David Bowie - "Heroes"

by Kevin Orton Rating:10 Release Date:1977-10-14
David Bowie - "Heroes"
David Bowie - "Heroes"

Unrepentant Bowie geek here. So, if this is a bit long, I make no apology. Safe to say, Bowie is my favorite recording artist of all time. I say “is”, because he’s not dead to me. His legacy is far too alive for any of that death nonsense. In terms of his classic 70’s albums, I don’t play favorites. I adore them all. I keep coming back to them and each time I do, I discover something new. 1977’s ‘Heroes’ is no exception.  

In many ways, ‘Heroes’ is one of Bowie’s most misunderstood records. So perhaps, it’s time to bust a few myths. Bowie wasn’t really a chameleon. A chameleon changes to mimic its surroundings. At his height, Bowie always had others mimicking him. Listen to Joy Division and this album’s influence is undeniable. And while he may have relocated to Berlin, Bowie wasn’t exactly mimicking his surroundings so much as soaking them in and brandishing them. 

Another myth is the notion of a ‘Berlin Trilogy’. There really isn’t such a thing. Low was mostly recorded in France, nor was it a particularly Germanic sounding record until the second half. The alleged third installment, Lodger was recorded in Switzerland and New York and is literally all over the map. A more fitting term might be the ‘Eno Trilogy’. Regardless, there is no doubt, ‘Heroes’ is the most “Berlin” sounding of the lot. It should come as no surprise it was recorded entirely in that city at the now legendary, Hansa By The Wall. 

Another misconception is that ‘Heroes’ is Low II. In fact, it’s a complete reaction against Low. Where Low was about keeping a low profile and emotional detachment, ‘Heroes’ is a sweepingly cinematic and strikingly emotional record. Musically, they have very little in common except a predilection toward moody instrumentals. For one thing, Low didn’t have Robert Fripp. Or female backing vocals. While Low was born more out of a Kraftwerk influence, ‘Heroes’ owes far more to Neu. Both have come to epitomize Krautrock, but they aren’t the same band by a long shot. Yet, there’s no denying both albums are steeped in Krautrock and Germanic atmosphere. Which is why some tend to see them as joined at the hip.

Where Low was more a travelogue seen from a train window, ‘Heroes’ sets its feet on the gritty street, after hours. No more is this evident than on the opening track, ‘Beauty and The Beast’. Here’s Bowie in snarling attack mode, kicking things off with gauche camp. It's more drag cabaret than Low’s emotionally stunted shut in. All barrel house piano and Antonia Maas’ snide, Lilly Marlene asides. Fraught with Eno’s knife’s edge synths, sawing away like some kind of deranged violin. A song hell-bent on staying up past the dawn, in defiance of the looming guillotine of an inevitable hangover.

‘Joe the Lion’ follows making a blitzkrieg assault out of the bass riff from ‘Changes’. A gritty, arcane ode in part to performance artist, Chris Burden. Who famously nailed himself to his Volkswagen and paid his assistant to shoot him in the arm at a gallery opening. It's also the sound of Bowie kicking off Low's malaise.  “It’s Monday,” Bowie drawls nonchalantly, “Slither down the greasy pipe, so far so good no one saw you, hover over any freeway”. Then, without warning, he throws open the floodgates, erupting cathartically, “You’ll be like your dreams tonight---YOU GET UP AND SLEEP!” Another clear indication this is the polar opposite of, Low.

The song, ‘Heroes’ is a timeless classic. But like the album, is oft misunderstood. This is no feel-good, inspirational ode to the hero inside us all. It’s a doomed lover’s death wish and suicide pact. An anthem fatefully resigned to nihilism and no tomorrow. Robert Fripp coaxing unworldly sounds out of his guitar which, to this day, are startlingly original. Apparently, the song was inspired by Bowie looking out Hansa’s window and seeing producer, Tony Visconti snogging with his girlfriend by the wall. What resulted was a mic drop of a song. As ambitious and soaring as ‘Life On Mars”.

The mysterious, ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ happens to be one of my favorite Bowie songs. If ever there were a deep cut this is it. Another swelling anthem to nihilism. A doomy sax tolls on the verses while Bowie goes for broke on the choruses, with over the top, Johnnie Ray panache. Lyrically, it’s one of the most disturbing songs on the album. Alluding to the rise and fall of fascism with the chilling bon mot, “They never die, they just go to sleep one day.” I’ve always wondered whether this song was inspired by Liliana Cavani’s 1974 film, The Night Porter. It certainly evokes the same atmosphere. One of many cinematic moments on a cinematic album.

The maniacally delirious, ‘Blackout’ was inspired by the infamous, New York City blackout. Full of grit and savage paranoia, Bowie romantically promises to “Kiss you in the rain” before the sheer psychic breakdown cry of “Get me to the doctor!” “I just can’t cut it and I’m into Japanese influence,” he tosses over his shoulder as the world goes to hell.

‘V-2 Schneider’ is a mostly instrumental ode to Kraftwork’s Florian Schneider. Bowie’s vocals playfully goofing around with the talking guitar effect made famous by Peter Frampton. It’s the album’s lightest moment before we’re plunged into, ‘Sense Of Doubt’. A dark tone poem of formidable gloom. However, this journey soon leads us to the haunting serenity of ‘Moss Garden’. Here, Japanese Folk music meets Germanic hangover. Bowie plucking away gingerly on the koto while Eno splatters the sonic paint around. One of many unexpected turns on a bravely experimental album.

‘Neukoln’ drops us off in one hell of a bad neighborhood.  Stark and haunted by the looming ruins of an industrial past. Superficially, this may come off as glum self-indulgence to some. But this is truly an existential cry of pain. Another example of this album wearing its raw emotions on its sleeve. Bowie’s sax wailing away among the gloom and doom. I suppose here the case could be made for this being Low II.  Then all too suddenly, we're tossed into the disco. Here the album ends on an almost schizophrenic note with the coyly oblique, ‘Secret Life of Arabia’. Suddenly it’s time to dance, with Bowie crooning, “You must see the movie, the sand in my eyes, I walk through a desert song when the heroine dies.” Its here you realize Bowie’s backing band consists of some truly formidable R & B musicians. Namely, Carlos Alomar, George Murray and Dennis Davis. Believe it or not, the same band that played on Low. And this is part of Bowie’s genius. To put himself and others in unfamiliar territory and see what happens.

Did I say genius? Yes, I think Bowie was a genius. Part of being a genius is knowing what’s important and what’s not. And Bowie had that. Obtuse, weird and disjointed as it all is, ‘Heroes’ shouldn’t work but does. Bowie was a keen practitioner of William S. Burroughs’ cut-up technique and more than any Bowie album, ‘Heroes’ feels like it was cut up and pasted together. Yet, somehow the glue holds. Here Bowie revels in the seedy underbelly and decadent nightlife of a haunted city, teetering on the brink. As he sings in ‘Sons of the Silent Age’ this record truly does sound like, “listening to tracks by Sam Therapy and King Dice”. If Low was the sound of breaking up, ‘Heroes’ is the sound of breaking free.

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