened for Belew for a decade — on board, they can breathe new life into King Crimson material, since Zonana can play Fripp’s old interlocking guitar parts.

“So when we go back and play something like ‘Neal and Jack and Me,’ from the Beat album, it actually has all the original guitar parts sounding the way they should,” Belew says.

While thirty songs in a set might seem like a lot, Belew might play snippets of some songs, which get “FLUX-ed,” referring to his app. “That means you never know when they’re going to be interrupted by the next song,” he says. “So you may not hear the whole song every single time."

Adrian Belew plays at 8 p.m. Friday, September 27, at the Boulder Theater. Tickets are $25 to $35 and can be purchased at Eventbrite. He also plays at 8 p.m. Saturday, September 28, at the Bluebird Theater. Tickets are $25 to $30 and can be purchased at AXS.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon