“The lowest point in my life was in 1975, when I was 28, living in Los Angeles. I really did think that my thoughts about not making 30 would come true. Drugs had taken my life away from me. I felt as though I would probably die and it was going to be all over. My assistant, Coco, got me out of it. Thanks to her, I got myself out of America to Berlin”
So he did and that is where the genesis of his classic song “Heroes” begins. Germany has an oddly influential place in popular music history. Elvis was stationed there in the army in the 50s. The Beatles went to Hamburg and learned their craft and lived it up in the early 60s. Bowie recorded his Low, Heroes and Lodger albums there and Queen recorded several albums in Munich, including their best-selling album The Game. U2 would record Achtung Baby there in the early 90s. David Bowie played a concert in West Berlin in 1987 that could be heard over the Berlin Wall in East Berlin. Earlier this week, when news of Bowie’s death broke, the German Foreign Office tweeted: “Good-bye, David Bowie. You are now among #Heroes. Thank you for helping to bring down the #wall.” Praise, indeed.
The album “Heroes”, the second of Bowie’s “Berlin trilogy”, was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall in what was then West Berlin. It was produced by Bowie and Tony Visconti with Brian Eno playing a key role in it also. (Bowie credits Eno with shifting the emphasis of his career away from the creation of characters like Ziggy Stardust to the music itself.)
The song “Heroes” was recorded using a noise gate technique. According to Wikipedia, a noise gate is “an electronic device or software that is used to control the volume of an audio signal.”
It goes on: “The invention of a technique, called multi-latch gating by Jay Hodgson, common in classical music recordings for years, is often credited to producer Tony Visconti, whose use on David Bowie’s “Heroes” may have been the first in rock. Visconti recorded Bowie’s vocals in a large space using three microphones placed 9 inches (23 cm), 20 feet (6.1 m), and 50 feet (15.2 m) away, respectively. A different gate was applied to each microphone so that the farther microphone was triggered only when Bowie reached the appropriate volume, and each microphone was muted as the next one was triggered.
Bowie’s performance thus grows in intensity precisely as ever more ambience infuses his delivery until, by the final verse, he has to shout just to be heard….The more Bowie shouts to be heard, in fact, the further back in the mix Visconti’s multi-latch system pushes his vocal tracks [dry audio being perceived as front and ambience pushing audio back in the mix], creating a stark metaphor for the situation of Bowie’s doomed lovers shouting their love for one another over the Berlin wall”
(Tony Visconti recently admitted that the he and his mistress were the couple seen kissing by the wall.)
Bowie played the sax solo at the end of “Heroes” and even recorded a version in German called “Helden.”
When released on October 15th 1977, the song only got to number 24 in the UK charts a far cry from smash-hit Ziggy Stardust mania just a few years earlier. Even his appearance on Top of the Pops in a plain shirt with a less-harsh remix of the song seems muted compared to his culture-changing turn on the same show with Starman.
The noise gate technique the shouting Bowie had to resort to did result in a harsh-sounding vocal that wasn’t exactly radio friendly at the time which perhaps accounts for its low chart-placing. (Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was released the same month and became an instant classic anthem when it reached number 2 in the charts.) While “Heroes” remained a favourite with his fans, in the general public’s consciousness the song quickly faded from the charts and into obscurity. It remained there until eight years later, when Bowie had the inspired idea to include it in his set for Live Aid.
Bob Geldof had christened his Live Aid charity extravaganza “The Global Jukebox” and told the artists on the bill to give him hits, hits and more hits to keep viewers watching and donating. While “Heroes” wasn’t one of Bowie’s biggest hits on first release, it is one of his best songs and the idea of being heroes for a day was the perfect tagline for Live Aid. So it proved, the song went down a storm. Everyone in Wembley Stadium got swept up in the idea of their generation changing the world in that place at that time. Bowie told the Wembley crowd: “You’re the real heroes of this concert.”
Queen had ended their legendary Live Aid set earlier with “We Are The Champions.” That day, “Heroes” joined “We Are The Champions” in the pantheon of inspirational anthems that are often played at sporting events. When a documentary was made about the Live Aid concerts by the Band Aid trust later in 1985, a montage of the artists that performed was cut to the sounds of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
The rehabilitation of “Heroes” reached its apotheosis at the London Olympic games of 2012 when “Heroes” was playing on loop in the background at each medal presentation. It even featured in the closing ceremony.
Who knows, perhaps “Heroes” may even become a posthumous number one for David Bowie, such is the popularity and poignancy of the song now. That would be a fitting close to the remarkable journey the song has taken in the unforgettable life of its creator and in the lives of us all.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.
(Stewart Stafford’s novel “The Vorbing” is available here)