Discover why he likes working with younger musicians (no mortages or spouses to lure them out of the studio!), and how he’d like to push Crimson’s double-trio format even further out. Reminesce on Belew’s criminally underappreciated side project the Bears, and find just how relieved he remains that “Oh Daddy,” his late-1980s novelty favorite, didn’t become a bigger hit …
“I’M DOWN,” solo (TWANG BAR KING, 1983): The opening track from Belew’s second solo album, “I’m Down” confirms his life-long passion for the Beatles — something that continues to work as a counterweighing pop influence against the King Crimson guitarist’s more experimental leanings. Next comes a series of entertaining and challenging musical investigations, highlighted by “She Is Not Dead,” with lyrics sung over a backward version of “Man In The Moon” from Belew’s debut.
Belew: There are different sides to what I like, but I am hugely influenced by the Beatles. When I was kid, that’s what got me to being interested in becoming a recording artist at first. I always liked different kinds of music, as well, and King Crimson fits more into that mode. I like a lot of different things. But it’s hard when you are writing pop music not to want to keep the spirit of the 1960s alive.
“e,” with the Power Trio (e, 2009): Perhaps the most propulsive thing on this project, with towering layers of guitar and a merciless groove from the Slick siblings. Despite giving this youthful pair its big break, Belew didn’t initially see himself in the same role that Frank Zappa had played in his own career — shepherding talented youths toward wider notice.
Belew: That was only after the fact. I didn’t intend for that to happen, so I won’t take credit. Much like Frank, I was just needing musicians to play my stuff. The fact is, they were young and smart and sharp players. There’s something about being young; they just wanted to do everything. When you play with older guys who have more accomplishments, they don’t want to do everything. They are concerned about their mortgage and what their wife says. These kids had nothing else going on. They wanted to do it all. So, it was really a perfect moment in time. I don’t know how it would have ever happened if I had gone out to find it. Instead, it found me. One of the things I liked about the Slicks was that they were accepted by me peers. People like (King Crimson founder) Robert (Fripp), and (legendary bassist) Tony (Levin) and Pat (Mastelotto, Crimson’s drummer). They really saw why I had said these kids were so great. They welcomed them into that family, and not a lot of people are.
“OH DADDY,” solo (MR. MUSIC HEAD, 1989): A memorable MTV hit featuring vocals — and a humorous lyric asking why Daddy hasn’t made it to the big time yet — courtesy of Belew’s daughter Audie. Only a twist of fate (a music executive strolled through the studio while Belew was at work on the track) pushed this onto Mr. Music Head, and onto the television.
Belew: I don’t think I’ve ever played it again. (Laughs.) That really was just something fun to do with my daughter. I didn’t think it would even be on the record. I was doing the rest of what become Mr. Music Head, and I brought her in thinking this would be fun — and we sang it together, kind of as a novelty. There was a guy there that came through who was a producer for Atlantic Records. He heard it and fell in love. He didn’t hear any of the other stuff, but he was ready to sign me. My whole career with Atlantic was based on that song, something that I didn’t think I would put out anyway. I was never keen to do the MTV thing. I always felt the music should stand on its own. I didn’t want to dance around like everybody else was doing. ‘Oh Daddy’ did something; it got us into the Top 40. For a while, it was played a lot — but you only get a few weeks of window time. In this case, I’m thankful. It was a novelty. I’m glad I wasn’t saddled with it.
“DINOSAUR,” with King Crimson (THRAK, 1995): The band returned in a groundbreaking new double-trio format, featuring Belew, Fripp, Bill Bruford, Trey Gunn, Levin and Mastelotto. Thrak ended a 10-year span between albums, dating back to 1984’s 3 of a Perfect Pair. Belew says he has gotten used to these long periods of inactivity. In fact, he says they usually lead to important breakthroughs. Such was also the case with 1981’s Discipline, which followed a seven-year band hiatus. King Crimson last put out an album in 2003.
Belew: I call those honeymoon projects. You come back with so many ideas. I have always wished that we had used the two-trio thing a little more radically than we did. We didn’t get to at that point in time. When we first talked about a double trio, I thought: ‘Great, two trios playing against each other.’ Instead, it was one rhythm section and then another. “Dinosaur” was close. I wrote a string section in the middle, and that was as close as we got. I loved those big pieces like “Thrak” and “Dinosaur,” pieces where there’s lots of music activity and a counterpoint going on. That was great, the way the two drummers worked together. We worked out something truly unique, playing in two signatures over each other.
“NONE OF THE ABOVE,” with the Bears (THE BEARS, 1987): The Bears, also featuring guitarist/vocalist Rob Fetters, drummer/vocalist Chris Arduser, and bassist Bob Nyswonger, were a near-perfect combination of Belew’s two main impulses — combining air-tight pop songs with moments of edgy creativity. Yet their career foundered amidst record label problems. “None of the Above” was part of the group’s underrated debut; the Bears released a follow up, 1988’s Rise and Shine, then disappeared until mounting a series of small reunions beginning some 10 years ago.
Belew: It’s a shame, really. It often bothers me that the Bears were not given any support from the music community — no record label support, nobody wanted to hear them on the radio. That’s not so much for myself but because the guys in that band were all really good songwriters. We were all from kind of the same Midwest pop music background. We all loved the Beatles. The hope was that with four of us, somebody was going to write a song that would get us somewhere. I’ve learned over time that really is not the way it works. Most pop music is actually paid for. You hear it because a lot of people paid to get it there. The Bears never had that. Sometimes I’ve wished the world was different in that way. If it was based on the quality of the work, we would have been much bigger. The Bears were never mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine or on MTV. It’s a shame, but that’s the way the game is played. In the end, I have to say this: I have had a great time with those guys. We had a great time — and the music is there forever. It’s music that has a great underground reputation. I think there are more people enjoying the Bears than we know, but it never did coalesce into a hit.
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