Uncut Ultimate Music Guide SEPTEMBER 2011 - by Alastair McKay


Divided city, divided soul. Bowie digs deeper into Berlin - and into himself.

Viewed from a distance of more than three decades, the self-consciousness of "Heroes" is obvious. You could start with the inverted commas around the title, a common literary device at the time, but also an indication of a level of irony in the heroism under discussion. Observe the cover, a photograph by Masayoshi Sukita on which the singer appears, pale-faced, hands folded in a semaphore of dislocation, looking like a blow-dried, blouson-wearing version of an Egon Schiele self-portrait (though any Bowie aficionado will tell you that the image is actually styled after Erich Heckel's Roquairol, with a nod, perhaps, to the same painter's 1917 work, Young Man).

And consider the music, which - with the exception of the glorious title track - makes few concessions to commerce. Yes, there is rhythm here, a fair bit of muscle and sinew, but Bowie's lyrics are far from celebratory, and rarely touch on anything physical or uncomplicatedly romantic. You could dance, certainly, to half of the record, but you'd be obliged to spend the other half in a state of existential collapse.

Nor can the songs be nailed down. The poppy melodies which had leavened the first side of Low are nowhere to be found, though there is a large dose of the ambient friction from that record's second side. There are tunes, though, and they flit restlessly between a kind of inverted disco - a musical argument between the guitars of Carlos Alomar (lyrical) and Robert Fripp (industrial) - and Eno's electronic crop-circles, which loop together in a maze of insistent melodies leading nowhere in particular.

Bowie, enjoying his isolation in Berlin, remained enthralled by the electronic music of Neu! and Kraftwerk (Bowie nodded to Florian Schneider in the pulsing V-2 Schneider) and was heavily under the influence of Eno (although Tony Visconti, not Eno, co-produced). But the real sense you get from "Heroes" is of an artist relaxing into a new identity. The lessons Eno brought to Low have been absorbed, and his "Oblique Strategies" - artistic Tarot cards - were used to steer Bowie past creative roadblocks. What you hear is a kind of kinetic, alienated soul music; European, and narrated, as ever, in the Mockney patois of Anthony Newley.

Soul, perhaps, is a misleading term for a record which celebrates, and attempts to explode, alienation. It might be easier to reach into psychology and call it psyche music, because there is precious little space here for relationships, or love, or even lust. But there is much examination of the ghosts of the self. Bowie has noted that while he was personally happy during the recording, and much of "Heroes" sounds buoyant, the lyrics leaked from "a nook in the unconscious" and veered towards the psychotic.

These ingredients really shouldn't blend together, and RCA's marketing department could scarcely have been more perturbed. The album was sold with the line: "There's Old Wave. There's New Wave. And there's David Bowie."

Whichever wave it washed up on, "Heroes" is the centrepiece of Bowie's "Berlin trilogy". There's no denying the influence of the Cold War's divided city on the mood. The three instrumentals on side two - Sense Of Doubt, Moss Garden and Neuköln - are like a soundtrack to the geopolitical anxieties of the day, and V-2 Schneider makes a rather baffling reference to a Nazi missile system (as well as a member of Kraftwerk).

But it's not a concept album. The sensual final track, The Secret Life Of Arabia seems to take place in a cinematic desert, while also providing Rod Stewart with some of the disco moves he would employ to such frightening effect on Da Ya Think I'm Sexy.

Some have seen the lyrics of the opening track, Beauty And The Beast, as a reference to the friction between West and East, and there maybe some of that, but Bowie tends to explain the song in terms of the demons he was trying to escape when he fled Los Angeles. ("I wanted to believe me / I wanted to be good / I wanted no distractions / Like every good boy should.") Whatever, it's an extraordinary song, propelled by a kind of hysterical exhilaration. And, yes, Joe The Lion, Sons Of The Silent Age and the Side One closer, Blackout, all reflect a sense of friction sought out by Bowie when he moved to Berlin, but they're not really about the city. Indeed, a close textual analysis of the lyrics misses the point: most of these songs were composed in the studio, with Bowie coughing out phrases from his subconscious. They are like jottings from a dream, with no fixed meaning. It's an anxiety dream. Divided city, divided soul.

But the title track is unavoidably rooted in Berlin. It describes a romantic liaison witnessed by Bowie from the windows of the Hansa By The Wall. The precise inspiration for the song has been a matter of debate, though Visconti has claimed that the illicit kiss witnessed by Bowie was between him and backing singer Antonia Maass. Bowie, though, insists that the song is more broadly autobiographical, symbolising an escape from his own personal hell. It is, he says, a healing song, in which the message is "we can get out of this, I'll be OK."

Well, maybe. The point about the song is that it projects a mood of triumph, thanks to Bowie's overpowering vocal performance, but the exultant swell of the music is underpinned by drones and delays and oscillation, which wrap a mist of doubt around it. Even in the most optimistic interpretation, the triumph of the song's protagonists is temporary ("We can be us, just for one day"). I always read it as about lovers from either side of the wall meeting, and then dying in a hail of fire from the lookout tower ("Standing by the wall / And the guns / Shot above our heads"). Maybe that's wrong, but the beauty of the song is the way it remains open to interpretation. Like "Heroes" the album, it is a masterpiece of anxiety and misplaced optimism.

Tracks: Beauty And The Beast / Joe The Lion / "Heroes" / Sons Of The Silent Age / Blackout / V-2 Schneider / Sense Of Doubt / Moss Garden / Neuköln / The Secret Life Of Arabia
Released: October 14, 1977
Produced by: David Bowie and Tony Visconti
Recorded at: Hansa By The Wall, Berlin
Personnel: David Bowie (vocals, keyboards, guitars, saxophone, koto, background vocals); Dennis Davis (drums, percussion); George Murray (Bass); Brian Eno (synthesizers, keyboards, guitar treatments); Robert Fripp (lead guitar); Tony Visconti (backing vocals); Antonia Maass (backing vocals)
Highest Chart Position: UK: 3 US: 35