If Low was Bowie at his lowest (sorry), then “Heroes” finds Bowie on the up. He sounds so vital and confident, like he was reborn between the two albums, and he kind of was. The stories during Station to Station and Low are wild, with a lot of what he created during the latter being thrown away or heavily reworked by Brian Eno (and on the former, one of the strangest stories is of Bowie spending over two days working on a song and finding that he had done nothing but literally just played the first four notes over and over again or backwards or in a different order). He wasn’t even in Berlin for Low, but finally on “Heroes”, he had made it to Berlin – in a studio so close to the Berlin wall that there were armed guards with binoculars staring in on them. How freaky is that, and thanks to all of that, this album has a totally different sound than Low despite the two being like siblings to one another.
They’re both divided into two halves, an opening pop section and an ending instrumental block. I guess this decision on both albums was meant to reflect also the city of Berlin, something I didn’t think of until “Heroes” because Low felt like the two were so well melded. What makes the pop half so different isn’t just Bowie’s energy, but they’re actually 3-4 minute fully-formed songs. I talked a lot about the alien robot/organic machine sound of Low, but that’s not to be found on “Heroes”. It’s all organic “made by humans”, with a tight band and clear piano, bass, drums, and guitar. It’s wild how musicians find inspiration, because these five songs are perfect.
Of course Beauty and the Beast opens the album. It’s his rebirth song, looking back on who he was. He was the beauty and the beast. I love the powerful forward-moving rhythm in the percussion and the way Bowie interacts with the backup singers, but the real star of the show is of course Robert Fripp. What an amazing and textured guitarist. He apparently did his part in one single take after arriving at the studio jet lagged and having not played professionally for three years.
The same goes for Joe the Lion, which I think I like even better, for the treated vocals (or at least that’s how they sound). You couldn’t have imagined Bowie singing like this on Low. I like how a lot of the lyrics still reflect on Bowie’s recent past, particularly “you get up and sleep” from there. There’s one little section that all of a sudden makes me feel a little choked up, and it’s “it’s Monday”, because where the fuck did Monday go? It’s okay after that though, because it’s one of my favorite parts of the album, Bowie’s vocal solo that’s so evocative of the lyrics he’s singing and really showing off how “Heroes” is one of his best albums, vocally.
When you talk about David Bowie, “alien” is a word that keeps popping up. He encourages it himself, but even his music can sound alien, like Sons of the Silent Age. I love how straight-up weird it is, just the whole thing is bizarre but catchy and wonderful. I love the way his vocals sound, as I’ve said about this album already, but the sax in the verses is crazy and out of this world while the chorus brings it down to Earth.
Among the songs first half of the album, Blackout has been a longtime favorite of mine. I had it among my top five songs when I made that 2010 list, and it’s still probably up there. What a rocker. It’s just so cool, I love the way the guitars sound, the percussion is fabulous, and Robert Fripp wrings out all these wild squeals from his guitar that seem endless while Bowie sings with as much swagger as he can muster. Aside from “Heroes” the song, this is my favorite performance by Fripp on the album.
So we’ve come to “Heroes”. I have never been able to listen to this without tears in my eyes, and especially not now. It’s one of the best, most iconic, classic songs of all time, really incredible instrumentation, music video, and feeling. There’s a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ about your favorite song, you know. It’s a feeling. You can’t describe why you love it without resorting to “I just like it”, because you like lots of songs but this one is special – and that’s how I’ve always felt about “Heroes”. There’s a quality to it that I just can’t describe. It’s got feeling. It’s in the thickness of the atmosphere with the synths and Robert Fripp’s incredible guitar playing filling up every empty space, the driving drum beat, and Bowie himself who goes from singing to screaming in the second half of the song (an obsession with halves). He’s singing his heart out, every trouble that he was facing, from the drugs to his crumbling marriage, to the feelings of division he felt in Berlin, it’s all in his vocal inflections. The density of the instrumentation and how that attacks Bowie’s singing is really incredible. The song starts out very clear and gets more and more obfuscated as the song goes on. The way of getting that is fascinating, from triggering differently staged microphones that start off recording his voice close and then muting while mics further out turn on, forcing Bowie to amp up the intensity of his voice to fight off the ever-growing sounds of Robert Fripp’s super-feedbacked guitar and the never-changing basic melody with the clanging percussion and synths. I love that kind of staging in a song, where it’s real. The singers or musicians were forced to adapt to strange conditions like that, because actual effort like that begets that kind of sound.
I’ve always thought of V-2 “Tony” Schneider as a part of the pop side, but now I can see it more as the glue holding the two halves together, part pop instrumentation, part vocal-less instrumental, it reeks of distortion. You would be surprised to know that before doing this listen-thru, I had no idea Bowie’s first instrument was the saxophone – which explains why the sax is always one of the best parts of his music. He owns it here. The synths sound like a person making “wa-oo” sounds with the mouth, and it’s wonky and bizarre and wonderful. The guitar does everything the vocals would have done on a song like this, except there is a little bit of Bowie singing the title of the song. I love the bass and drum groove here. With that beat and the plane sounds, it has a militant feel to it. Actually, if I’m being honest, the whole album sounds very German to me, but here especially.
I used to say that the instrumental side of “Heroes” didn’t match Low’s, but I’m beginning to change my tune. They’re very different beasts. Low integrated both sides really well, and it felt like one big piece, while “Heroes” doesn’t try to do that. It purposefully creates a huge divide between the two. Going to Sense of Doubt is like suddenly realizing you’re on the “wrong side of town” and the sun is going down. It’s terrifying with icy synths battling enormously spooky piano and surrounded all around with horrifying sound effects and whatever else Eno had in his toy box. I imagine that it must have been inspired by the history of Berlin and the foreboding presence of the wall and its guards. I read about how many were shot just trying to cross through the no man’s land between the two sides and Pitchfork mentioned how the latest hadn’t been long before Bowie and his band started recording there in that bombed out studio. Even Moss Garden, which it perfectly segues into, always has a lingering feeling that came from Sense of Doubt, despite being really lovely and calming with the Japanese instrument, nature sounds, and crystal synths. This is what I expect coming from Eno, and they really hit something magical in the ambient section here, how they flow from one song that’s so different to the next, and exist in these little crystal ball worlds. The same goes for Neuköln, heavy on texture and atmosphere, with all these strange skittering sound effects – that sound like spiders and other creatures scuttling around in the shadows – wrapping around a dark synth glacier that’s struck by a lightning blast of jagged sax. Sense of Doubt was scary, but Neuköln is almost menacing. The last minute is a wild ride of snorting saxophone that slowly peters out of life.
And that should have been the end of “Heroes”, in my opinion. How do you all feel of Secret Life of Arabia? Obviously it’s an amazing slice of groovy funk (credit that to Carlos Alomar!) and definitely underrated and overlooked, but it’s always felt like a bonus track the way that it breaks the dramatic tension. I love the handclaps, the tambourine, and Bowie’s low-to-high vocals that he molds into some cool sounds here. But maybe that was the point, Bowie was poking fun at people like me. Whatever the case, this song is a awesome and a testament to how Bowie could be at one moment ultra-serious and then suddenly fun.