David Bowie wrote and recorded three albums in Berlin, the hit “HEROES” epitomizes the whole experience. Its composition, lyrics and music performance in fact sum up many of the influences exerted by, and experimentations undertaken in the divided city.
David Bowie and Brian Eno (lyrics credited only to Bowie) wrote “HEROES” in 1977. It is one of the most iconic songs in Bowie’s repertoire. The title is probably inspired by “Hero”, a tune by the German band Neu! that both Bowie and Eno had heard while in Germany. “HEROES” (in the original album and 7”, the title of the song is printed in quotation marks) condenses in 6:07 (LP version) or 3:32 (single edit) many of the above-mentioned aspects.
At the time, David Bowie was living in Berlin Schöneberg; Bowie’s Berlin years have a special place in popular music history and contributed to the canonisation of today’s German capital as one of the places where artists retreat to achieve something different. Iggy Pop, U2, Nick Cave, Marilyn Manson and lately R.E.M. all recorded in the influential studio of West-Berlin, in close proximity to the (at the time still standing) Berlin Wall.
The lyrical dimension of the song is double. First, it depicts a universal representation of the triumph of love despite an overwhelming negative force. This is achieved through the use of an “I” and a “you” against a “them.” They, although never named, are too strong, but you and I can beat them, as long as we are together, at least for one day. Second, the song becomes a history-determined love story in divided Berlin, that the authorial “I” is remembering. The wall is addressed directly, so is the shame on the other side (probably referring to East Berlin under the socialist dictatorship, and also to the fact that the wall was built from that side). Aesthetically very interesting is the reference to the dolphins, which brings into the song an unexpected image of motion, freedom and peace, in what could otherwise be defined as a typical cold war scenario. Political innuendos in the song are usually linked to the line “though nothing will drive them away, we can beat them, just for one day,” referring to the perceived strength of the East German dictatorship.
The song reveals the innovative studio work that the team of Tony Visconti (producer), Brian Eno (listed on the Heroes album as responsible for synthesizers, keyboards, and guitar treatments), Bowie and a team of studio musicians (Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass, Dennis Davis on drums) were producing at the Hansa and which resulted in the completion of 3 LPs (Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger). Above a solid structure of bass, drums, rhythm guitar and piano, “HEROES” has layers of synthesizer sounds (typical of Brian Eno’s sonic landscape, see for instance, his work with U2, as in “With or Without You”) and an ostinato guitar riff of 3 notes in feedback (performed by Robert Fripp). Bowie’s voice was recorded with three microphones at various distances mixed down to one single track, to capture the natural reverb of the Hansa recording room. Bowie’s voice is first in a lower octave, to move to the upper one after the first verse. The song has a very basic chord structure, still very much bound to the glam rock era, especially in the bass sequence.
The music video, directed by Stanley Dorfman in 1977, shows Bowie dressed in black leather, frontally, cutting rarely on his facial profile or front face. He is illuminated by a spotlight behind him, which sometimes let some rays filter through his groin. The camera movements and light nuances seem to visually translate the fluctuating work of Eno’s synthesizer in the song.
“HEROES” was recorded by Bowie in an English, French and German version (all three are available together on an Australian version of the single) and published on a variety of single editions. In Germany, the song is featured on the soundtrack of the film Christiane F. – Wir Kinder von Bahnhof Zoo (directed by Uli Edel, 1981), inspired by a book about a teenage heroin-addict and the heroin scene revolving around Bahnhof Zoo station in West Berlin in the 1970s. The scene, where the song is featured in the film, shows a group of youths running through the shopping mall of the Europa Zentrum and escaping the police by reaching the top of the building, where a giant logo of Mercedes Benz rotates. The film deeply conditioned the reception of the song and its lyrics, especially, but not exclusively, for the German-speaking audience. The song has been covered widely and adopted several times as a soundtrack for commercial or political campaigns. The American band The Wallflowers released a cover version of the song as a single in 1998, which earned them a Grammy nomination.
Vocals, Guitar, Saxophone, Keyboards: David Bowie
Lead Guitar: Robert Fripp
Rhythm Guitar: Carlos Alomar
Bass: George Murray
Drums: Dennis Davis
Synthesizer: Brian Eno
Songwriting: David Bowie, Brian Eno
Producer: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Length: 3:32 (Single edit); 6:07 (Full-length album version)
- David Bowie. “Heroes”, “Heroes”, 1977, RCA Victor, PB 1121, UK (7”/ Single).
- David Bowie. “Heroes”/”Helden”, “Heroes”, 1977, RCA Victor, PC 9821, Germany (12″/ Single).
- David Bowie. “Heroes”, “Heroes”, 1991, Ryko, RCD 10143, USA (CD/Album).
- http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/Oct04/articles/classictracks.htm [07.11.2011].
- Artist homepage: http://www.davidbowie.com/ [31.10.2011].
- Database: http://www.discogs.com/David-Bowie-Heroes/master/49841; http://www.discogs.com/David-Bowie-Heroes/release/1002557 [31.10.2011]
- Download: http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/heroes/id14685702?i=14685653 [31.10.2011].
- Music video: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xct2fi_david-bowie-heroes_music [31.10.2011].
- Lyrics: http://www.songmeanings.net/songs/view/42531/ [31.10.2011].
About the Author
All contributions by Giacomo Bottà
Giacomo Bottà: “Heroes (David Bowie)”. In: Songlexikon. Encyclopedia of Songs. Ed. by Michael Fischer, Fernand Hörner and Christofer Jost, http://www.songlexikon.de/songs/heroes, 02/2012 [revised 10/2013].Print