Adrian Belew (w/ David Bowie): Pretty Pink Rose
Adrian Belew is an incredible, inventive guitarist, and deserves all of the critical and commercial success that he has achieved. The story of his career is amazing—where other talented musicians toil in obscurity their whole lives, once he got his big break, Belew has consistently been able to obtain work with some of the biggest and best. To be clear—I’m not saying he isn’t worthy, because he assuredly is—I’m a big fan and really respect his music. But still, it is pretty incredible.
In short, Belew was 27 and playing with cover bands in the Nashville area, when Frank Zappa heard him play, apparently tipped off by his chauffeur. This led to an audition for Zappa, and a spot in his touring band. Brian Eno saw one of the Zappa shows and recommended Belew to his buddy David Bowie, and when Zappa went on hiatus, Belew joined Bowie’s band.
After that, while visiting New York, he became friendly with the emerging Talking Heads, and even sat in with them occasionally. During this period, he met Robert Fripp. Eventually, he joined the Talking Heads for their Remain in Light album and tours and contributed to a number of Talking Heads side projects, including the Tom Tom Club. In fact, he was supposedly asked by Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz to replace David Byrne as front man for the Talking Heads.
Belew was then asked by Fripp to join a new band that ultimately became the rejuvenated King Crimson, and played with that band while also putting out a number of solo albums that careened among pop, rock, world music, experimental arty music, and acoustic songs. Yours truly, while working at Atlantic Records during the summer of 1982, attempted to convince the dance music person to remix a song from Belew’s first solo record, Lone Rhino, to see if it could cross over into that market. The guy actually considered it briefly before realizing that it was a pretty bad idea. Nevertheless, Belew has had a few hit songs (although not dance hits), including “Pretty Pink Rose.”
In 1990, Bowie attempted to hire Belew to tour with him to support a career retrospective box set, Sound + Vision. To help convince Belew, who had some reluctance to put his solo career on hold, Bowie offered to provide some songs to Belew, and sing on his next album. He sent over some demos, including one for “Pretty Pink Rose” which Bowie had cut with, Bryan Adams’ (!) backing band. Belew hated it. But instead of throwing up his hands, he went into the studio and reworked the song. Bowie loved the new version, and they recorded it and it hit #2 on the Billboard “Modern Rock” chart.
The performances are exuberant. The lyrics seem to be about the Cold War and include a bunch of very inventive lines—even if they are somewhat cryptic—for example:
She's the poor man's gold, she's the anarchist crucible
Flyin' in the face of the despot cannibal
You rarely hear a pop song with the words “anarchist” or “cannibal,” much less “crucible.” And Belew’s guitar screams and squiggles wildly (and I mean that in the best possible sense). I suspect that had this been released by Bowie, it would be considered a classic, but instead, it is now just a hidden treasure.