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“Heroes”: Why David Bowie’s Genre-Defying Classic Beats Them Forever
In Depth

“Heroes”: Why David Bowie’s Genre-Defying Classic Beats Them Forever

The second instalment in David Bowie’s daring ‘Berlin Trilogy’, the genre-defying ‘Heroes’ album still sounds like the future.

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The second instalment in his “Berlin Trilogy”, David Bowie’s “Heroes” owes the most of the trio’s albums to the then-divided German metropolis. Unlike the preceding Low and 1979’s succeeding Lodger, “Heroes” was totally conceived and recorded in Berlin, and the record’s content was significantly influenced by the city’s cultural and political vibe.

Listen to “Heroes” here.

“It was like living in a timeless zone”

Along with his friend and former Stooges frontman Iggy Pop, Bowie had left Los Angeles and relocated to Berlin while finishing work on his previous album. He had many reasons to move. His desire to jettison his increasingly toxic LA lifestyle was paramount, but he was also tuning into newly discovered envelope-pushing German outfits such as Neu!, Harmonia and Kraftwerk, and he’d begun to incorporate those artists’ minimalist approach into his own music.

Bowie and Pop thus moved into an apartment above a car-spares shop at Hauptstrasse 155 in West Berlin’s Schöneberg district. The two men enjoyed the relative anonymity of their new existence, and Bowie quickly absorbed the atmosphere in the divided city. “When I settled there, I found the claustrophobia of the [Berlin] Wall almost comforting,” he said in a 2003 interview with Vogue. “I agree that at times it was like living in a timeless zone. No English TV to speak of, except AFN – the American Forces Network.”

“The atmosphere was dense”

“Heroes” was recorded at Berlin’s famous Hansa Tonstudio 2 during July and August 1977. The complex was widely known as “Hansa By The Wall” due to its close proximity to the notorious Berlin Wall, which physically divided democratic West Berlin from communist East Berlin. As producer Tony Visconti later recalled, the Wall’s looming presence contributed to “Heroes”’s overall sound, which was generally darker and denser than Low.

“The theme of the album was very upbeat, and we were always in a good mood, but the atmosphere was dense due to the visual proximity of the Wall from the [studio’s] control room,” Visconti remembered in the book accompanying the 2017 Bowie box set, A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982). “We could see the Russian Red Guards in their turrets all day long – and they were watching us through huge binoculars.”

In this setting, Bowie and his team recorded “Heroes” while riding the crest of an almighty creative wave. Bowie had already spent much of March and April 1977 touring the UK and US with Iggy Pop’s band, in support of Pop’s Bowie-produced solo album The Idiot. He’d then spent half of June 1977 at Hansa, co-writing and producing Pop’s next album, Lust For Life – a record which also featured Bowie’s future Tin Machine rhythm section, Tony and Hunt Sales. Consequently, it came as no great surprise to Tony Visconti when Bowie told him he only had one new song – the imperious ballad Sons Of The Silent Age – in the bag when the “Heroes” sessions began.

“They came from a nook in the unconsciousness”

“True to form, we all congregated in Berlin with nothing more than chord changes and rhythm ideas, not yet songs,” Visconti later recalled. “Fortunately, Carlos [Alomar, guitar], George [Murray, bass] and Dennis [Davis, drums] instinctively knew what to do from the start, but they played harder than the previous album.

Low was like learning a new alphabet, but ‘Heroes’ was the subsequent pulp fiction novel,” the producer added. “Like Low, it didn’t take long to record the band tracks. In fact, they took less than a week.”

Stylistically, “Heroes” followed Low’s lead, in that its first half featured a clutch of songs executed by Bowie’s full band, while the second concentrated on more minimal, experimental tracks.

Aside from the stately Sons Of The Silent Age, the opening salvo proffered angular pop songs such as Joe The Lion, Beauty And The Beast and the fraught, binge-drinking-related Blackout, with Bowie later telling Uncut that the latter’s lyrics “came from a nook in the unconsciousness – still a lot of [mental] house cleaning going on, I feel”.

By comparison, “Heroes”’s second half opened with the pulsing, motorik groove of the Kraftwerk-inspired V2 Schneider, but it was primarily dominated by sparse instrumentals featuring Bowie’s returning Low collaborator Brian Eno.

“Fripp and Eno dazzled us”

“With Moss Garden, Brian excelled himself with textures that imitated nature,” Tony Visconti recalled in 2017. “Atmospheric elements of distant thunder, wind, water and bird call, all originating from his manipulation of his EMS Synthi [synthesiser].

“David, meanwhile, played his Chamberlin sampler, the successor to the Mellotron,” Visconti added. “He also played saxophone with tortured angst on Neuköln” – a track named after the Berlin borough of Neukölln – “and on Sense Of Doubt, effective sounds were made organically by dragging a guitar pick slowly along a guitar string, with David doubling it by imitating that sound in the back of his throat.”

However, while Eno was again bang on form, guest guitarist Robert Fripp, invited to contribute after Bowie heard his work on his Eno collaborations (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, took “Heroes”’s sublime title track to another level altogether.

“David was beaming with a certain Bowie smile”

Visconti recalled, “Fripp and Eno dazzled us as collaborators. All the lead guitar was played by Fripp, plugged into a few FX pedals for sustain and distortion. Brian ‘treated’ the guitar through envelope filters which constantly mutated the sound. Three tracks were recorded in this way for ‘Heroes’ because it was so difficult to perform simultaneously with the effects.”

With help from girlfriend/backing singer Antonia Maass, Visconti himself inspired one of “Heroes”’s most memorable lyrics: “I can remember, standing by the Wall/And the guns shot over our heads/And we kissed as though nothing could fall.”

“David literally asked us to ‘take a walk’, so he could finish the lyric,” Visconti remembered. “Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a little bit, but didn’t go far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room window to look at the Wall. We had a little chat that somehow turned into a little snog. We chatted some more then returned to the studio. When we returned, David was now beaming with a certain Bowie smile. Obviously the song was finished. Coco [Schwab, Bowie’s personal assistant] whispered to me, ‘You two are in the song’ – verse five to be precise.”

“More than an album – it was an adventure”

Everyone involved with the song felt it had something special, with Brian Eno enthusiastically telling NME he felt it sounded “grand and heroic”. It went on to become the parent album’s signature hit and one of the best David Bowie songs of all time. Released on 14 October 1977, “Heroes” received Album Of The Year accolades in both NME and Melody Maker, and has since been hailed as a genre-defying classic rightly regarded as one of its creator’s most unassailably brilliant works.

“There were many enjoyable things to do in West Berlin,” Tony Visconti said. “There were galleries, great restaurants, great atmospheric bars and coffee houses. One day, we even drove through Checkpoint Charlie to have lunch in East Berlin. All that great stuff got into the music and lyrics somehow, and those experiences changed our lives. It was more than an album – it was an adventure.”

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