Mr. Music Head almost made the Kentucky-born wizard a true star.
Released in April 1989, Adrian Belew’s Mr. Music Head almost made the Kentucky-born wizard a true star. The album featured his one and only radio hit to date, “Oh Daddy,” and proved that despite his prog rock pedigree the former King Crimson vocalist could write an excellent pop song or 10.
Earlier in the decade Belew had joined Robert Fripp’s not-so-gritty Crimson reboot. Obsessed with interlocking guitar lines, African-style rhythms and Beat poetry, this version of the mighty Krim released three astonishing studio LPs before disbanding in mid-1984. Fripp’s sparring partner needn’t have worried about what to do next: Belew remained an in-demand session player and had a solo career already underway. His first two releases, 1982’s Lone Rhino and 1983’s Twang Bar King were evidence of a seriously gifted guitarist and songwriter whose harmonic interests straddled Beatle pop and the avant-garde.
Those arrived on Island, a label known for taking a dare or two in its time. Belew certainly had plenty of daring left in him. His third release, Desire Caught by the Tail, consisted of guitar abstracts that had less than zero commercial potential but plenty of artistic drive. Never content to stay in one place for long, the free agent teamed up with some old pals from his days in Cincinnati, the Raisins, and formed the Bears. Signing to the I.R.S. subsidiary P.M.R.C., the newly-minted quartet won some rave reviews with two outstanding recordings (1987’s self-titled and 1988’s Rise and Shine) and polarized some King Crimson fans.
Belew played some of the best pop guitar of the decade on those albums and delivered at least one song, “Old Fat Cadillac,” that should have taken the world by storm. The Bears were mothballed when P.M.R.C. shuttered its offices. The remaining Bears lumbered back to Ohio while Belew settled down in the tourist town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the place he’d called home for a while by then, and began work on what would become his first record for Atlantic.
Mr. Music Head wasn’t just born in Lake Geneva, but it often radiates vibes that mark it as having been conceived there as well. It owes more than a small debt to the British Invasion, the music that Belew became enamored with while growing up in Covington, Kentucky. His love of state-of-the-art technology remains evident throughout the album’s 12 songs, but he also leans heavily on piano throughout the record. It was an instrument that he had taken to writing on while living in Lake Geneva. Some years later he would describe how the previous owners of his house were talked into throwing the piano into the deal when he purchased their home. It may have been one of his wisest buys ever as the 88s are one of the most memorable parts of this record.
It’s a subtle but dance-y piano figure that welcomes us to “Oh Daddy,” which serves as the record’s opener and the second recorded appearance of Audie Belew. Just 11-years-old at the time, Adrian’s daughter had already sung on Lone Rhino. Here, she returns to ask her father some rather important questions, such as when he intends to “hit the big time,” make a million dollars or buy that old fat Cadillac. It became a hit that summer not because it was a novelty song but because the lyrics spoke a truth about parent and child relations. It’s also a statement from Belew about where he was in his career: Despite some high-profile gigs, he wasn’t yet a household name. He hadn’t yet found that certain something that would break him into everyone’s living room. But he was convinced that it still existed. However, later in the record, on the psychedelic-tinged “1967,” Belew would voice his doubts. He sings about the simple life’s complications and wonders what to do about “monster debts” hanging around his neck. Ultimately, he concludes that he’ll just have to fix himself a Coke and hope for the best.
In “One of Those Days,” we’re treated to a creation story in which paradise isn’t the Garden of Eden but instead sand, the volleyball net, tan dads without shirts and the right pair of sunglasses. It’s innocuous fun as the buoyant beats call to mind a collaboration between Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney, which Belew delivers in his best Lennon-esque voice as he celebrates the oncoming summer. “One of Those Days” captured the ear of Canadian Brad Roberts who would later write the song “God Shuffled His Feet,” a song that would provide a slightly more cynical take on the creation story. His band, Crash Test Dummies, had already had a modest hit before arriving in Lake Geneva in 1993 to record a second album for Arista. When the label nixed the idea of Belew producing the record, Roberts and his mates hired Jerry Harrison for the job. But Belew would get on the record just the same, adding synthesized guitar to the song he’d helped inspire.
The sun also shines on lighter fare such as “Coconuts,” “Hot Zoo” and “Motor Bungalow,” an apparent paean to the joys of living on the road in an RV. Even “Bad Days,” a gorgeous, piano-driven number that begins as a meditation on a broken heart, ends with our narrator glad that his lover has returned and that there will be no more “bad days” or “awful nights.” Although it would be re-recorded for the acoustic Adrian record Belew Prints it’s the Music Head version that burns brightest.
Levity reigns elsewhere via “Bumpity Bump” and “Bird in a Box.” The latter lasts just over three minutes and drips with non sequiturs such as “Every dog has a Dayton Ohio Hitler” and “Is there a Groucho Marxist doctrine in the house?”. It’s a playfulness that Belew would revisit and refine on future albums and which fans would come to anticipate.
The following year’s Young Lions would take a darker turn, and the celebratory atmosphere of “Peaceable Kingdom,” which finds its author meditating on the joys of the domestic life, would essentially disappear. It would be replaced by songs about loneliness, animal cruelty and meditations on the regrettable state of mankind. Despite featuring David Bowie on two songs, Young Lions wouldn’t reach the same audience as its predecessor. Belew would divorce and remarry in the space between that record and Inner Revolution in 1992, but his time with Atlantic was up by then.
By the middle of the decade, he’d trade Lake Geneva for Nashville, record with Nine Inch Nails, return to King Crimson, reunite with the Bears and never repeat what he’d done on Mr. Music Head. The path he’s blazed since then has led to some fine records though none possessed of the same spirit as the one realized with such wide eyes and open ears in the spring of 1989. It was a time that needed some uplift and Belew gave us enough then to last a lifetime.