“Heroes” gets less critical respect than its sister record, Low,* despite the two’s comparable qualities, despite “Heroes” having the epic title-track single, despite “Heroes” being the only album of the so-called “Berlin trilogy” to actually be recorded in Berlin. Like eldest children, Low made its silver by coming first: “Heroes,” with a similar sequencing (“pop songs” side A/”ambient” side B) and released just ten months after Low, couldn’t help but seem like Low Pt. 2. It’s also an even more abrasive, more manic record than Low, reflecting the speed and random methods of its creation.
“Heroes” was the closest Bowie ever came to making a free jazz record. The rhythm tracks, cut by Bowie’s usual marksmen Carlos Alomar, Dennis Davis and George Murray, were nearly all single takes, taped over two or three days at the start of the sessions, and were cut live at Hansa in its cavernous Tonstudio 2, a room once used for Nazi Party functions, and with a control-room view of the Wall. Bowie, building on the keyboard work he’d done on Lust for Life and the first Iggy tour of 1977, did all the piano tracks himself.
The rhythm tracks came out of jam sessions and a series of in-studio rehearsals, much of which Tony Visconti taped in their entirety, marking whenever he heard a good riff or interesting chord progression. The speed of the work stunned even Brian Eno, who later said he was bewildered that it could be so easy, and the pace continued with the overdubbing.
Robert Fripp flew in one evening from New York, sat down in the studio, plugged his guitar into Eno’s EMS synthesizer and added lead lines to tracks that he’d never heard before, not knowing any of the chords, and getting only oblique advice from Bowie (who’d yet to write lyrics or vocal melodies). His work completed over about six hours (all of the lead guitars on “Heroes” and five other tracks, including “Joe the Lion”), Fripp left Berlin a day later. He didn’t even have time to get a drink.
Art doesn’t have a purpose. It’s a free spot in society, where you can do anything.
Bowie said he wanted on “Heroes” to discard narrative or anything resembling “real life” in his lyrics, but “Joe the Lion” was clearly inspired by the American body artist Chris Burden, notorious for such works as being bolted to a gallery floor between two buckets of water, each with a live 110-volt electric line submerged in it, so that a viewer could, if they wished, kick over a bucket and kill Burden (Prelude to 220, or 110, 1971); being crucified on the hood of a Volkswagen (Trans-Fixed, 1974); and having his friend shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle (Shoot, Santa Ana Gallery, 1971). (Bowie references the latter two works in his lyric.)
Burden once said that the process of making art was an art itself, a concept in tune with what Bowie was doing around the time of “Heroes.” Savaged at the time by critics like Hilton Kramer and Robert Hughes,** who considered his antics bullying, ludicrous and the dead-end of 20th Century avant garde art, Burden’s work in retrospect seems to be stranded in adolescence, though it made him a natural inspiration for a rock song. (Ian goes into far more detail in a very nice piece, unfavorably comparing Burden to the (I agree) superior artist Marina Abramović.)
It’s unclear how familiar Bowie was with Burden’s work. Even if it was only a couple of newspaper articles, it didn’t really matter, as the mere idea of Burden, along with Iggy Pop, served as a totem for Bowie during “Heroes”. A reserved, mannered, middle-class Englishman at heart, a redactor by habit, Bowie was fascinated by the likes of Burden or Iggy, all of the wild men raving on stage. “Made of iron!” Bowie sings with admiration in “Joe.” Bowie, knowing he couldn’t match Burden in raw power or bloody-minded endurance, instead translated him: he would use the idea of an artist like Burden as a means of singing.
With Pop’s vocal improvisations on Lust for Life as a direct inspiration, Bowie went into the vocal booth without any lyrics. He would come up with a line or two, then immediately sing them onto tape. So there’s no coherence to how Bowie sings “Joe,” which is basically two 24-bar verses with the “it’s Monday” interlude—Bowie dips in and out of the flow, bellowing the title phrase in a smear of vowel sounds (“JOOOOE” blending into “LION”), leaving whole bars empty, then jamming in so many words that they overflow (“on the house and he was/a fortune teller he said”), and coming up with miniature refrains. The lyric is a transcript of Bowie’s mind at work, so the initial “couple of drinks” soon becomes “couple of dreams” which in turn births “you get up and sleep.” Then there’s the “interlude” verse, completely improvised at the mic, which has some of the most inspired singing Bowie did in the decade:
You slither down the greasy pipe—so far so good—no one SAW you
hobble over any FREEway
you will be like your DREEEEEEEEEEEEEAMS
It’s nothing brilliant, lyrically, but Bowie sings it—starting, as Thomas Seabrook wrote, in the tones of a newscaster, then in two bars building up to the tumbling run of words that initially peaks with “SAW you,” and culminating in the marvelous, hoarsely sung “DREAMS”—like someone trying to cut his way out of a box, or recounting a nightmare while it’s still happening. Throughout the song there’s a demented bravado to the vocal, furthered in the last verse when Bowie and Visconti add “Yeah! Yeah!s” (Bowie’s phrasing toward the fadeout seems to echo Johnny Rotten’s at the end of “Holidays In the Sun,” though the latter was released after “Heroes” was finished).***
Battling over all of this are Fripp and Alomar’s guitars, which were processed and distorted by Eno (live) and Visconti (later): the guitars are mixed into each other and tear at each other. One gains ground for a moment, the other mocks it. Bowie’s only guidance to Fripp was for him to play in a bluesy style, like Albert King, which possibly was the impetus for the three-note hook that’s one of the two basic riffs carried throughout the song. Murray and Davis, as always, keep everyone from flying apart, building an understated but supple foundation. Just a phenomenal song, a peak of Bowie’s late ’70s work.
Recorded July-mid-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live occasionally in 1983 (the murky recording linked above is from a rehearsal on 26 April 1983, with Stevie Ray Vaughan on lead) and throughout 1995. Bowie had Mark Richard do a pointless remix for the Ryko reissue of “Heroes” in 1991, beefing up the (already Harmonized) drums: I think Seabrook’s on the money when he speculated the remix was meant to sound like Bowie’s then-current project Tin Machine.
* One fairly recent example: Low is the #1 record of Pitchfork’s Best 100 Albums of the 1970s; “Heroes” didn’t even make the list.
** Hughes perversely added to the legend by misreporting in his 1972 Time article that Burden’s colleague, the Austrian artist Rudolf Schwarzkolger, had amputated his own penis. It wasn’t true, but the story stuck (& it foreshadows the urban legends that would build around heavy metal acts, like Alice Cooper allegedly biting the head off a chicken).
*** “I guess you’ll buy a gun/you’ll buy it secondhand.” There’s also a flaw (at least on the CD) at 2:38, with the left channel of the stereo mix vanishing for a second.
Top: Chris Burden, Trans-Fixed, 1974; Shoot, 1971. Details on Burden’s work from C. Carr’s On Edge: Performance at the Edge of the Twentieth Century.