David Bowie released “Heroes” exactly nine months after his previous record Low. “Heroes” is the second of what would later be deemed the “Berlin Trilogy,” because of its conception and recording taking place in Berlin’s Hansa Studio by the Wall. It would be Bowie’s twelfth studio record and mark another artistic milestone in his long career.
“Heroes” caught Bowie while fully immersed in the city that was experiencing its second cultural and artistic renaissance of the 20th century. Bowie welcomed the chance to be somewhere where no one recognized them, or cared if they did. In addition to escaping throngs of exultant fans, Bowie wanted to use Berlin as a refuge from his own inner demons. After his explosion onto the world’s stage in the early 1970s, he shortly fell into what he calls his “first period of isolation” in the mid-Seventies when he was residing in L.A., living alone while, “enveloped in a cocoon of cocaine and messianic self-importance”.
Bowie memorably described the moment he realized he had to knock his serious cocaine habit by stating that he “blew [his] nose one day… and half [his] brains came out.” That sentiment somehow feels appropriate when listening to “Heroes.” The album feels as though he is finally shaking out all of the accumulated junk in his mind. It is a pure, distilled version of the artistic process by an artist and a few choice collaborators who are re-discovering the depths of natural talent that they have access to.
In July of 1977, Bowie reconvened in Berlin, bringing with him American producer Tony Visconti, who he had worked with on several previous albums, and British pioneer of electronic and ambient pop Brian Eno. While living in Berlin, Bowie was understandably influenced by the “New German Sound” that was heavily electronic and experimental. The title track was a partial nod to the song “Hero” by the band Neu! and the song “V-2 Schneider” was inspired by and named after Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider. Bowie especially loved the album Epsilon in Malaysian Pale by Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream, claiming it to be “the first ambient music… [and] an extraordinary record”. Reaching back for visual influences, the striking album cover by Masayoshi Sukita, highlighting Bowie’s angular face and form, was inspired by Erich Heckel’s Roquairol – which had previously inspired the cover of Iggy Pop’s Bowie-produced The Idiot.
With those influences in the atmosphere, Bowie, Eno, Visconti and the studio musicians – including Robert Fripp of King Crimson on guitar for a couple of tracks – began to experiment in the studio, as the Berlin Wall stared at them some 500 yards away. Bowie admitted the album has “no concept,” which is why the “only narrative song” was used as the title track. The rest of the album is a sonic experimentation lab, with 4 of the 10 tracks being primarily instrumental. Bowie felt that with “such great musicians the notes were never in doubt so we looked at ‘feel’ being the priority… most of my vocals were first takes, some written as I sang”. That improvisational work applied to the music as well, with Bowie, Eno and Visconti trying out whatever notes or effects their instincts led them to, and deciding not to do too much to the songs afterward.
This sense of improvisation and experimental musicianship is evident in the resulting tracks. The first half of the album keeps up a rocking, loose attitude. The songs are rock songs, with lots of the guitar and swagger fans had come to expect from Bowie, although without the feeling of being clearly structured or conceptualized. In “Beauty and the Beast,” “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” you feel Bowie having fun, relaxing into it, getting back to himself. Even “Sons of the Silent Age,” which is a bit slower than those previous three, is buoyed by a swirling musical landscape of sax, synths and prominent backing vocals.
The second half of the album consists first of four instrumental tracks that meld seamlessly into each other. The slow build and jazzy sway of “V-2 Schneider” moves into the German Expressionist nightmare battle between dark and light, Angst und Hoffnung, in “Sense of Doubt” that gives out into the heavenly sounds of “Moss Garden” and its hint of Zen and finally into “Neuköln,” which synthesizes the previous tracks into a synthy, saxy, mystery wail. This sonic exploration is a powerful and emotive embodiment of the clarity that comes with Bowie’s journey out of the muddy darkness of his early years. It finally feels like the cobwebs have been cleared, and the dust has been wiped from the windows.
The final track “The Secret Life of Arabia” is a funky jam like those from the first half of the album, with a backing vocal refrain of “secret secret.” It’s somehow a fitting conclusion to this journey inside the artist as we start with the rock jams that sound familiar, then dive into the deep psychic pool and resurface only to be reminded that we just scratched the surface. The album is just 40 minutes, with the last track fading out rather than definitively stopping. It makes the entire experience feel like a glimpsed private moment, or an overheard conversation we were lucky to catch. It’s fleeting, which makes it magical.
Of course, what most people remember most from “Heroes,” is “Heroes.” Easily the most accessible song of the album, it is also one of the more romantic and epic pop songs ever recorded. The original story was that Bowie was inspired to write the tale of Wall-crossed lovers by spotting a couple meeting by the Wall while he was recording. He claimed he didn’t know them, so imagined a story for them. In 2003, however, he revealed that the couple meeting was a then-married Visconti and a backing vocalist Antonia Maaβ. This mundane source of inspiration may have contributed to Bowie’s decision to put the title in quotations, to indicate a “dimension of irony about the word…or about the whole concept of heroism”. While the couple was not literally German lovers torn asunder by the separation of the city, the song is nevertheless a soaring sonic and emotional experience. To achieve its particular sound, Bowie and his collaborators used the “studio as an instrument”. Visconti rigged up a “gating system” of three microphones to record Bowie’s vocals – one nine inches, another 20 feet and another 50 feet away from his face. Each mic is muted as the next one is triggered, thus “Bowie’s performance grows in intensity…as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until…he has to shout just to be heard,” adding to the desperate and passionate depiction of the song’s lovers. Additionally, Robert Fripp used a system of pitched feedback, which involved allowing his guitar to feedback with him sitting at different positions in the room to alter the pitch of that feedback.
While “Heroes” was not a huge hit in the UK or US at the time – only reaching 24 in the UK charts, it has since been listed in several “best songs ever” lists by British and American publications, including Mojo, NME, TIME and Rolling Stone. Underlining the song’s moving imagery of unity against adversity, the German government and its people partially consider Bowie’s performance of the song in 1987 at the Reichstag in West Berlin to be a contributing factor towards the Wall’s fall in 1989, even thanking Bowie after his death in 2016 for “helping to bring down the Wall”.
“Heroes” as a whole album was equally received with slightly less acclaim than one might expect upon release. It was critically praised across the board, and earned the Album of the Year spots in NME and Melody Maker. In the UK it peaked at third place on the album charts, staying there for 26 weeks, but in America it only peaked at 35. That’s probably to be expected, considering the “Krautrock” that so inspired Bowie’s “Heroes” experimentation was not so easily transferable to the landscape of American popular music. Eventually of course, nearly every casual pop listener has encountered “Heroes,” and many Bowie fans consider the album to be one of his best records, in a career that would eventually include dozens.
David Bowie would later remark that while recording “Heroes” in that summer of ’77, he learned that “you don’t need to get stoned out of your gourd to be able to write well…[that] it was possible to survive all that [drug use and fame] and not become a casualty… It was like being reborn… I did see a light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn’t a train”. That renewed vigor would carry him right into his early 80s dance-pop and onward into the remaining decades of his life.