“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).
Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.
“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”
Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.
1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)
“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.
That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.
There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals; its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.
2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)
Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”
DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.
David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.
Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.
I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).
There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.
Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?
When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?
The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.
It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.
The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:
And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.
The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.
This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?
Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.
3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)
“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).
At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.
Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”
As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.
(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).
It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.
As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.
While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.
Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”
As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.
So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.
4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)
Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)
Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)
Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)
With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.
Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)
The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.
5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)
For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.
David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.
Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.
None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.
At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.
So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.
Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.
Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).
Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919); “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.
* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.
*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).
**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.