“Heroes” is the second album in David Bowieis well deserved praise”Berlin Trilogy” from the late 70s, but it was the only one recorded in the German capital after it was torn in two by the hostilities of the Cold War.
A wall then separated the eastern part of the city (which was under Soviet control) from the west (part of the Federal Republic of West Germany), creating both an ideological and physical boundary and a sign of conflict between heated rivals. It turned West Berlin into a study in contrasts, according to Bowie’s co-producer Tony Visconti.
“It was a rough, scary place,” he recounted Sound on sound in 2004 “yet it had a very exciting nightlife with exotic locales like the Turkish Quarter and it was teeming with artists such as Mandarin dreamwho were friends of ours.”
This sharpness appealed to Bowie. “I find that I have to put myself in those situations to produce something [reasonably] well written,” he said NME in 1977. “I still feel the same about when I come to a country or a situation and I have to put myself at a dangerous level, whether it’s emotionally or mentally or physically – and it works out in things like that: To live in [West] Berlin, leading what is quite a spartan life for someone of my means, and forcing myself to live according to that city’s restrictions.”
Part of what Bowie found rejuvenating in West Berlin, even in its Cold War days, was the city’s art scene. He was particularly attracted to the city’s Brucke Museum, which had exhibited several works by the expressionist painter Otto Mueller, including Love couple between garden walls (Lovers Between the Garden Walls)a work that Bowie later saw recreated outside the studio, with a very exciting pair.
Work on what would be “Heroes” The LP’s title track began with Bowie, collaborator Brian Enoand the musicians gathered for the album sessions (including guitarist Carlos Alomar) and played an impromptu jam, overseen by co-producer Visconti.
Watch David Bowie’s video for ‘Heroes’
“David’s modus operandi would be to throw a lot of chord changes and a lot of ideas in a very loose structure at the band,” Visconti told Sound on Sound, “and he knew he could trust those guys to do something immediately. They were expert jammers and within half an hour they would jam the few chords that David threw at them into a wonderful structure.”
Once a basic track emerged from the jam, it was time for overdubs – a process that took a full week. Part of this process fell to Eno, who happily brought in some items from his collection of gadgets.
“Brian brought his EMS Synthi, which is a synthesizer built into a briefcase,” explained Visconti, “and it doesn’t have a real keyboard—it has a sort of flat plastic keyboard that Brian very rarely used. He used the joystick a lot, and the oscillator banks, and he would do live calls. They look like combination-safe knobs on the three oscillator banks.”
The majestic solo guitar work on the song was performed by King Crimson faithful Robert Fripp, who had been lying low for a while before receiving a call from Bowie. Fripp told Daily Telegraph that Bowie asked if he would be interested in playing some “hairy rock ‘n’ roll” on the album.
How much hair was involved is a question left to the ages, but according to Bowie biographer Tom Hagler, “Fripp had everyone mesmerized when he pulled out a measuring tape with musical notes written on it and placed it in front of the amp. When the backing track was played, Fripp moved between the marks to get just the right feedback on the right notes.”
Visconti remembered the session and the technique quite well. “For example, an ‘A’ would feed back maybe about four feet from the speaker, while a ‘G’ would feed back maybe three and a half feet from it,” he told Sound on Sound. Fripp had a “strip that they would place on the floor, and when he played the note ‘F’ sharp, he would stand on the ‘F’ sharp tip of the strip, and the ‘F’ sharp would feed back better. He really figured this out to a fine science, and we also played this at a fantastic level in the studio. It was very, very loud.”
Watch David Bowie perform ‘Heroes’ at Live Aid
The culmination of the session was a backing track for a song that at the time had no melody or lyrics. “I had no melody, so I just sang the lines I had written four or five bars at a time,” Bowie recounted The Guardian in 1977. “After singing a line, I took a breath and did the same thing again and then on to the end. I never knew the full melody until I finished the song and played it all back.”
He also had an unexpected catalyst for his words. For a while after the release of the 1977s “Heroes” LP, Bowie explained that his inspiration for the song was an anonymous couple he would see almost every day during the sessions, kissing on a bench in the shadow of the Berlin Wall – like the subjects of the Otto Mueller painting he so appreciated.
“They were obviously having an affair,” he said NME“and I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why choose a bench under a watchtower on the wall? They came from different directions and always met there. … Oh, they were both from the West, but they had always met right there. And I – with permission – surmised that they felt a little guilty about this affair, and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thus giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act.”
Released on Sept. 23, 1977, “Heroes” somehow only reached No. 24 on the UK Singles Chart and failed to chart at all in the US. Over the years, however, it has resonated with listeners across generations and has been covered by many artists. Only later did Bowie admit that he knew the couple who showed their love so publicly.
It was Tony Visconti and Antonia Maass, a singer hired to provide background vocals on the ongoing album. The two had an affair, and although he wrote one of his most famous songs about spying on their tryst, Bowie was initially careful in interviews about their identities to protect Visconti, who was married at the time.
“I could tell that Tony was very much in love with this girl,” Tom Hagler quotes Bowie in his book. We could be: Bowie and his heroes“and it was that relationship that kind of motivated the song.”
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