Chicago Sun-Times JUNE 2, 2002 - by Jim DeRogatis


When David Bowie released "Heroes" in 1977, the Berlin Wall had been standing for sixteen years. Erected by the Soviet Union to stop the exodus of people fleeing toward the West to escape a harsh and repressive life in the Communist bloc, this imposing structure loomed even larger as an image than it did as reality. It captured people's imaginations.

The middle installment of what has become known as the Great Chameleon's "Berlin trilogy," the album still seems startlingly ahead of its time a quarter-century later, from its unique sonic mix of rock drive and ambient atmospherics (hello, Radiohead!), to its ironic self-consciousness (note that the quotation marks are an official part of the album title). A spirit of decadence and a defiant lust for freedom - the spirit of Berlin itself - permeates the disc.

By the mid-'70s, the one-time British folk-rocker David Jones had already reinvented himself several times, introducing a procession of unforgettable rock personas: the alien glam-rocker Ziggy Stardust, the emaciated waif Aladdin Sane; the positively decadent Diamond Dog, and the soul-goes-to-outerspace enigma of the Thin White Duke. But rock's most infamous appropriator of others' innovations was arguably never more creative in his own right than he was on his three Berlin albums - though many would assign much of the credit to his collaborator/producer, Brian Eno.

After splitting with the pioneering glam/art-rock band Roxy Music following two brilliant albums on which he served as the synthesizer player and sonic pervert/audio manipulator, Eno had crafted some wonderfully unconventional pop music on a series of solo albums (one year Eno's elder, Bowie was particularly impressed by 1976's Another Green World), as well as experimenting with what he called "ambient music" - instrumental compositions that lacked vocals and obvious rhythmic drive and which boasted only simple, minimal hooks, when there were any at all.

Ambient music was music designed to subliminally enhance the thousand tasks of everyday life, Eno said. It rewarded close listening, but it did not demand it. Bowie and Eno began working on sounds in this vein with 1976's "Low," and they would continue with '79's Lodger. But "Heroes" was their finest moment together, an attempt to combine pop, rock and soul music with ambient experimentation, just as Eno had done with equally spectacular results on Another Green World.

Ably abetted by Eno himself, and joined by his long-time producer, Tony Visconti, Bowie also drew on the contributions of two extremely different but phenomenally inventive guitarists: the soulful Carlos Alomar, and the progressive-rock hero Robert Fripp, a veteran of King Crimson who had collaborated with Eno on the 1975 ambient outing, No Pussyfooting. This diverse ensemble bunkered down at Berlin's Hansa Studio - "by the wall," as Bowie would sing.

Very much a relic of the vinyl era when albums had two distinct sides, "Heroes" can be neatly divided between the vocal- and guitar-driven music of the first half and the more meandering instrumental music of the second half. But in its best moments, especially during the masterful title track, the ambient ideas are intertwined with great, catchy rock music, all in the same memorable package.

Driven by an infectious, tubular Fripp guitar riff and a steady, metronomic drum beat, and subtly decorated by Eno's synthesizer squeals and bleeps, the song "Heroes" is a futuristic take on a Velvet Underground drone (Eno and Bowie were both fans of Lou Reed's first band, and Bowie had covered The Velvets several times). The result is a mysterious, enigmatic-sounding backing track for an apocalyptic scene whose drama is conveyed by the emotion of Bowie's vocals, even if it is never specifically addressed in the lyrics.

Rising to his theatrical best, the singer spits out the words as if dictating an urgent telegram: "I... I remember... standing... by the wall. The guns... shot about our heads... and we kissed... as though nothing could fall." The tune could be about everything (the end of the world in a nuclear holocaust?) or nothing at all (one man's "I can be king" delusions?), depending on what the listen chooses to read into it.

Slightly less complex, the other proper songs are only marginally less powerful. Beauty And The Beast and Joe The Lion are hard-hitting if somewhat twisted rockers with prime Bowie vocal turns; Sons Of The Silent Age harkens back to his Space Oddity-era solo work with less obvious, more oblique production twists; The Secret Life of Arabia is a nice little snake-charmer mood piece, and Blackout expands on the dance-groove funkiness of Young Americans and Station to Station, adding a sort of distant android coldness to the mix.

The instrumentals are primarily comprised of Eno's synths, a stringed Japanese instrument called a samisen, and Bowie's heavily treated saxophone. There are moments of static beauty, haunting sparseness, and pointless wankery - sometimes all in the same tune. The creepy Neukoln is named for the Berlin neighbourhood where Bowie stayed, and the lulling Moss Garden is redolent of the work of Cluster, a German group with whom Eno had collaborated.

The best song, V-2 Schneider, name checks the Nazi rockets that fell on the World War II England of Bowie's youth, as well as Florian Schneider, one of the two driving forces of the groundbreaking German electronic band, Kraftwerk. Bowie and Eno were both hugely enamoured of this and other Krautrock groups, including Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Cluster, and Faust. Their influence permeates the album, and they continue to inspire underground musicians today, from Chicago's Tortoise to London's Stereolab.

"Artistically, 1977-81 were absolutely dynamic," Bowie would later conclude from the safe distance of the '90s. "Brian Eno treats studios the way no other person has. He works with it like an instrument, which is actually quite the thing now, especially in dance music, but at the particular time, there was no one else doing that, except for a couple of Germans. He really hipped me to the potential of arranging musical accidents."

After completing his trilogy the following year with Lodger, Bowie would spin off into increasingly vapid dance-pop, and then begin revisiting earlier accomplishments with lesser results and a lack of fresh inspiration. This leaves "Heroes" to stand as his last truly inspired moment, if not his most creative effort ever.