Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno
Title Track of the album “Heroes”
Released in 1977
Ken Benson provides this excellent write-up of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, including a look at Mike’s acoustic take on this classic.
Dedicated to the one who reminded us that life on our blue planet is all worthwhile.
What can be written about David Bowie that hasn’t already been put to print? What new revelations can be unmasked by a simple write-up of a song that most rock and roll lovers know by heart? Well, not much – but I love this song, I love Mike’s passionate take on it and the more I explore Bowie’s life and legacy, the more awe-struck I am by our beloved fallen Starman. Let me just start with what I’ve pieced together about the man and the times.
“Heroes” is a song written by David Bowie and perennial mood artist and producer and former member of Roxy Music, Brian Eno, (who has collaborated with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads and U2 just to name a few). It is the third track from the “Heroes” album, the second of the “Berlin trilogy” albums, which was bookended by 1977’s Low and 1979’s Lodger. Bowie left the hedonistic Los Angeles scene for Berlin, West Germany in the late 1970s, where he sought anonymity and a fresh start in his career and more importantly, his health during that time. Germans weren’t as star-struck as the Americans and weren’t doing as much cocaine either.
A bit about the Berlin Trilogy. In the wake of the superstardom ushered in by Bowie’s alter ego Ziggy Stardust, the artist had gone through a number of changes in his professional and personal life. Some of it this was contrived, some of it was just the course of a glam rocker’s life. In the wake of the world-wide smash hit tour, Ziggy became David once again with his album Aladdin Sane (the wordplay of this album title is quite telling: “a lad insane”).
Bowie had a string of hits during the mid-70s including Diamond Dogs, The Jean Jeanie, Rebel Rebel (apparently his most covered hit, followed by “Heroes”), Young Americans, and the most autobiographical of tracks, the number one smash hit Fame which was a song he co-wrote and recorded with John Lennon. Both artists were living examples of the ebb and flow of the lavish lifestyle and he probably didn’t have to stretch too far when Bowie sang “fame…puts you there where things are hollow.” His was having an existential crisis and a physical one as well. Apparently, the already slender Bowie was losing weight and engaging in self-destructive behavior and needed rescuing. A change of scenery was in the offing.
With the encouragement of friends and family, Bowie moved to Paris and then West Berlin to start his life and career anew. His first new project was an album entitled Low, which is probably a description of the state of his psyche and overall well-being at the time. With the help of his producer Tony Visconti, Eno and other session musicians, Bowie ushered in the avant garde era of the Berlin sessions. Low’s second side (most music was listened to on vinyl still, with two sides) is mostly ambient music with minimal lyrical contributions. The second two albums, “Heroes” and Lodger were also more industrial in nature, echoes of the brooding surroundings. Some critics consider this period to be a high watermark of Bowie’s creativity, where he was not constrained by expectations and tempted by the largesse of stardom. His biggest hit from the Berlin era was “Heroes” which would later become an anthem to so many people around the world, especially those in the former communist bloc.
According to Bowie, the song “Heroes” is about two lovers who are embraced below the gun turrets of the Berlin Wall (Visconti claims it was about him and his girlfriend, and at the time Bowie disputed that, but later opened up about it. Apparently Visconti was in the last months of his marriage when he met the German girl, and Bowie didn’t want to meddle in his friend’s personal life). The Wall was apparently only a few blocks from the studio and one could actually see it from the studio control room.
An interesting side-note: both the song and album are in quotes, which has never quite been explained but oft-discussed in music nerd circles. One common explanation is that it elucidates the irony of lovers embracing in the most Cold War of settings, either in an act of defiance or oblivion. Nonetheless, the most common refrain of being a hero “just for one day” strikes at the heart of a generation of teenagers trying to make sense of their dark and polarized world. In other words, the only way to overcome the division of the Wall is a fleeting act of passion.
The song was inspired not only by political events in late 70s Berlin, but also musical developments in technology and production. The cringe-worthy moniker Krautrock was in full swing in Germany at the time, spearheaded by the indisputable gods of the genre, Kraftwerk. Bowie and Eno had befriended members of the band and traded artistic ideas (Bowie and his friend and collaborator Iggy Pop are briefly mentioned in Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express”). Bowie now had a social scene based on a love for pushing music’s boundaries – a far cry from the desultory limbo of the Los Angeles nightclubbing scene.
The song itself is actually quite basic, with a standard D-C-G chord progression on the verses and chorus and is absent the obligatory bridge found in so many pop songs. The rhythm section is rather ordinary with a steady beat and 4/4 time signature. The song stays within a narrow dynamical range excepting for Bowie’s vocal performance. It employs echoes of the Wall of Sound production technique popularized by Phil Spector in the late 60s and early 70s. Eno’s use of the EMS VCS 3 analog synthesizer gives the song lush depth beyond the standard guitar, bass and drum arrangement.
Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame was invited to play electric guitar on the track. Apparently Eno phoned Fripp in New York and cajoled him out of retirement. Fripp then spoke directly to Bowie: “If you’re prepared to take a chance (with me) then so am I. (Bowie met his first wife at a King Crimson concert, so maybe this was his way of paying back the favor)”. Fripp’s contribution to the song would prove to be a game changer. Using a technique called “pitch feedback” Fripp was able to alter the pitch of the feedback by sitting in different parts of the studio. His guitar carries an electric melody atop the track and is notably hard to emulate in live performances.
The recording was cutting edge and edgy. None of the recording finesse would matter however, were it not for the Thin White Duke’s fervent vocal performance. In the single version of the song, he starts out his wistful baritone, but by the halfway mark, he jumps up an octave turning the song into a desperate plea. The words barely change, but emotionally, the song explodes.
Mike’s performance of “Heroes” has a certain sense of urgency that Bowie would have appreciated. It’s stripped down, like Lennon’s first post-Beatles album John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, which obliterated the Walls of Sound and left in its wake raw emotion. Similarly, Mike’s version of “Heroes” is honest, edgy and earnest. He captured a moment that can only be caught on a single take, with just a guitar. Wall of Sound be damned.
As a bass player, I struggle sometimes with live acoustic renditions of songs (of just guitar and vocals), because to me it seems like a house without a foundation. There is nothing to support the song underneath – it feels hollow, like Bowie in his Fame days. Mike was careful to address this in his take on the Bowie hit. Listen to his fingering from the very beginning: he plays a repeating D-B-A-D, which emulates the bass part in the original. He even follows up with the chromatic bass riff of D-B-C-C# at the end of the fourth bar. That is music to a bass player’s ears! Even better is his treatment of the bass during the second half of the chorus. Rather than lazily rest on his laurels and play the basic chords of C-G-D (ho hum), he incorporates the walking bass run into those chord progressions, while singing on top of it all! (We can be us…just for one day – listen to whole chorus at 1:22, with the second half and the cool bass run at 1:31).
Mike also takes the effort in this song to mimic the backing vocals from the original track. Right after the chorus, he launches into the next verse “I- I remember, standing by the wall at 1:38). Here you can hear Mike use the guitar to once again fill in for a lack of studio musicians and sing the echoes of “I remember” and “By the wall”, followed by “over our heads” and “nothing could fall”. This is the most poignant part of the song – recall the two lovers embraced below a guard tower with shots being fired. Do they run and hide out of fear? Or do they embrace and block out the Cold War raging on outside? Mike captures this moment in the way he sings the word “kiss”. It’s tender and tragic. They are heroes because no political or military machine can stand in their way. At least not today.
Bowie was a musical chameleon. His reach extended so great due to his restlessness and his constant attention to new sounds and musical directions. Check out this chart from The Economist magazine that connects Bowie’s discography with influences and genres:
Bowie’s studio albums criss cross with musical genres like an analog Ma Bell switchboard. Upon completion of his Young Americans album, he famously stated that he was done with rock n roll. His subsequent years, including those in Berlin, were a testament to that, as he experimented with art rock, electronic, ambient and the Teutonic-tinged Krautrock.
As previously mentioned, “Heroes” is one of the most covered in Bowie’s catalog, and his biggest hit from the Berlin era. This is probably due to the fact that it has a resonating message – even for just one moment in time, we can all be heroes.
I found some interesting versions of this song, starting with the artist himself, performing the song in German. He wasn’t the first Brit to sing hits in German, nor the last, but his version is just as urgent and his German is clean and powerful (The Beatles sang a couple of their early hits in German, while Peter Gabriel recorded two whole albums in the language). The word for heroes in German is “Helden”. As a German speaker myself, I find it interesting that he sings “werden wir Helden für einen Tag”, which can be translated as “We’ll become heroes or we will be heroes for a day”. I understand that words have to fit in the rhythm and melody of a song, but does the slight difference in meaning…mean something?
Here’s the Starman’s German version:
Here is a great version of the song, with just guitar and vocals by someone calling himself Geographer. I love how he capos on the ninth fret and plays some of Fripps’ pitch feedback. A very tender facsimile.
Here is a bare bones version of “Heroes” by Peter Gabriel on his “Scratch my Back” album, live in Verona, Italy. It’s just Peter and an orchestra and is quite haunting.
Thank you, David Bowie, for inspiring so many legions of musicians and fans and for never compromising or selling out. How great it is to be alive at the same time of this iconic legend. Thank you, Mike for capturing his and so many artists’ essence in your musical renditions. You are both heroes for more than just one day.