Album in Context: Heroes

In 1974, David Bowie warbled out a prophecy of impending Orwellian dystopia with the cutting rock of Diamond Dogs. In 1975, he announced, “Rock ‘n’ roll is just a toothless old woman,” forgetting the glam characters he’d created in favour of the funk and soul sound in Young Americans. He brought his cocaine addiction from that year with him into ’76, declaring his acceptance of God and identifying the dark place he was in through Station to Station’s experimental journey. Bowie needed a change of scene, and big time. After two years of drug addiction in the City of Angels, 1977 meant getting clean. It meant getting a fresh perspective in a place where no one would recognize him on the streets. He had to move on from the management team at MainMan that left him financially uncomfortable. Gone was the diet of milk and powders. When he moved to Berlin with Iggy Pop in late ’76, Bowie put his pop star life on hold.

Bowie had released Low in January of 1977. Instead of touring the records, as RCA expected of him, he joined Pop to tour The Idiot as the band’s keyboard player. In eight days in May, he and Pop wrote and recorded Lust For Life, another of Pop’s solo albums. Bowie’s influence was all over the album—so much so that some argue it’s the true third component in Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy; Lodger, Bowie’s installment from 1979 to the trilogy, pales in comparison to Lust For Life, and barely belongs alongside Low and Heroes. While the two men worked together musically, they also worked to successfully kick their respective drug addictions. Before Berlin, Pop was ordered by a court to enroll himself into a rehab facility for his heroine dependency. He needed this as much as Bowie did.

From Pop, Bowie would adopt a method of lyric writing rooted in spontenaity. Working on both of Pop’s albums, Bowie watched as his friend would shout whatever words came to mind into the microphone, write down the lines that worked, revise, and repeat. This technique shows up on Heroes a few months later: track no. 2, “Joe the Lion,” barely seems to make sense, even on the tenth listen. “A couple of drinks on the house and he was / A fortune teller he said / ‘Nail me to my car and I’ll tell you who you are.’” But it turns out to be a complete narrative—a character, a plot of alcoholism, and a suicidal ending for “the lion made of iron.” That shows Bowie’s genius; even guttural shouts turn into a poignant message by the final cut.

Bowie also sought influence from the troubles in his own life. “Blackout” draws on his stints of unconsciousness following booze binges. He and Pop had replaced hard drugs with alcohol to get themselves through drug cravings. “Get me to a doctor, I’ve been told / Someone’s back in town, the chips are down / I just cut and blackout.” It’s no stretch to suppose that the “someone” Bowie sings about is his soon-to-be-ex wife, Angie. “Beauty and the Beast” is a ride full of the positivity and enthusiasm that escaped the journey of Station to Station. Clanging keys and harsh symbols fill the track. Guitars distorted beyond recognition accompany Bowie’s words: “Nothing will corrupt us / Nothing will compete / Thank god heaven left us / Standing on our feet.” This track kicks off Heroes with a sound immediately more hopeful than the struggling desperation of Low. “Sons of the Silent Age” follows the same theme. The saxophone lead and symbol crashes offer an uplifting sanctuary for the track’s 1984-esque characters. The “sons of sound” are the heroes that find liberation in a dystopia filled with “sons of the silent age.” “Baby, I won’t ever let you go / All I see is all I know / Let’s find another way down (sons of sound and sons of sound).”

When he began Low, Bowie partnered up with his former producer Tony Visconti for the first time in years. With him he brought Roxy Music’s Brian Eno, a pioneer of art pop and electronic ambience. The two stayed in Berlin to work with Bowie on Heroes, both excited to test out new, and even more eccentric techniques than the ones they had employed on Low months prior. Eno asked friend Robert Fripp, the guitarist of King Crimson, to contribute his sound to the project. Fripp’s wailing loops of distorted guitar are one factor that makes Heroes stand apart from Low. That guitar made the difference, along with Bowie’s changing perception of the influence of Berlin itself.

In 2001, 24 years later, Bowie would say, “Berlin was the first time in years that I felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing. It’s a city eight times bigger than Paris, remember, so easy to ‘get lost’ in and to ‘find’ oneself too.” He was living in a seven-room apartment, undisturbed by the locals to whom he was a stranger. He had always admired the art and artists of Germany, but his time there brought him closer to the politics of the city than anything else. Hansa Studio, where he recorded Heroes, was less than 500m from the Berlin Wall. Tony Visconti, who produced Heroes, as well as several other Bowie albums, once noted, “Red Guards would look into our control-room window with powerful binoculars.” Visconti’s actions by the wall would soon become the subject of one of the most popular tracks of Bowie’s career.

After the foundation for the title track had been recorded, Bowie needed some time alone to write the words. He asked Visconti to step out of the studio for a while. While Bowie tried to write, Visconti met his girlfriend for a brief rendezvous at the base of a Berlin Wall guard tower. She was Antonia Mass, a jazz singer who Visconti met at a nightclub weeks prior. Mass was providing backing vocals for the album, and Visconti was married to somebody else. While the two kissed at the city’s divide, Bowie watched from the studio window. Through his lyrics, he transformed the image of his friend’s affair into a forbidden love between two people divided by politics, one from East Berlin, and the other from West. “I can remember / standing, by the wall / And the guns, shot above our heads / And we kissed, as though nothing could fall / And the shame, was on the other side.” Bowie belts out these lines like his life depends on it—Visconti rigged mics anywhere from nine inches to 50 feet from Bowie for a new mixing experiment. He had to give it his all just to be heard. Although the track received mixed reviews upon its release as a single, it would later become one of the most highly regarded songs of Bowie’s career. Thirty years later, Visconti would revisit his memory of working on the album: “I’d go back to my hotel every evening smiling inwardly knowing that we were making a killer album. I had a sense at the time that the song “Heroes” was going to an evergreen classic.”

Eno’s presence becomes most apparent on the album’s B-side. Ambience seems to take over, but Bowie’s voice doesn’t go away. Although most of the tracks have no lyrics, Bowie can be heard in every blow of the saxophone. “V-2 Schneider” is upbeat, the title of the track are the only words present. Bowie honks over layers sax and electronic rhythm. “Sense of Doubt” is looming and echoey, like a scuba diver creaking into the deep bass mouth of a blue whale. It opens up to a contemplative trill of electronic-held major chords, and a wash of waves on the shore. It transitions seamlessly into “Moss Garden,” a peaceful solution to the darkness that preceded it. This track shows the “Japanese influence” Bowie screamed about being under in “Blackout.” “Neukoln” moves back to the shadows, reportedly depicting the Turkish community’s struggle in Berlin with the sorrowful dance of synth and saxophone. “The Secret Life of Arabia” ends the album with an upbeat groove that feels like the sun coming out after a heavy storm. The song is Bowie’s reflection on his time before Low “I was running at the speed of life / Through morning’s thoughts and fantasies,” he sings over a killer bass line and jumping piano lick.

Heroes is one of many staples in Bowie’s career. It’s his album of healing, personal in a way that the next several of his albums are not. Heroes and Berlin allowed him to immerse himself in creation, in music, like he won’t again until his brief stint with Tin Machine kicks off in ’88. He let the masses claim his anthem for their own, use it in their movies, sing it loud in adolescent fits of freedom seeking self-reclamation. The tracks on Heroes are mostly obscure, and widely forgotten, but demonstrate what Bowie was, is, and always will be: an artist, and a piece of art in and of himself. Even if the lyric says just for one day, Bowie proved that we can be whoever we want, any day of the week.

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