Looking back at ‘Heroes’, David Bowie’s life-affirming masterpiece
23.07.2021

Looking back at ‘Heroes’, David Bowie’s life-affirming masterpiece

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Words by Kate Streader

Bowie’s stint in Berlin and the music it inspired played a pivotal role in his career.

On October 14, 1977, David Bowie released his 12th studio album, Heroes. Despite having finally reached his dream of being a star, Bowie found himself spiralling out of control. Struggling with a cocaine addiction that he feared would be his undoing, he removed himself from his lavish LA lifestyle in the summer of 1976, exchanging it for the anonymity Berlin offered him.

Joining him on his move to Berlin was his close friend Iggy Pop, who had ventured to the German city in a bid to escape his own addiction to heroin. During that time, Berlin had become a hub for creative types, with several musicians flocking to the city to soak in its newfound, albeit strange, energy.

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Together, the two worked on Pop’s albums The Idiot and Lust For Life as they began to rise from their respective slumps before Bowie settled into recording his own albums.

During his time in Berlin, Bowie released three albums which have since been dubbed “The Berlin Trio”. The trilogy comprised of Low, released in January 1977, Heroes later that year and Lodger which followed in 1979.

Aptly named, Low came at a time of personal and professional turmoil for Bowie, themes that undoubtedly leaked into Heroes. Bowie feared that without the influence of drugs his writing would suffer, but as we can see from the Berlin trio, this was far from the case.

In July 1977, Bowie began recording Heroes in Hansa Studios. Situated in West Berlin, the studio itself was an integral ingredient in crafting the album.

Its close proximity to the Berlin Wall played a major part in Bowie’s creative process and the wall, built 16 years earlier to separate West Berlin from communist East Germany, became symbolic for Bowie.

From the second floor of Hansa Studios, where Bowie worked on the album, Communist guards could be seen patrolling the wall, guns in hand. This daunting image and Bowie’s immersion in the fractured city that surrounded it served as his muse.

The wall’s influence is especially evident in the album’s title track, Heroes’, through the lyrics “I can remember standing by the wall and the guns shot above our heads and we kissed, as though nothing could fall”. Bowie had been struggling to find the words to match the music for ‘Heroes’and had sat in the studio listening to the track on repeat in a bid to find inspiration.

It was upon looking out the window to see his producer Tony Visconti kissing his backing singer Antonia Maass beneath the Berlin Wall that he began to write the now iconic words, proudly showing the freshly inked lyrics to Visconti once he returned to the studio.

Brian Eno played a major role in helping to create the album, co-writing ‘Heroes’, ‘Moss Garden’, ‘Neukoln’ and ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, the latter with the help of fellow co-writer Carlos Alomar, though it was his encouragement to do things differently across the recording process that really shaped the record.

Eno suggested a range of ideas such as pre-effecting the instruments before recording, rather than adding effects during the mixing stage, something Bowie hadn’t done on his previous albums. Eno also had band members record their parts separately, without hearing each other play and each with a different pre-empted intention behind their takes, later matching up the takes that worked well together.

Producer Tony Visconti had his work cut out for him thanks to Eno’s methods, though listening to the album you’d never know that the tracks were comprised of different fragments carefully strung together. But something was still missing, and it was suggested that Bowie have Robert Fripp flown in from America to play lead guitar on the record.

Once he arrived, he was given no explanation or instruction regarding what the team envisioned for the record, instead, they played what they had so far and told him to add what he felt it needed. His input, particularly on tracks like ‘Heroes’, ‘Beauty and The Beast’ and ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, proving to be an essential element to the record and igniting the tracks.

Whether it was Berlin’s influence, a well-devised team, or a combination of the two, the album only took about a month to record. Although Heroes wasn’t a raging success at the time, it has gone on to be one of Bowie’s most well-known records, the title track in particular has served as an anthem of empowerment and positivity across the decades following its release.

David Bowie was a complex character, one who was constantly evolving and challenging anything that told him who or what he should be. Not only has his unique sound and approach to music built him a legacy that has gone on to inspire generations of artists in his wake, but his persona was one of a true star whose light will never fade.

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