INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Q NOVEMBER 2005 - by Phil Sutcliffe
DAVID BOWIE'S "HEROES"
Bowie arrived in Berlin a troubled cocaine addict. He left having written his greatest song.
By the summer of 1976, David Bowie was in trouble. Thanks to a string of innovative albums , including 1972's glam rock masterpiece The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars and 1975's slick soul pastiche Young Americans, his commercial and critical stock had never been higher. But Bowie had also developed a crippling cocaine addiction which, combined with the ill-fated move to Los Angeles, had pushed him to the brink of a nervous breakdown.
His solution? Relocate to Berlin, where he could get clean in relative anonymity while indulging his love of German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk. It proved a masterstroke, with Bowie hitting his creative peak. As well as producing old friend Iggy Pop's Lust For Life and The Idiot, he made two ground-breaking records of his own: 1977's Low and "Heroes". The latter's title track would become his most enduring song.
Three decades after the end of World War II, the German capital was still a divided city, consisting of drab, Soviet-controlled East Berlin, and decadent, democratic West Berlin. The two halves were separated by the heavily guarded Berlin wall, erected in 1961 by the communist East German government.
Bowie's base was a sparsely furnished apartment above a car repair shop in the bohemian Schöneberg district of West Berlin. The centre of the city's gay scene at the height of the Weimar Republic in the '20s and early '30s, the area retained its decadent air, with seedy drag bars next to squats inhabited by radical Marxist and anarchist groups.
"For the first time the tension was outside of me rather than within me," says Bowie. "It was an interesting process, writing under those conditions."
Bowie's first Berlin album, 1977's stark, experimental Low (actually recorded in a chateau in the south of France), was made while he was still battling his cocaine addiction. Six months later, as he began work on the follow-up, he'd managed to kick his drug habit, only to replace it with another one.
"I'd become an alcoholic," admits Bowie. "I had to pull away from drug addiction, but... you replace one with another, and in my case I went straight to whiskey and brandy."
Despite his binge-drinking - and bizarre habit of eating raw eggs - the mood was lighter. Long-time producer Tony Visconti and former Roxy Music boffin Brian Eno, with whom Bowie had first collaborated on Low, were back on board for the new album, tentatively titled "Heroes".
Before the actual sessions, Bowie and Eno spent a few weeks sketching out the basics of several new songs in Bowie's flat. One was "Heroes" itself. Even in its primitive state, Eno recognised the song's potential.
"It sounded grand and heroic," he says. "In fact I had that very word - 'heroes' - in mind before David had even written the lyrics."
"Heroes" was recorded in the massive main room at Hansa Studios, a former Nazi dancehall just five hundred yards from the Berlin Wall. The proximity of the latter added a frisson of danger to proceedings.
"Every afternoon, we'd sit down at the mixing desk and see Russian Red Guards looking at us with binoculars, with their machine guns over their shoulders," says Visconti.
The military presence didn't dampen Bowie's sense of humour. He and Eno spent hours doing impressions of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
"We had our share of schoolboy giggling fits," says Bowie. "Brian and I had Pete and Dud down pat. Long dialogues about [avant-garde classical composer] John Cage performing at the Bricklayer's Arms on the Old Kent Road. Quite silly."
The mood in the studio was spontaneous. Owlish ex-King Crimson frontman Robert Fripp, drafted in to play guitar at the last minute, was encouraged to make up his lines on the spot. Bowie left the lyrics until the very last moment. The theme of love in the face of adversity was partly inspired by the short story A Grave For A Dolphin by Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, about a doomed affair between a World War II soldier and an African girl. However, the main inspiration came from a source much closer to home.
"David asked us to take a break so he could write the lyric," says Tony Visconti. "I went for a walk by the Wall with one of the backing singers, Antonia Maass. We were holding hands, and we had a little kiss. David happened to be looking out of the window and he saw us. He didn't tell that story until many years later, because I was married at the time and it was a naughty thing to do."
The final touch was to record versions in herman and French, retitled "Helden" and "Héros".
"David thought it would be marvellous to sing it in German, because it had a Wagnerian sound," says Visconti. "He wasn't so keen on the French version. He got a little tongue-tied on that one."
"Heroes" got its got its public premiere on September 9, 1977, when Bowie performed it on Marc Bolan's Granada TV show. Released as a single on October 3, it only reached Number 24 in the UK charts.
Despite Bowie's insistence that the track had a dimension of irony - hence its quotation marks - "Heroes" has assumed iconic status, with the singer wheeling it out at sundry benefit shows, including Live Aid and the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992.
It also remains one of the most covered Bowie songs. Oasis, Bon Jovi and Blondie, among others, have all done versions, while Liberal democrat leader Charles Kennedy performed it live on Johnny Vaughan's BBC1 chat show in January 2002.
Written by: David Bowie, Brian Eno
Performers: David Bowie (vocals), Carlos Alomar (guitar), George Murray (bass), Brian Eno (synthesizers), Robert Fripp (guitar), Dennis Davis (percussion)
Recorded at: Hansa Studios, Berlin, July 1977
Producer: David Bowie, Tony Visconti
Released: October 1977
Highest UK chart placing: 24
Available on: "Heroes"