CLASSIC TRACK: David Bowie: Heroes
Berlin lovers channelled into a climactic eight-minute groove.
One afternoon in July 1977, David Bowie was looking out of the window of Hansa Studio in Berlin when he noticed a couple kissing near the Berlin Wall. “I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Wall that prompted the idea for Heroes,” Bowie said. “Actually, it was [producer] Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time, so I couldn’t talk about it. 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.”
The most famous song to emerge from Bowie’s famed ‘Berlin period’ had already been started by Bowie and Brian Eno in the weeks before, with Visconti behind the mixing desk. Using Eno’s so-called ‘oblique strategies’ cards (aphorisms that encouraged lateral thinking), Bowie came up with a restricted chord progression that he threw out to his studio band, who ran with it, building an eight-minute groove into a triumphant crescendo.
The underlying riff came from guitarist Carlos Alomar, with the hypnotic pulse provided by bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. After the basic track was done, Eno overdubbed shuddering atmospherics by twiddling knobs on his EMS Synthi, a mini-synthesizer built into a briefcase. The final touch was added by guitarist Robert Fripp: a soaring series of aria-like feedback loops. Fripp marked with adhesive tape the spots on the studio floor where he could lock into certain singing tones. For a guitarist known for playing while seated, it’s interesting that one of his most enduring performances came from stepping and swaying.
The finished track sat for weeks while Bowie waited for the right lyrical spark, which eventually came from the lovers by the Wall. Delivered in one of his greatest vocal performances, the us-against-the-world theme of his lyric was full of odd poetic touches, like the lines about the dolphins. As Bowie says, he often used a William Burroughs-inspired cut-up method of writing, taking random text from a book or magazine and reshuffling it.
Heroes was released as a single in September 1977. It reached only No.24 in the United Kingdon, and didn’t chart at all in the US, but Australia lifted it to No.11. Yet its status grew with time: the emotional power of the song continuing to resonate as it became one of Bowie’s cornerstone songs. Ten years after recording it, Bowie took the song home, performing it live at the Platz der Republik Festival, with the Berlin Wall as a backdrop.
“There were thousands of East Berliners on the other side that had come close to the wall,” he recalled. “When we did Heroes it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. I’ve never felt it like that again.”