INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Guardian JUNE 23, 2006 - by John Harris
Stop, children - what's that sound? At least once a day, as ITV begins its World Cup coverage, the viewing public is subjected to a snatch of David Bowie's "Heroes" (the quotation marks are meant to be there), suddenly robbed of its chord structure, central riff and air of profound majesty. At first, its indie-rock flimsiness threw me a curve. Was it the work, perhaps, of those stage-school fakirs The Kooks? Given its underlying sense of trying a bit too hard, could we blame Johnny Borrell and Razorlight, the 21st century's own Boomtown Rats?
But no: we can actually thank Leicester's designer oiks Kasabian, a band for whom I have usually had quite a lot of time, in a slightly arch kind of way. Before their people begin sending in irate emails, I understand at least some of the thinking at work: the undercarriage of their treatment is a homage to Neu!, the Düsseldorf avant-rock gods who were such an influence on Bowie and his collaborator Brian Eno during their time in Berlin. Woo! Meta-rock retrospective Möbius strip reglueing, or what? Well, no. As Mancunian slang would have it, the result is actually bobbins.
Given the history of "Heroes" covers, this is no great surprise. There is, for example, a live version by Blondie, put to tape in early 1980, in which Debbie Harry cannot make up her mind how to sing it, and the whole band seem to crumble in the face of the task before them. Noel Gallagher had a very ill-advised bash in 1997, Oasis's pointless version appearing on the B-side of D'You Know What I Mean? There are equally unsatisfactory renditions by talents as diverse as King Crimson, Nico, PJ Proby and The Magnetic Fields. Apparently, erstwhile Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan delivered a version at Dennis Rodman's thirty-sixth birthday party, which - and if I'm wrong, please send in the evidence - was surely not much cop.
The reason is down to what might be rather pretentiously termed authorial specificity. No one apart from Bowie has ever been resident in Berlin with Iggy Pop, drugged to the gills and convinced they might alchemise their own self-importance, the thrilling melodrama of the cold war and humankind's empathy with dolphins into a six-minute song. Thinking about it, few producers have ever matched Tony Visconti's inspired idea of setting up three microphones in front of his charge, and taping the loudest verses through the one that was fifty feet away, so they sounded like the work of someone bravely yelling into the historical void.
And what of the genius wheeze of recording it in three different langauges? In English, "Heroes" is great. Bowie's French version may be even better. But, as with Kraftwerk's The Model and Falco's 1986 hit Rock Me Amadeus, my favourite version is in German, proving that language can actually sound like the perfect rock medium. The way Bowie yelps the key lines, all of a tremble at the wonder of it all - Dann sind wir Helden! Nur diesen tag! - is really a treat.
This next bit will sound ludicrous, but whatever: despite the fact that "Heroes" only reached number twenty-four in the charts, I have a dream of the UK a hundred years hence, in which the monarchy has been toppled, military bands have disappeared, and it is the national anthem (chiefly, I think, because there is something very British about the fact that the song's titular ambition can only be realised just for one day). If you doubt that could ever be a good idea, go down to the video shop and get out the otherwise unsatisfactory Steve Coogan vehicle The Parole Officer, and watch the strangely moving closing credits, in which what looks like the entire population of Manchester dance and mime along.
Massed national choirs would probably serve to underscore an inescapable fact. Only David Bowie - at a very specific phase of his progress, on very specific substances, with very specific friends - could do this. The rest of us (and that includes you, Leicester chaps) should really leave well alone.