Influenced: Joy Division, Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Kate Bush, Public Image Ltd., The Human League, U2, Simple Minds, Talk Talk, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Björk, Suede, Blur, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, LCD Soundsystem, TV On The Radio, The Horrors, Preoccupations
Influenced by: The Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Scott Walker, Neu!, Can, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Iggy Pop
“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming” – promotional poster for “Heroes”
David Bowie’s much-heralded ‘Berlin trilogy’ is actually something of a misnomer. The first of them, Low, was recorded in a French chateau, while the final instalment Lodger was made in a luxurious studio in Switzerland. Only the second of the three, 1977’s “Heroes”, was actually recorded in the German city.
However, the reasons that this triptych of albums is so often banded together are manifold. All of them shared a distinctively European quality in their outlook, as opposed to American blues-based rock derivations; all were recorded with the same backing band of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis; and all involved the magisterial inputs of producer Brian Eno at some point in their creation.
But the most important factor is that they tell a story: that of the rehabilitation and re-ascendance of David Bowie, both as a man and as a pop star. At the end of 1976, he was at a point of almost complete mental breakdown. By the time of Lodger three years later, he was in the middle of a rich creative seam, and about to embark on a new chapter of his career. Arguably the most critical point in this story is “Heroes”, and the circumstances of its creation.
Released in January 1977, Low had re-established Bowie’s credentials as a cutting-edge artist at a critical point in the pop music continuum and in the artist’s own life. On the verge of turning 30 and in the context of the punk revolution, the avant-garde electronic experiments of Low stood as the very antithesis of the zeitgeist of the time. But the story behind the masterpiece was extremely dark, as Bowie’s personal life was a shambles. His substance abuse was still serious, his outlook was a mess of paranoia and unhealthy obsessions, his marriage to Angie was on the point of falling apart and he was all but completely estranged from his four year old son – these can be heard on Low’s ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ and the fractious ‘Breaking Glass’.
READ MORE: David Bowie // ‘Low’ at 40 years old
Soon after Low’s release, he moved to Berlin and rented a six-bedroom apartment in Schöneberg, and thus began a process of recovery and self-rediscovery as he and his friend Iggy Pop took to the local culture like ducks to water. Tales abound of the pair of them taking trips to the countryside, to art galleries, to cabaret bars and beer halls. Berlin didn’t seem to care about Bowie’s celebrity status, and he thrived on being able to simply blend in and be himself, therefore rediscovering his passions. His health improved, with his cocaine habit dropping off drastically, and through drinking alcohol a fair bit, he put on weight and stopped being the fragile, frighteningly skeletal figure he had been cutting just over a year before in Los Angeles.
By all accounts, his time in Berlin was an extremely happy one – not only did he enter a new phase of restless creativity, but he helped resuscitate the career of his friend Iggy with the release of The Idiot and Lust For Life just six months apart in 1977, producing the former and joining Iggy’s backing band on keyboards for a short tour.
Entering the definitively strange environs of Hansa Studios, a former concert hall ripped by bulletholes from the war and located just a few hundred feet from a guard tower on the Berlin Wall. Once at the epicentre of culture before the First World War but now a bombed-out relic at the outer edge of an island of Western capitalism amid a sea of communist influence, its atmosphere certainly plays a part in how “Heroes” sounds.
Bowie’s change in attitude and outlook makes itself known subtly on “Heroes”, despite its music and construction sharing an awful lot in common with its predecessor. If Low was like an internal map of Bowie’s depressed, paranoid psyche, then “Heroes” was a portrait of the place of his physical and spiritual recovery.
Bowie himself writes and sings more, for a start, and many of “Heroes”’ tracks seem to have more extrovert and less isolated outlook in the way he’s comporting himself and delivering his vocals. The songs are also much more fleshed-out and conventional qualities than those of Low, which were often be short-ish vignettes left at that or worked into longer tracks. The guitar-work of King Crimson’s Robert Fripp on many of the songs lends much “Heroes” a markedly different atmosphere, with the guitarist often free-forming his work spontaneously and spraying his metallic tones across the album.
READ MORE: Iggy Pop // ‘The Idiot’ at 40 years old
Nevertheless, the fundamental structure is essentially the same as Low, with avant-garde guitar pop on the first side and lengthier, ambient instrumental passages on the reverse.
Obviously, no discussion of this album would be complete without its title track, which in 2017 is so incredibly famous that it seems to have passed into public ownership, existing outside of the pop continuum like R.E.M.’s ‘Everybody Hurts’, fuelled by countless television drama soundtracks and sporting montages. Strangely, for all ‘”Heroes”’ deserved iconic fame, it was not a big hit at the time, peaking at a lowly #24 in the British charts in September 1977, only then achieving a new high of #12 in the aftermath of Bowie’s death in January 2016.
Partly, this is due to Bowie’s comparatively low media profile in his native Britain at the time – he had been living abroad ever since the tours for Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs nearly four years before. Nevertheless, those who did hear it and buy it knew exactly what ‘”Heroes”’ represented – a new and entirely different kind of brilliant, career-defining track from an artist who had already made a handful of them already.
A maelstrom of noise and emotion that makes more sense the louder you play it, ‘”Heroes” is a stunning achievement of studio innovation – the three gated microphones in different positions in the studio that began recording when Bowie sang at different volumes; Fripp’s inspired, reverberating guitar-work giving the track its the cinematic effect.
Written nominally about two lovers stealing a moment of privacy by the Berlin Wall – actually a secret tryst going on between producer Tony Visconti and a girl he had met in a club – the song’s thunderous atmosphere telescopes into the grand geo-political themes of the Cold War, and the lasting mental and physical scars of a brutal World War now three decades past. Full of symbolism and imagery, the ironic “quote” marks that surround the title seem to undermine its own grandiosity, suggesting that the lovers’ efforts may be in vain, emphasising the impermanence of individual efforts in the face of intractable external forces. ‘”Heroes”’ may be about futility, not hope.
It is testament to the power of songwriting and sonic innovation on display that “Heroes” is not unbalanced by its awe-inspiring title track.
The cacophonous chaos of the opening duo ‘Beauty And The Beast’ and ‘Joe The Lion’ are both a fusion of soul and new-wave influenced, with Fripp’s guitar, clangorous piano and a plethora of distorted instrumentation. ‘Beauty And The Beast’s cryptic lyrics suggest a struggle with identity or with his inner demons, perhaps his cocaine problems, while ‘Joe The Lion’s lyrics were invented on the spot, with Bowie taking inspiration from Iggy Pop’s The Idiot sessions and singing whatever he felt like in the studio in each take.
‘“Heroes”’ is followed be two more genuinely innovative moments on side one. The bleakly dystopian ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’ is a brilliant and forward-thinking compound of avant-garde soul, with Bowie’s vocals ranging from a detached, Syd Barrett-esque intonation to a heartfelt wail. Here, Bowie seems to be intent on forging something completely new. The same goes for the quasi-industrial leanings of ‘Blackout’, a moment of dissonant beauty that hints at the trauma of Low once again – rumour suggests that it was inspired by the sudden arrival of Angie Bowie in Berlin.
Side two, much like Low, is composed largely of instrumentals, and it’s here that Eno’s influence is most profound. The motoric rhythms underpinning ‘V-2 Schneider’ act as a kind of musical bridge. Featuring Bowie playing a sax in the wrong key, it was reportedly named in dedication to Kraftwerk co-founder Florian Schneider, and it’s where “Heroes” starts to get truly abstract. A trio of brilliant, yet individually different, moments then follows.
‘Sense Of Doubt’, with its descending four-note piano motif and Expressionist-style blasts of tinny synthesiser, is like a moment of time travel. Resolving itself on its final note, it conjures up images of misty, middle-European city strasses and scenes of ‘30s black and white movies. ‘Moss Garden’ is much more serene and healing, with its brief melody plucked on a Japanese koto. It’s a painterly and beautiful work of abstraction. The ghostly ‘Neuköln’ is a reference to the suburb of Berlin, its freeform, klaxon-like saxophone apparently reflecting the rootless nature of the Turkish immigrant population who dwell there. These three tracks, while wordless, are brilliant and detailed imaginations of parts of the city that do their job equally as effectively as ‘”Heroes”’.
Closing track ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’, a cleansing, refreshing rain after the challenging sequence of instrumental tracks, is an art-funk gem that feels so much like a teaser to the Bowie’s next chapter, the new-wave and world influences of Lodger, and a template for post-punk-influenced dance music at large as it would come to be understood over the next two years.
Released to almost universally ecstatic reviews in October 1977 – his own label marketed it “there’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie” – “Heroes” seemed to drive home the point with the wider public that some had initially missed with Low. Largely, this was because of that Low’s startling musical volte-face from what had come before, even when one takes into account the 1976 bridging album Station To Station.
Throughout 1978, Bowie made the effort to reconnect with the world and face his fanbase again, embarking on the lengthy Isolar II tour, performing 77 shows from which the 1978 live album Stage was recorded.
The tangible influence of “Heroes” on subsequent generations of musicians cannot be overstated. From new-wave and post-punk practitioners such as Talking Heads and Public Image Ltd., to British ‘80s indie-dance titans like New Order, and into the 1990s with avant-garde purveyors from Nine Inch Nails to Björk, the shock waves from the impact of Bowie’s work with Tony Visconti and Brian Eno in 1977 continued to reverberate over decades.
READ MORE: David Bowie’s studio albums, ranked From Worst To Best
More importantly, though, “Heroes” brought David Bowie back to the world. As the thematic core of the rightly celebrated ‘Berlin trilogy’ – indeed, the only actual Berlin album he made – it constitutes an absolutely essential part of the Bowie myth.
Listen to “Heroes” by David Bowie here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!
Tags: 40 years old, 40th anniversary, Berlin, Berlin trilogy, Brian Eno, classic 70s, David Bowie, Ed Biggs, Heroes, Iggy Pop, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti
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