Joe the Lion

Joe the Lion.
Joe the Lion (live, 1983).
Joe the Lion (remix, 1991).
Joe the Lion (live, 1995).

“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.

Chris Burden.

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:

It’s Monday.
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.

32 Responses to Joe the Lion

  1. ian says:

    ! Thanks for the mention! I’ve actually been thinking about the connections between those artists/Bowie for awhile, this impending blog post was a great impetus to start getting it out there. Of course, once I started my piece, I realize there’s probably an entire thesis to be written about Bowie’s fixations with modern performance art.

    In any case, I’m glad you singled out the “It’s Monday” section of the song. It truly is a high-point for him in terms of vocal work. I once read an interview with Brian Eno from around the time “heroes” came out, and he was talking about how he never listened to lyrics on pop albums, but he was still struck by the power of the recitation of “it’s Monday.”

    Also pretty great, too, is how the line directly preceding that section is “you can, by God (or is it “you can buy God”?)” He says it, but then kind of realize that isn’t the direction he wants to go in, then switches tack completely, leaving that train of thought forever incomplete.

    Yes, yes, a masterful piece of work all around.

    • stuartgardner says:

      Ian, I’ve always remembered that same interview with Eno — or another in which he said the same thing. About “It’s Monday,” I recall that his exact words are, “That’s a real stunner.” And it is, even after listening to the track closely thousands of times over the thirty five years since the album was released (and I got it the day it streeted).

    • stuartgardner says:

      I just came across the Eno interview with the description of “It’s Monday” as a “stunner.” It’s from NME in ’77:

  2. col1234 says:

    The top photo really isn’t the most tasteful of things to run on Good Friday, but truly it wasn’t intentional—entry was supposed to come out yesterday. No offense meant.

  3. Gnomemansland says:

    The “it’s Monday” part always reminded me of some updated bastardised version of the McCartney middle section from Day in the Life…..

  4. MrBelm says:

    In all fairness, “Heroes” is the first entry in the PItchfork 500 song list, which includes noting from Low (or any other Bowie record).

  5. Marion Brent says:

    Visconti has said that he considers “Heroes” as a better version of Low.

    I like them both equally. Despite the fact that they use the same concept, they’re sort of yin and yang. The Low first side is pop; “Heroes” is rock. Low is withdrawn and introspective; “Heroes” is manic with a touch of hysteria. Low’s second side is structured, quiet and sort of uplifting; Heroes is looser and more unsettling…

    • spanghew says:

      Nicely stated, Marion Brent.

    • David L says:

      Yes. Low is more withdrawn and introspective… you get the feeling that Bowie really opened up a vein on that first side, stripped away all artifice and just presented himself … Heroes is similar in many ways, but overall it feels like a return to the Bowie as showman persona. Which is all to say that’s why I think Low is considered the greater work, though both are excellent.

      Regarding Joe the Lion, I was always astonished by the relentless, hesitating, constantly-building-but-never-peaking guitar riff that fuels the whole song … great stuff.

  6. mike says:

    It’s “you can PLAY god”, isn’t it?

    PS: Awesome fucking song.

  7. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Just on the relative critical receptions given to Low and Heroes, it’s interesting to note that at the time it was pretty much the reverse. Heroes was album of the year in more than one UK publication, whereas Low was just about tolerated as at best a necessary evil that enabled Heroes.

    I always that it was ‘buy God’.

  8. Joe the Lion says:

    I think it’s ‘buy God’ too.

    Great article.

  9. Jeremy Earl says:

    Apart from the Heroes album’s musical attributes, I love the cover. I think that the cover perfectly matches the music in the grooves. To me the music sounds black, and I don’t mean as in black American black, it just sounds black. Joe the Lion is a perfect example of that.

  10. lonepilgrim says:

    Always liked this song – those “yeah, yeahs” remind me of ‘Drive my Car’ from Rubber Soul

  11. diamond dog says:

    Heroes is a great album but from a lyrical standpoint it has less to say than low but they are so well delivered and the vocals so ‘mannered’ he could be reading the phone book it has as much to say in my opinion. Joe the lion being a case in point he delivers each line almost in such a manipulative way that it gives ‘meaning’ and depth to nothing much , take the sparse lyric sheet and read the words!!! I always considered joe to be almost a filler and like secret life of arabia but I think this is because anything that precedes or follows the epic title track seems half hearted lyrically weak and musically rushed. I much prefer the music only titles. It was far better received at the time and self referencal ad campaign worked in its favour.

  12. philT says:

    i never had much interest in the lyrics of these albums so this connection comes as a surprise. the whole review definitely made me go back to the record again for re-appraisal. great stuff, thanks.

  13. Anonymous says:

    According to a 1979 Q&A w/ Robert Fripp the working title for Joe The Lion was John The Lennon.

    • stuartgardner says:

      This fascinates me. Could you possibly cite that Q&A? I’d love to read it. Many thanks.
      As Bowie improvised the lyric at the mic, I’m imagining that he sang out the words, “John the Lennon went to the bar,” in which case it’s possible that he was remembering some marathon boozing with the Beatle. Bowie was in the depths of drug and alcohol abuse in L.A. in the mid ’70s at the same time that Lennon and Harry Nilsson were there drinking themselves silly, so it seems likely. We can only speculate, but it’s interesting to see how the Bowie / Lennon friendship may have led to the song we know.

      • stuartgardner says:

        And of course I failed to mention the most obvious thing, which is that Bowie and Lennon collaborated at the time.

  14. stuartgardner says:

    Chris, fine work.
    I discovered Bowie shortly after the release of Low, when I was 16 (the math says I’m 51). My family opened a retail record store that year and i recall vividly how eagerly I anticipated the release of “Heroes.” My appetite was whetted by the full page Billboard ad featuring Sukita’s amazing photo and the tag line, “There’s old wave. There’s New Wave. And there’s David Bowie.” (It was years before I learned that other ads read, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”)
    It was my luck to be coming of age in a family-owned record shop, and I had “Heroes” the day of its U.S. release (and the rest of Bowie’s catalog in extremely short order). And from that day to this “Joe the Lion” has been my absolute favorite Bowie song. It’s an absolutely staggering piece of work.
    I’ve only just discovered your site and I’m so happy to see such in-depth, substantive work being done on Bowie on a song by song basis. The writing is elegant and the research admirable and appreciated.
    Many thanks.

  15. stuartgardner says:

    In view of a few questions here about the lyric I decided to scan and post it as it appears on the original lyric sheet. This is the copy I purchased on the day of the album’s release in 1977.

  16. stuartgardner says:

    This site quotes Fripp as saying that he was actually in Berlin for a week, but is this accurate?  The site’s reliability is hurt by the fact that it identifies Tony Visconti as Fripp in a photograph caption.

  17. Cletis says:

    Which is not to say that it doesn’t reference Burden.

  18. Anonymous says:

    I’m curious as to who is actually responsible for the chugging riff that carries the song. if the three-note ‘blues’ counterpoint is Fripp, does that mean the main riff is Alomar? And if so, what does Fripp really contribute to this song besides some background noise?

  19. Waffitti says:

    Interestingly, in this video (, Fripp says his parts were recorded in 3 days. Fripp is 68 by this point, but he has pretty good memory, on the other hand, the way he talks about his performance here (and reiterated on other places) it’s as if “Heroes” was his first time playing guitar after returning from Sherborne House, but he played guitar on Peter Gabriel’s solo debut, and those sessions wrapped up 5 months before “Heroes” started recording.

    BTW, what is the 6th track he plays on? I’m pretty sure he on side 1, but he doesn’t seem to be in either V-2 or Arabia.

  20. WRGerman says:

    Can we be sure that Fripp played on “Joe”? The restrained leads smack much more of the Alomar touch, to my ear. “Distinctive lead guitar intro, little if any effects”.

    • WRGerman says:

      I would put a lot more stock on the heavily-distorted riffery that is stereo panned right of Bowie’s vocal being Fripp’s comtribution, especially towards the coda, when it spins out of control, melodically and scalistically. Which means to me that he was there for the sessions cutting the basic rhythm tracks for that gem.

  21. Dixie Farthing says:

    Chris Burden’s work is analyzed in detail in the book “The Art of Cruelty,” along with art of a similar ilk.

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