Although it was the second instalment of David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes” was in fact the only album to be written and recorded entirely within the city. The multi-instrumentalist Bowie was joined by many of the same musicians who had worked on his previous album, Low, including guitarist Carlos Alomar, drummer Dennis Davis, and bassist George Murray, and a similar rhythmic-rock spark ignites the group once again. Brian Eno took a place behind the keyboard, setting up his unique brand of studio know-how and synth-science in contrast to the more traditional interplay of the rhythm section.
But what really elevated “Heroes” to another place entirely were the contributions of King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp. Although Neu!’s Michael Rother had originally been tapped to play, Fripp was a more than worthy substitute, electrifying the album with bolts of razor-sharp steel. The prog maestro reportedly recorded all of his contributions in one six hour-burst, harnessing his improvisatory impulse by soloing over material as he heard it for the very first time. On songs such as the opener, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ it sounds as if barbed wire has been coiled across the studio ceiling. Coupled with the quickly recorded rhythm tracks, this helped create the frenzied, undulating energy that makes “Heroes” an exhilarating experience to this day.
After leading many trends of the early ‘70s, “Heroes” found Bowie in a more open and responsive mode. He had submerged himself in the nocturnal culture of Berlin, with its subterranean drinking dens and gaudy drag clubs, taking plenty of inspiration from what he saw and who he spoke to. As Alomar recalled: “I would say that his mental stimulation was at an all-time high at that point. There was a lot of clarity to David, in that he was back to being a literary person, very interested in the politics of the day, knowing the news, which I found amazing because he never cared about that. Obviously, there were other things on his mind than doing his record.”
But despite his Krautrock obsession, Bowie was apparently unmoved by other trends taking the music industry by storm. Released just two weeks after “Heroes” in October 1977, Never Mind The Bollocks immortalised punk rock and the Sex Pistols, but Bowie seemed largely unaware of its impact on youth culture, appearing on TV in leg warmers and a smart blazer as if the news had passed him by completely.“Heroes” mirrored this sentiment by sounding both universal and personal at once. As the album’s marketing slogan summarised: “There’s Old Wave, there’s New Wave and there’s David Bowie.”
Whilst the second half the album is once again occupied by evocative Eno instrumentals such as ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’, it is Bowie’s devastatingly passionate vocal performances for which “Heroes” is most fondly remembered. Having spent hours in the studio with Iggy Pop during his Berlin residency, his own creative approach had begun to mirror the spontaneity of the punk godfather. The only song that had been written prior to the Hansa sessions was ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, with everything else being developed in the recording studio. Bowie often had no idea what lyrics he would be singing until mere moments before he was in front of the microphone. On certain songs, such as ‘Joe the Lion’ his vocals were written and recorded on a line to line basis, with Bowie jotting down consecutive couplets in the booth as he and Visconti pieced together the song with methodical precision.
But other songs took a more conventional approach. During the arduous writing process for the album’s title track, Bowie was suddenly struck by the image of Visconti and his German girlfriend Antonia Maass kissing passionately against the concrete canvas of the Berlin Wall. The romantic view was irresistible, and Bowie was beaming with pride when the pair returned to find he had finally finished the song. Sensing its importance, he and Visconti rehearsed a few times before recording began, deliberating over which point the singer should let loose into the upper octave. In the final recording the sense of anticipation becomes overwhelming. As Bowie sings of nature, royalty, and forbidden love atop Fripp’s soaring guitar lead, the final explosive release ranks among the finest performances of the singer’s career, bristling with an energy that suggests the shedding of a decade’s worth of demons. Captured by three microphones, his voice reverberates around the booth, tracing its boundaries like a prisoner pacing his cell. Before long Bowie is joined by Visconti on backing vocals for a triumphant finale that suggests unity, courage, and reconciliation – symbolism that remains hard to ignore.
Despite the album’s ironic quotation-marked title, “Heroes” marked a moment of genuine soul-searching for Bowie. The Berlin Trilogy as a whole represented a kind of ego-death for the thirty year old star, who had already experienced such unbelievable highs and such crushing lows throughout his most successful decade. The greatest gift the city had given Bowie was its indifference – the war torn metropolis allowed him to be subsumed by its grey concrete and resilient residents; to be a face in the crowd once more. With no costume and no character to play he had regained his perspective and his intuitive sense of what drives ordinary people to do the things they do and love the people they love. To create and release art a mere stone’s throw from a place where a such a privilege was unthinkable without state-censorship was no doubt a humbling experience. The album’s legacy speaks for itself – Bowie’s return to the city in 1987 for a performance of its title-track was hailed as a major catalyst to the later fall of the wall in 1989. Following his death in 2016, the German government expressed its gratitude to a musician whose life-changing experience helped change the lives of so many others: “Goodbye, David Bowie. You are now among Heroes.”.