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“Heroes”: The Triumph And Despair Behind David Bowie’s Anthemic Song
In Depth

“Heroes”: The Triumph And Despair Behind David Bowie’s Anthemic Song

Life-affirming or fatalistic? The David Bowie song ‘Heroes’ has been interpreted all ways – and it even changed the course of world politics.


In the decades since it was recorded, in Hansa Tonstudio, in Berlin, David Bowie’s song “Heroes” has become embraced as a euphoric anthem for any grand occasion. And yet, as originally written, it was less optimistic in tone. “They use ‘Heroes’ for every heroic event,” producer Tony Visconti once noted, “although it’s a song about alcoholics.” However, underneath the layers of sound used to craft this uniquely affecting song, listeners have probed for their own interpretations of lyrics which had Bowie himself admitting, in 1990, “I’m not sure what that song means any more, which is kind of exciting.”

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“It sounded great. Why fix it?”

Lending its name to David Bowie’s “Heroes” album, “Heroes” the song was clearly a high point of the fruitful Berlin sessions that saw Bowie finish up his Low album and helm Iggy Pop’s second solo album, Lust For Life. It was a tune from the latter that Bowie revisited for “Heroes”, using the simple two-chord progression of the Iggy song Success for the basis of “Heroes”’s dramatic slow build.

Sitting in with his rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, Bowie pounded away at a grand piano while Brian Eno, his co-conspirator for what would become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” of albums, let fly with his EMS Synthi AKS synthesiser – a rudimentary piece of equipment responsible for creating a noise that seemed to envelope everything else in the room.

“He had an old synthesiser that fits into a briefcase made by a defunct company called EMS,” Tony Visconti later wrote on his website. “It didn’t have a piano keyboard like modern synths. It did have a lot of little knobs, a peg board and little pegs, like an old telephone switchboard, to connect the various parameters to one another. But it’s pièce de résistance was a little ‘joystick’ that you find on arcade games. He would pan that joystick around in circles and make the swirling sounds you heard on that track.”

Playing together live, the sound from each musician’s instrument bled into other bandmates’ microphones – but where many artists would have sought greater perfection in the recording, Bowie and co realised this only added to the song’s grandeur. “There was leakage all over the microphones,” Visconti admitted in his liner notes for the box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982), “but it sounded great. Why fix it?”

“The constant mutations of the sounds was entirely complimentary, and we had the intro of ‘Heroes’”

Choice overdubs gave further texture to what was shaping up to become Bowie’s new-wave answer to Phil Spector’s 60s “Wall Of Sound” production style, with Bowie playing a planned horn line on a Chamberlin electric keyboard, and adding synth strings with his ARP Solina. Extra percussion came from tambourine and an empty metal tape cannister, yet it was a sonic pas de deux between Eno and lead guitarist Robert Fripp that provided a throughline for “Heroes”’s disparate elements.

On temporary leave from King Crimson, the prog-rock behemoths he had formed a decade earlier, Fripp was already acquainted with Eno’s unorthodox recording methods, having recorded the albums (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star with the former Roxy Music architect in 1973 and 1975, respectively. A “master of feedback”, as Visconti put it, Fripp recorded three guitar solos lasting the full six minutes of “Heroes”’s backing track, taking each one at a different distance from his speaker in order to create unique squalls of noise which Eno ran through his trusty EMS Synthi in real time. “It really was a two-man performance as Eno constantly mutated Fripp’s sound,” Visconti would recall in his memoir, Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy. “After they were finished we knew we had some great ideas on tape, but we realised a great deal of non-linear editing would be needed to make a composite guitar track.” As it happened, the finished song would feature all three of Fripp’s solos layered on top of one another, after a chance experiment in the overdubbing stage.

“I casually placed the three guitar takes together and it had a jaw-dropping effect on all of us,” Visconti recalled. “The constant mutations of the sounds was entirely complimentary and we had the intro of ‘Heroes’ without doing anything more.”

With the music for the “Heroes” album’s seven songs compete, Bowie, Visconti and engineer Peter Burgon remained in Hansa Tonstudio while Bowie penned his lyrics and recorded his vocals. For a while, however, it seemed as though “Heroes” itself may have remained an instrumental tune.

“David lived with it for quite a while before he identified where he would write the verses and where he would write the choruses,” Visconti observed, later telling Bowie biographer Paul Trynka, “He would scribble down a few notes on the top of the piano, then say, ‘OK, drop me in after “Dolphins can swim”,’ and that way he wrote and sang ‘Heroes’ simultaneously.”

Working in the heat of the moment, a request for some alone time ended up giving Bowie the inspiration he needed to pen one of the song’s most memorable verses.

“It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song”

Positioned just 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, in West Germany, Hansa Tonstudio was replete with German history. A former concert hall, the building had been used as a ballroom by Gestapo officers during World War Two, and now, as a recording studio, it overlooked a forbidding stretch of wall that separated the Federal Republic Of Germany, in the West, from the communist-run German Democratic Republic, in the East. Looking out the window after Visconti had left the building, Bowie spied the producer and his then girlfriend, the German singer Antonia Maass, sharing a clandestine kiss beneath a watchtower – a perfect image for his “Heroes” lyrics. However, with Visconti still married to Welsh folk singer Mary Hopkin at the time, Bowie fictionalised the incident, presenting the pair as two anonymous lovers embracing as gunfire rang out above them.

“I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret to the Wall?” Bowie later said. “And I – using license – presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act.”

Though he later revealed that Visconti and Maass had been the lovers in question (“I’m allowed to talk about it now… I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song”), Bowie folded their experience into his own tale of doomed lovers – one “mean”, the other liable to “drink all the time” – who seem to swing from despair to hopeful delusions of freedom – heroes, “just for one day”.

Like the multi-layered music itself, Bowie drew upon a range of influences to shape his final lyrics, with Otter Müller’s 1916 painting Lovers Between Garden Walls providing a visual cue for the claustrophobia Bowie sought to capture, and Alberto Denti Di Pirajno’s 1956 short story A Grave For A Dolphin inspiring the song’s striking aquatic fantasy (“I, I wish you could swim/Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”). “I thought it a magical and beautiful love story and in part it inspired my song ‘Heroes’,” Bowie would later say of the Italian author’s story, though those particular lyrics also seemed to reflect Bowie’s own lack of swimming skills.

“I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I never will again”

When it came to recording his vocal, Bowie wrung every ounce of emotion from his voice across a mere handful of takes, each of which demanded perfection. “You can hear on ‘Heroes’ what he calls his ‘Bowie histrionics’, his own peculiar style of yelling and screaming,” Visconti later noted. But, having maxed out all but one of the 24 tracks available on the recording console, Bowie only had one track left on which to record his vocal. Forced to erase each take if he wanted to attempt another, he had to be certain he could improve on what he’d already done before deciding to lose it for good.

Three takes in, he’d nailed it, with Visconti using the atmosphere of the former ballroom to enhance the power of Bowie’s voice. “The luxurious sound of the big hall… was crying out to be part of David’s vocals,” the producer wrote in his A New Career In A New Town notes. Setting up three microphones at different distances – in front of Bowie, in the middle of the hall and at the back – Visconti rigged the second and third mics so that they would begin recording only when Bowie’s voice reached them. “When David sang louder, microphone two would open and when he sang very loud, the far microphone would open,” the producer explained. “The reverb on David’s voice is the Hansa hall, nothing else.”

Mixed in Montreux, where Bowie would soon record his next album, Lodger, and released, in truncated form, as a single on 23 September 1977, with the near-instrumental song V-2 Schneider – Bowie’s tribute to the Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider – as a B-side, “Heroes” would have a far-reaching effect akin to that of Bowie’s voice in Hansa Tonstudio. Having recorded German- and French-language versions of the song (“Helden” and “Héros”, respectively), Bowie seems to have been intent on having it make a global impact. Though the single edit settled just outside the UK Top 20 upon its original release, “Heroes” re-entered the charts and went to No.12 following Bowie’s death – by which time it had been recognised as one of the best David Bowie songs of all time, capable of pervading pop culture and even affecting global politics.

“Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall”

Bowie himself acknowledged that live performances helped the song gain in stature. “Recording something in a studio, and then putting it to a live audience, it becomes a different animal,” he told Q magazine in 1990. “And it certainly did, that one particularly; I hadn’t anticipated the way it would become that kind of anthemic thing.”

Spine-tingling footage filmed at London’s Earls Court while on the Isolar II – The 1978 World Tour, and seen for the first time in Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream documentary, shows that the song’s transmutation had already begun to take place within months of its release. However, a performance in West Berlin, in 1987, exactly ten years after Bowie had recorded “Heroes” within view of the Berlin Wall, took the song over the edge. With Bowie’s stage backed up against the Wall, thousands of East Berliners gathered on the other side to hear what their government had forbidden. “I’ll never forget that,” Bowie told Performing Songwriter in 2003. “It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears… I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I never will again. When we did ‘Heroes’, it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”

The Berlin Wall came down two years later. Following Bowie’s death, the German foreign office officially recognised Bowie’s contribution to the reunification of the country, tweeting, “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.”

“I had a feeling about that track. It sounded grand and heroic”

In the years since, “Heroes” has soundtracked sporting events, weddings and individuals’ own private moments of glory or uncertainty. It has been a centrepiece in film musicals (Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!) and TV talent shows (The X Factor), and even performed live by Prince, who, in the months following Bowie’s death, segued between “Heroes” and one of his own songs, Dolphin, from his The Gold Experience album, during select shows on his final tour, Piano & A Microphone. “Peace to David Bowie,” Prince noted one night. “I only met him once, but he was really nice to me. Seems like he was that way with everybody. Just wanted to say that.” A week after his final performance of the song, Prince, too, had passed away.

Assuming a life of its own, “Heroes” has been interpreted in many ways, from Consequence Of Sound’s belief that it “expertly captures the hopeless reality that nothing lasts and that we all must die” to Bowie biographer David Buckley’s claim that it is “perhaps pop’s definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity”. Bowie had pointedly added the quote marks around the song’s title, to ensure that any readings acknowledged a “dimension of irony”, though he himself would admit to a touch of sincerity underneath, noting that the song had “a sense of compassion” to it, with messages of “facing reality and standing up to it” and “deriving some joy from the simple pleasure of being alive” being part of his intent.

Whatever the interpretation, “Heroes” was clearly destined for great things the moment it was recorded. “When I left, I already had a feeling about that track,” Brian Eno later said. Though Bowie had yet to record his vocals, “It sounded grand and heroic. In fact, I had that very word in mind. And then David brought the finished album round to my place and that track came up and it said, ‘We can be heroes’… I just shivered.”

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