INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Mojo Ultimate Collectors Edition FEBRUARY 2007 - by Mat Snow
How Bowie and Eno created a haunting cold-war love-song and future classic.
By May 1977, Bowie had been soaking up the atmosphere of West Berlin for long enough to translate it into his music. "I like the friction," he said. "I can't write in a peaceful atmosphere at all. I've nothing to bounce off. I need the terror."
Inspired in both title and texture by the song Hero from Neu! 75, one of the Krautrock albums that soundtracked Bowie's Berlin sojourn and helped draw him there in the first place, "Heroes" was created in layers. Carlos Alomar (guitars), George Murray (bass), Dennis Davis (drums) and Bowie himself on piano vamped away for eight minutes without a click-track, so solid was Davis's time-keeping.
"David would throw a bunch of chord changes and ideas in a very loose structure at the band," Visconti recalled. "They were jam experts, and within half an hour they would jam those few chords into a wonderful structure. The underlying riff on "Heroes" was Carlos's idea, as was the pre-chorus part, which is like a viola and cello section. Bowie would help him elaborate; once they began exchanging ideas, you'd get amazing stuff. David would have some idea as to what the song was about - like if it was going to be happy or depressing. We would use that to make an emphatic arrangement or sound to invoke the desired emotion."
The original track was whittled down to six minutes with the tape editor's old-school tool of a razor-blade. The came more layers. The low-frequency judder throughout the track was created by Eno (who is credited with Bowie as songwriter) on his briefcase EMS Synthi, manipulated with rotary knobs on the oscillator banks and a joystick. Written as a trumpet part, the second verse introduces the synthetic sound of the Chamberlin, the sampling keyboard whose evolution lay between the '60s Mellotron and the '80s Fairlight.
"Bowie gets into a very peculiar state when he's working," Eno recalled. "He doesn't eat. We'd stagger home at six in the morning, and he'd break a raw egg into his mouth and that was virtually his food for the day. We'd sit around the kitchen table at dawn feeling a bit tired and fed up - me with a bowl of crummy German cereal, him with albumen running down his shirt."
Eno collaborator Robert Fripp flew in for two days and, in contrast to his ribald conversation, overdubbed lead guitar of wailing intensity, obtained by playing through Eno's EMS Synthi while carefully manipulating feedback by standing at specific distances from his amp marked on the studio floor with tape. "An 'A' would feed back at about four feet from the speaker, whereas a 'G' would feed back at about three-and-a-half," explained Visconti. "We were playing this at a terrific level in the studio, and all the while Eno was turning the dials and creating a new envelope. Three takes had all the filter changes and feedback blending into that very smooth, haunting melody."
Finally came the star of the show. A last-minute lyricist who would write as he sang, Bowie constructed a fable of lovers by the Wall from the starting point of a painting he admired on visits to the Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern by Otto Mueller (1874-1930). But the concept took on flesh during the session itself when the married Visconti had a tryst near the Wall with backing singer Antonia Maass. "David could see us, and wrote the entire lyrics looking out through the windows of Hansa Studios," Visconti admits. (At the time Bowie discreetly explained the actual lovers were "a boy and a girl, both from the West. I presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty and so had imposed themselves, giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act.")
Using the studio's natural reverb to create a unique atmosphere, Visconti installed three mics in different positions nine inches, twenty and fifty feet away from the singer, which were activated by electronic 'gates' when Bowie's voice hit certain volumes; Bowie, Visconti and Maass overdubbed backing vocals. All that remained to do was the mix, unusual in that the kick-drum was mixed right down. And so a classic was finished.