“Heroes”

“Heroes.”
“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.

Resources

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.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** 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.

68 Responses to “Heroes”

  1. spoonfed says:

    Blimey – a tour de force to rival the song.

  2. StPaulite says:

    Spoonfed is right about that. Intense.

  3. diamond dog says:

    Your finest piece yet congrats to you sir what more could anyone add an epic piece for an epic song.
    Personally I’ve hated most live versions after the 78 tour its become a grand millstone and dirge that does not capture the original desparation and frenzy contained in that magical groove found on the original vinyl , almost mythical which is lost in the cheesy event versions.
    Wonderful piece.

  4. Carl H says:

    I’ve been looking forward to you writing about this song. And I wasn’t dissapointed. Wonderful song, wonderful album (In my book it’s even a bit better than Low – how that’s even possible) and wonderful writing of yours – thank you.

  5. ian says:

    Truly a beautiful piece right here. Getting added poignancy out of the be-all end-all of poignant songs. Bravo! Surely another contender for Best Music Writing, no?

  6. Brendan O'Lear says:

    Magnificent! It seems somehow wrong to sully it with comments … but I will.

    Almost 35 years later and I still can’t make up my mind about the quotation marks.

    I remember an interview where Eno raved about Carlos Alomar’s contribution to this song. His work – because of its uniform excellence – is often undervalued. I think he has a lot to do with why this song is so much more than a ‘standard blues plodder’.

    **** I think that you find that most ‘Legends according to Tony Visconti’ turn out not to be true.

    I would extend diamond dog’s comment. He (?) limits his comments to Bowie’s subsequent renditions of “Heroes”. I will grow old convinced this applies to the whole of pop music; nothing has ever come close.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I find it almost depressing to find that at the time this song ‘bombed’. Seems not even the horde of his owns fans was enough to push it to the top of the charts ,though one needed far more sales then, but just goes to dhow the general public were and still are deaf. I suppose RCA were not exactly pushing it? I cannot remember though I remember the self referential posters for the album “there’s old wave n there’s new wave ” and a few others but they hardly pushed the boat out.
    Its mad that it took a reality talent show to push it and the cause of heroic soldiers for the public to get behind it.

    • Brendan O'Lear says:

      I’m not sure that it ‘bombed’, at least in the UK. The charts were a strange place then, dominated by David Soul and Boney M (?), probably due to sales at WH Smith. “Heroes” was on the radio a lot and featured in almost all the ‘best of’ end-of-the-year programmes, way ahead of Sound and Vision. Why wasn’t it a huge hit? One, the edit and two, the ‘self referential’ campaign you mention is a big clue; there was old wave, there was new wave and there was David Bowie, but in 1977 this just meant that he didn’t belong to either camp. The Bowie fans I knew didn’t buy the single but settled for the far superior full version.

  8. Rick O'Shea says:

    I’d be interested to know if Bowie had any say in the edit for the single. It’s amazing how much it alters the meaning of the song, effectively erasing the quotation marks from the title, and reducing the character of the narrator to leave a kind of first person void to be filled by anyone – the listener, X Factor contestants, the Microsoft marketing department etc. Having grown up only knowing the single, when I eventually heard the album version it seemed bloated and deflatingly anticlimactic (particularly the last verse), undercutting one of the most inspiring pieces of music ever recorded. I’ve never been able to shake that feeling about it. If we can’t have naïve, superhuman emotional archetypes in pop music then when can we? (Though I suspect this is one of those things where one’s preference comes down to which version you heard first)

  9. diamond dog says:

    Far from bloated I find the lp version is a far better build up to the fantastic hysteria of the final verses. The short versions misses the point of the end having had no build up.
    Although I feel not all of side 1 of heroes is a success the vocal delivery on most of the songs more than make up for it and with some of the song missing the single edit falls way short of the mark. Got surprise today when I played one of my 6 vinyl copies to my delight it was in french and have to agree its not as good as the german version, anyway nice suprise having had the lp for some 20 years.

  10. Jeremy Earl says:

    I agree with everyone else – fantastic write-up for a god like song. I also agree that the single edit is flawed. The Live in Bremen TV special version gets my vote for best version bar the LP cut. The Glass Spider tour version the worst.

    I didn’t know that Heroes was the last song performed by Bowie before his heart attack. Made me really sad reading that bit. Our fallen Hero…

    • col1234 says:

      Well, as I mentioned, it wasn’t *quite* the last song–he did “Life on Mars?” and “Ziggy” in the encore. But it was the set-closer, and so it’s symbolic enough…

      • Jeremy Earl says:

        Yeah – I misread that bit! Maybe part of me wanted that, the romantic in me.

    • Walter says:

      Thank you Jeremy, I never listened to the Live in Bremen TV version, just returning here from YouTube and yes, it’s brilliant!!!

  11. Jeepster says:

    “Heroes” was the only Bowie song I knew well before I really started listening to his music (not knowing “Heroes” was by him).

    Such a great song, I like to save listening to it for special occasions. Agree completely about the edit – the longer version is so much more complex, with the sort of push and pull of love and irony…

  12. Deacon Lowdown says:

    I just want to say – your entries on “Heroes”, “Space Oddity”, and “Station to Station” are the best rock writing I have ever read.

  13. Remco says:

    I agree with all the others, your finest post yet. Very probably my favourite Bowie song and therefore one of the best songs created by a human being. Ever. Can’t say enough nice things about this song, but you’ve already said them far better than I could.

  14. Remco says:

    Don’t know if the original vinyl had a lyric sheet but my second hand copy certainly hasn’t so I have always misheard ‘You can be mean’ as ‘You can be me’ which seems a lot sweeter. Your interpretation of the second verse makes a lot more sense than my misheard one but I always thought of that verse as being without any malice. There’s just so much gentleness to the way he sings it, especially that last line, “And that is that”. I’m probably deluding myself but I always like to think that those four words are where the mask slips, where he’s sharing a genuine emotion with us.

    • col1234 says:

      The LP lyric sheet (which my copy has—didn’t realize it was rare, as per diamond dog) has “you can be mean.” but it sounds like ‘me,’ i agree…

      • JamesZ says:

        I always interpreted “you can be mean” with “mean” not meaning “cruel” but rather “stingy with money”. (Where I come from, “Don’t be so mean!” = “Don’t be so tight with money!” and a “mean person” = a person who watches money very closely. I get that mean is also “bad” or “cruel” but never use it that way).

        So I’ve never seen any malice in the verse, just Bowie imagining a future where he and his queen stay together so long they fall into typical husband and wife routines: she’ll be “mean” and try to control the purse strings and he’ll do his best to drink it away in the pub…to me it’s more charming, a quaint stereotype of the old couple he wishes they could become…

    • stuartgardner says:

      Remco, here’s the original lyric sheet. I scanned these just now from my copy after reading diamond dog’s announcement (below) that it’s rare. A few days ago I scanned and posted the Joe the Lion section only, prompted by the fact there was some confusion about that lyric. But if this is so seldom seen, well…

  15. diamond dog says:

    The original release does come with a lyric sheet , quite scarse and even some copies at the time did not have it same with young americans but much rarer.

  16. swanstep says:

    Great piece. (So wish I’d written it!) Just a couple of minor additions:
    (a) 1977 was the year of Star Wars – fantasy heroics were back. Gritty ’70s film-making would hang on Hollywood for a few years after that, but a sea-change was afoot. Somehow (I have a few ideas) Bowie’s triumphant miserabilist Heroism of the everyday survivor is related to that. (And related too: the John le Carre vision of the cold war that was popular at the time – ‘We’re in terminal decline. And we’re as bad as they are, and at least *they* aren’t screwing your wife…’ would be replaced by the much more moralized vision of the struggle in the Reagan years. Bowie’s cold war Berlin is murkily le Carre-esque not Reagan-esque if that makes any sense!)
    (b) I can report that Heroes (the song) got a *lot* of traction down under at the time (as with other things Bowie, we followed UK and Europe not the US), was played all the time on the radio, but that the Stage live album from a year later was a lot more popular than the Heroes album, so a lot of people owned *that* version of Heroes first.
    (c) You’re bang on of course about the second verse being the center of the song – allowing one to place everything else. That it’s not part of some people’s experince of the song has had odd consequences. For example, I’ve met people who think that ‘I’ll, I’ll drink all the time’ is Nicole Kidman’s or Baz Luhrmann’s addition to or improvization around Heroes when it’s done as part of the ‘Elephant Love Song Medley’ in Moulin Rouge (the one part of that movie that really worked).

    Anyhow, thanks again for an amazing piece that I’m sure to read many more times with profit.

  17. […] via “Heroes” « Pushing Ahead of the Dame. […]

  18. Jeremy Earl says:

    Wow! Just watched the Freddie Mercury tribute version, which i’d never seen before. Great to see Ronson play on this song – brought a tear to my eye. Thanks for that.

  19. […] Ahead of the Dame’s posts on each of Bowie’s songs are consistently excellent, but the “Heroes” tribute is one of the very best of all. Thorough appreciation of the song “Heroes” from […]

  20. Timh says:

    Not to be nit-picky about silly trifles of songs an otherwise superlative post, but “hero” and “wind beneath my wings” are Bette Midler tunes, not Mariah Carey. Otherwise bravo.

    On the song’s uses, I’d also point out a good use of the song over the opening credits of Chris Petit’s Radio On, which is otherwise soundtracked by a krautrock mixtape the protagonist’s dead brother made him

  21. swanstep says:

    Does anyone have any views about the first verse vocal? Particularly the ‘I, I can be…’ and ‘You, you can be…’ lines are slightly early, right? It sounds like a mistake, but it has to be completely intended, creating a slight twitchiness/jumpiness/speed-iness (where you aren’t quite sure what you’ve just heard). At any rate, it does help with the thesis that the *second* verse is where we snap into reality. Or something (but perhaps Bowie has discussed the point somewhere?). I guess I’m now officially completely obsessed with this song and album again!

  22. bcr says:

    Amazing piece of writing here…bravo!

  23. Don says:

    Congrats on being chosen by Time magazine for one of the
    top 25 bolgs of 2011!!

  24. Don says:

    I mean top 25 BLOGS of 2011!!

  25. Frankie says:

    Excellent writing, an informative and inspiring read, I’m really enjoying the works with a great understanding of music combined.

    For the sake of completeness in that list of “Heroes” versions, the one he did on Bing’s Christmas Special had slightly different vocals, echo and synth effects, not to mention that mime part where he’s kissing himself by the wall.

  26. neu75 says:

    Murray’s baseline melody (which really makes the song IMO) was lifted by John Lydon for PIL’s 1990 hit “Don’t Ask Me”. RCA should have released “Heroes” in it’s full 6:07 glory rather than do a hack job for airplay. This was Bowie’s “Hey Jude” and they fucked it up…

  27. Tom says:

    Wonderful description of a wonderful song – this song helped me survive my teens – even in 1982 we knew it was a classic.
    He introduced it with “Lavender’s Blue” at Milton Keynes, and I was amazed that he was playing the song I most wanted to hear, at number 3 in the set list. I loved the way the horns replaced the guitars in this live version.

  28. Justin Kaw says:

    As for the “shame on the other side,” the line could be interpreted as the protagonists parroting East German/ Soviet ideology about the West, in a sarcastic way, or the narrator making a sly reference to it. The Communists claimed that only East Germany had been rid of Nazis, that the West had been too eager to allow high-level Germans to remain in power for varied reasons (or allow them to escape to South America and elsewhere). Here in the U.S., Henry Wallace made a similar argument, though we should remember that the smears about him at the time for supposedly being a dupe for U.S. Communists were quite absurd, and completely ignored the rationale he gave for why he allowed Communist participation in his presidential campaign and refused to “red bait.” Anyway, that’s just my way of making sense of that line.

  29. Justin Kaw says:

    By the way, that’s not to say that the idea of the couple being definitely either East or West Berliners makes any sense. It’s definitely more vague than that.

  30. […] Bowie sings the lyrics in German on this 7″ edit of “Heroes.” He delivers a desperate, raving vocal performance that’s even better than the English version. However, it’s much more than an interesting footnote to what might be the iconic song from Bowie’s Berlin period. Singing “Heroes” in different languages deepens its meaning, adding another dimension to the lyrics’ yearning for connection and understanding despite the barriers that separate us. There is a fantastic, in-depth history of “Heroes” here. […]

  31. Patrick says:

    Correction: you say:
    “(Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).”

    According to wiki, it failed to chart in the UK and US and thus was not a “hit”, only their first “!release”. Unless you have a different definition of a hit.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keep_Yourself_Alive

  32. Rufus Oculus says:

    As is now well known Danny Boyle flew to NY to beg DB to perform Heroes live at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. One assumes he refused or we all missed it.

  33. stuartgardner says:

    A moment ago I turned on the television and went to PBS, where by sheer chance I was precisely on time to hear this memory shared. Moby was being interviewed on Aspen Institute Presents, and was asked about moments from his career he’ll never forget.
    He said that while he and Bowie were touring Bowie visited him in his hotel room one morning. As the sun was rising and Moby drank his tea, Bowie sang “Heroes” for him from beginning to end, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.
    Can you even imagine?

  34. s.t. says:

    Phenomenal post. This blog is really bad for my own productivity!

    Visconti’s combining of three separate guitar tracks to get that heavenly drone is a fascinating detail, and really highlights his contribution to the sound of the Berlin albums, something that is so often attributed solely to Brian Eno.

    Eno was a big influence, especially for the formal experiments of Low, but there were in fact several different sound whizzes at work, including David himself (Heroes seems structurally similar to Low, but the production shares a murky malevolence with Bowie’s work on The Idiot).

  35. stuartgardner says:

    Here’s a look at Sukita’s stunning cover photo uncropped, prior to tone correction and without the overlaid text. I believe this first appeared on the web around November of 2012 (please tell me if I’m wrong).
    As someone who clearly remembers the day the album was released in the United States 35 years ago, the effect of seeing this for the first time was stunning, like encountering an old friend I had never met.

    http://tinyurl.com/d85oxgl

  36. Momus says:

    I hope that Jacques Brel heard this in the year or so he had left of life and recognised his own influence at last coming to really magnificent fruition in the Anglo-Saxon world.

  37. Ramzi says:

    If you’re in the business of adding unique performances to the list at the top, here’s (an astonishingly beautiful) one from his Tibet House Benefit Concert performance of February 2001.

  38. stuartgardner says:

    “I used to listen to the song ‘Heroes’ by David Bowie when I was stalking Carter and Reagan. It got me in a strange mood.”

    So writes Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassin John Hinckley in a November 1982 handwritten letter to Dallas, Texas radio station KZEW (as if that city hadn’t had enough association with such things).

    The letter was posted two days ago by Devo’s official archivist Michael Pilmer on his site Devo Obsesso!, and on Pilmer’s Facebook page.

    Among the Mark Mothersbaugh / Gerald Casale collaborations on Devo’s 1982 album Oh, No! It’s Devo is “I Desire,” a portrait of obsession which quotes from one of Hinckley’s infamous letters to Jodie Foster, the star whose love he hoped to win by killing the president.

    It isn’t surprising that Devo’s irony was lost on Hinckley, for whom any claim to fame would do.  The original vinyl album credits the penultimate track to Mothersbaugh / Casale / Hinckley, justification in his mind for the phraseology, “I co-wrote a song on their new album.”

    [img]http://i.imgur.com/OxgheZj.jpg[/img]

    [img]http://i.imgur.com/N0WgegG.jpg[/img]

    Thoughts of John Lennon and a couplet from “It’s No Game” are keeping me up tonight.

    Hinckley’s sad search for an identity may have responded to Bowie’s assurance, “We can be us just for one day.”  The sanest of us need reassurance of that now and then, an idea Bowie touches on frequently.  My favorite  instance comes from “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud” (“It’s so hard for us to really be / Really you and really me”).

    A frightening footnote in the legacy of one of Bowie’s greatest songs.

    For more information see this page on Michael Pilmer’s utterly flabbergasting site, Devo Obsesso!  Michael’s worked for the band for years, and it’s Devo, he either has it or he’s hot on its trail.

    [url]http://devo-obsesso.com/html/paper-itempages/documents/john-hinckley-radio-letter.html[/url]

  39. Carson says:

    I guess I’m the only one that prefers the French version.

  40. Michael says:

    I’m perhaps less of a Bowie scholar than many and was certainly unaware of, until reading this blog, the connection between our man and Scott Walker. Now I know.

    Odd then, that for years, and from many years ago, I would often sing to myself the chorus of “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” over “Heroes”. Try it, if you never have.

    It’s not as if I know TSAGSA well at all and was only vaguely aware of The Walker Brothers. I guess it’s osmosis, knowing I’d get there in the end.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Amazing work on the song!

  42. Wyatt says:

    I, I wish I could write, Like you, like you sure can write.

  43. CragRaven says:

    “Heroes”… Everyone misses the point of this song. Everyone. It’s everything you said in your review, but there is another angle to it. It is deliberately ambiguous and I am sure David likes it that way, but consider this – when he wrote this he was spending a lot of time with Romy Haag, or in Berlin’s drag scene. Then listen to the lyrics again.
    ‘I will be king, and you will be my queen…’
    It’s about a love affair – sure, but an unconventional one. It’s also about having the courage to be who you are in the face of misunderstanding and hate.
    ‘Because we’re lovers, and that is that’ – defiant, no changing, this is the way it is, let other people have a problem with it.
    ‘We can beat them…’ the haters, the homophobes, the parents, or whoever stands in opposition to your ability to actually be comfortable with who you are, and who you love.
    ‘The shame was on the other side’ Again, there is no shame in love, it’s the haters who would have you feel bad because of who you are. _They_ should be ashamed.
    ‘We’re nothing, and nothing will help us. Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay. But we could be safer…’ No more hiding. No more pretending to fit in. Acceptance will follow, if you have the courage to make that stand, be yourself.
    ‘ we can be US. Just for one day…’ Even though you are ordinary people, and you have faults and problems of your own, you really can make a difference.
    The vocals sound desperate, they are the voice of someone who doesn’t fit in, and is used to being bullied or scorned for being different. They are the hope that one day society will change, the daydream that during this stolen moment, the lovers can have a time when they can feel free and safe, and accepted. The dream that they can affect change by being themselves against the reality that they will be abused for daring to be different. Be who you are just one day at a time, and you can be a “hero”. For ever and ever.
    I’ve always thought this was the true meaning of the song and I’m always surprised when other people don’t seem to see it.

    • Tyrell says:

      Apparently she interprets this song like you:

      It is a very interesting point of view and it might be true.

      Even after reading Chris’ great analysis it is not clear to me why are the quotation marks in the title: did he mean the message of the song when he wrote it or not? It is clear that at least since Live Aid he interpreted it quite straight, but I am wondering whether it was meant ironic at the time of its release.

    • Waki says:

      Yes i missed that point like nearly everybody else… but that’s not because of any ambiguity. It was deliberate conceilment. Davis had a career in the US and could no more at that point mention an intense love story with a transgender (who did not yet have surgery).
      I found a series of posts by a blogger a few days ago that elucidates it very clearly. It starts by analysing Bowie’s song “Where Are We Now” which is so obviously intended for Someone in Berlin. Well if you search you will find so many clues. Romy herself says their story lasted for 2-3 years. Bowie moved to Berlin to be with her –not to drop coke of course.
      This is the secret that explains why the song is so poignant and intense. The love affair was and was his.

      • waki says:

        Oops, i meant concealment
        and that Heroes is indeed about a love story that was intense –in many respects– and the story was… his.
        Now i don’t know if it’s a good idea to lift that curtain since he did obviously not let anyone know about it.
        But Where are we Now is so haunting. He was haunted. So as far as I am concerned I am glad to know about it. It also explains Heroes much better than the cover up does.

      • waki says:

        The blog I mentionned is The Secret Sun which has three posts on “Bowie and the Stories still untold”. But from there you can search elsewhere and it always falls into place.

  44. Fredrik Lundén says:

    • WRGerman says:

      Great that you posted the link to this. One key point is that Tony Visconti did not bounce/combine all 3 Fripp guitar tracks down to one, he kept them as separate tracks and manually mixed each up or down, depending on the notes played at a particular interval.

      As for the blog post itself, it’s a fascinating look at a great song. Love the anecdote about Iggy’s “Success”.

  45. Tom Adshead says:

    What a great video. I never knew that about the brass sampler – I saw Bowie at Milton Keynes in 1983, and was surprised by the strong horn section, but now I see where it came from.
    Amazingly enough, it wasn’t at all certain that “‘Heroes'” would be on the set list – we were expecting a lot more from “Let’s Dance”, and that there wouldn’t be any Berlin work. It was my favourite song, and I was ecstatic when it started – the third song.

  46. Your comparing the song’s lyrical cadence to “I Who Have Nothing” sounds reasonable, though I think a closer referent would be Lou Reed’s “Heroin” (“I…have made…a very big decision”). If not mistaken, I believe the chord sequence is the same as well.

  47. Anonymous says:

    In the original Denti novel the dolphin woman is rather Eritrean and not Somalian, but…”se non é vero, é ben trovato” – as the Italian saying goes – even if it is not true, it is a good story.

  48. leonoutside says:

    Glass: Guardian June 2016 “Soon after its composition he began using the Heroes symphony for his walk-in music for some of his concerts. And, even more surprising, is that there’s a version around in which he superimposed his voice singing Heroes on to the symphonic recording. Somewhere in his archive there’s that recording – of David Bowie singing his own version of Heroes over my symphony. It would be amazing to find it.”

  49. Waki says:

    *** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

    He also referenced the ‘Somalian’-Dolphin love story onto his own very skin, getting it tattooed on the back of his calf after he designed the tattoo himself.

    E.g. http://www.oocities.org/goblin_queen123/dbtattoo.html

    “I Wish I Could Swimm” is the title he gave to his introduction to Iman –wherein he seems to genuinely open his heart on their otherwise quite private story. Here is the complete text, the amazing Bowie spin.
    http://www.rkc.de/db/modules.php?name=Forums&file=viewtopic&t=4204

    It ends with “Things like this happen to us all the time. Incredible coincidences. Mystical, I bet. … We love the dark velvet sky and the moon that throws streaks of gold onto the deep silver sea. We want to swim side by side for as long as we´ve been given till one of us slips under the waves for the final time.”

    This story not only shows the significance of the magic in their encounter and relationship ; it also reveals a bit of his secret inner world, consistently haunted not by techy urban creatures, but also by the wondrous tales of animals friendship and deep oceans, and his complete faith in the beautiful aspects of the supernatural, otherworldy, and divine. As he –not Bowie, but David Jones– states, sharing his awe, in the same text, “If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant, Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.”

    His text is worth reading, it goes beyond romance.

    And oh, in his tattoo, there is also a frog. He explains why –“it’s a confirmation of my knowledge of the power of life itself”. The fact is that according to Iman, whenever something significant would happen to them as a couple, there was always a frog around, somehow. It seems his reverence for life was for the inconceivable behind it –immanent and transcendant.

    “Iman” means faith ; faith in God but also in angels and divine messangers. She, the wife, twitted as he left his body “the struggle is real, but so is God”.

    I learned all the dophin and frog stuff above today only. I love it in such gloomy days! It seems the Denti Novel is a must read –I am now looking forward to reading it!

    A last and late detail on Heroes and the dolphin bit (hoping I am not over wrtiting stuff you all know or don’t care about):

    Bowie personally intervened to make sure Heroes’s track was licensed to the Cove filmsmakers, for a minimal $3,000 fee (the normal basic fee would otherwise be $25,000 at least. It can be ten times more). Cove is a ‘save the dophins’ film, that is making Bowie now into an actual dolphins and oceans heroe. There are several pages on the net about that. Here is one, from 2016. You may like to consider supporting them!

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/david-bowie-hero-animal-rights_us_56981672e4b0ce496423e20b

  50. Anonymous says:

    just for one day = one day at a time
    the “we” is him and the drink/drugs

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