Monday, 28 May 2018

David Bowie - "Heroes" (1977)

I'm under Japanese influence and my honour's at stake....


Released on 14 October 1977

Recorded at Hansa Studio By The Wall, Berlin

Running time 49:17

Remaining in Cold War oppressed Berlin after the recording of Low, David Bowie's "Heroes" was a ground-breaking, adventurous, genre-busting album. It was controversial upon its release due to its almost blatantly uncommercial, "anti-rock" ambience. Released at the height of punk, it influenced so many of the "post punk" bands that soon were everywhere. It influenced bands like Magazine and Joy Division, but also synthesiser-dominated groups like The Human League and, later, New Order. It was one of the most influential albums of its time, without question. It is not an instant album. Not at all. Even its vocal numbers have bleak, clunky, dense soundscapes that broke all existing moulds and the instrumental numbers are seriously dark. Although Bowie had set the trend with the previous year's Low, this was a far less accessible album even than that one, and that is saying something. It was marketed by RCA thus - "there's new wave, there's old wave, and there's David Bowie...". That hit the nail on the head. It was a special, genre-busting creation.

Some have said that this was a less sombre and melancholy album than Low had been. I have to disagree with that one, finding this by far the bleaker, denser album. As I said, this is not an instant album but it has a strange, growing appeal. I often return to it. An enjoyable thing to do is randomly shuffle the tracks with those from Talking Heads' Fear Of Music (also worked on by Brian Eno). You get quite an industrial soundscape.

The previous Teutonic musical influences are all still there - Neu! (who had produced a track called Hero in 1975), Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, although no German musicians are involved apart from backing singer Antonia Maass. King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp was flown in and laid down the guitar part for Beauty And The Beast while suffering from jet leg, apparently. The lyrics to Joe The Lion were improvisedly written in under an hour, according to producer Tony Visconti.


1. Beauty And The Beast
2. Joe The Lion
3. "Heroes"
4. Sons Of The Silent Age
5. Blackout
6. V-2 Schneider
7. Sense Of Doubt
8. Moss Garden
9. Neuköln
10. The Secret Life Of Arabia   

Beauty And The Beast kicks the album off positively with some thumping drums, fast-paced, deep keyboard riffs, high-pitched backing vocals and a menacing-sounding vocal from Bowie. It is far denser, deeper, more industrial in sound than the vocal material on Low. This track exemplifies that change. This a far more industrial in sound, providing that post punk inspiration.

Joe The Lion continues in the same impenetrable, foggy vein of its predecessor, although the fog lifts on the "it's Monday" vocal bit where the murk disappears just slightly, briefly. Quite what "Joe the lion, made of iron.." referred to is unclear, to me, anyway.  Who was he? What was it about? As I mentioned earlier, the lyrics were written quickly, on the hoof, so nobody really knew. They just made it up at the time.

"Heroes" - Well, what more is there to be said about this cold war love song? It has become one of Bowie's most famous song, its lyric used many times by many people in search of some uplifting "believe in yourself" inspiration. Everything about it is superb - that wonderful synthesiser leading riff, Bowie's soaring vocal and, of course, Robert Fripp's marvellous lead guitar bursts.

"You can be mean and I'll drink all the time", however is one of many of the song's lyrics that show that the song isn't just a simple "we can make it against all odds" anthem. There is a lot of underlying ambiguity, cynicism and paranoia lurking within its spray-painted concrete walls.

Sons Of The Silent Age has Bowie utilising that "mockney", mannered, hammy vocal for one of the first times since the late sixties. It is a haunting, quite depressing song in tune with much of the album. It is one of Bowie's most underrated reflective numbers. Musically, its bass line is sublime.

Blackout. This bleak but sonically frantic number is also very central to the album's feel. The "I'll kiss you in the rain.." vocal bit is very Beatles-influenced and there are hints of Talking Heads in there too (or rather Talking Heads were influenced by this). Dennis Davis's madcap drumming is a highlight. "Get me off the streets" shrieks Bowie in a sort of post Diamond Dogs fashion.

Now for the instrumentals. I have always had a weakness for the early Roxy Music saxophone meets Kraftwerk vibe of "V-2 Schneider". It is a marvellously upbeat piece of late seventies electronic instrumental music. It is the most fast paced of the instrumentals and has a real positive sound to it, despite its dense ambience.

Now for the real gloomy stuff. Sense Of Doubt is so deep and reverberating it makes the blinds at my window literally shake. Its synthesiser passages take you deep int the earth's core. A haunting wind sound links it to the tape loop noises of the introduction to Moss Garden. Some gentle but sharp Japanese strings cut through the thick air of the track's keyboards. It is vaguely more uplifting and ambient than its predecessor, although Neuköln gets right back to the almost troglodytic gloom. The Eastern-sounding saxophone bits are there because Neuköln was a deprived, run-down area of Berlin populated largely by Turkish immigrants. Despite its depressing sound, it is actually a most evocative piece.

This instrumental part of the album was as baffling to people at the time as the similar side of Low had been, but for most, the more you listened to it, the more oddly appealing it became. It set the foundations for so much subsequent ambient music. While Low came as something of a cultural shock, the first strains of post-punk were starting to make themselves heard and certainly this album didn't seem anything like as odd or unexpected as its predecessor had been.

The Secret Life Of Arabia. Unlike on Low, after the instrumentals we get one final vocal track - the comparatively jaunty strains of this percussive number lift our spirits again. Bowie's vocal is lively but very haughty and the song is backed by a nice bluesy harmonica lurking beneath the basic rhythm. There are also handclap and backing vocals to make this a most upbeat end to what had been a largely downbeat, introspective album.

There is only one recording from the sessions that didn't make it on to the album, possibly:-

Abdulmajid - Tony Visconti believes this Eastern-influenced instrumental was definitely worked on during the "Heroes" sessions, but the version that eventually surfaced had been re-mixed and added to during the nineties. He could tell, again, the with the Low material, from the type of instruments used. Who am I to disagree? Once more, it is an impressive track and would have suited the "Heroes" album.


Regarding the new, quite controversial remastering of the album, contrary to what many others have felt about these latest batch of 2017 Tony Visconti remasters, I absolutely love them and feel they are the best ever remasters of what were always, for me, and I stress, for me, frustratingly tinny albums. Each to their own I suppose. I love my music to be "big" and very bass heavy, so these remasters do the job for me, and some. Before this edition, I did not listen to "Heroes" so much. Now I listen to it a lot more. I watched a brief video clip where Tony Visconti talked through the creation of the title track and it introduced me to sounds contained within it that I really had not realised were there.

I find all the EMI/RYKOs somewhat lo-hi, muffled and just not my sonic cup of tea. I own them all for the bonus material. The 1999s are an improvement but these 2015-2017 ones give me the most satisfaction, but as I said, that is just me. They suit me but don't seem to suit many others.

Below is a clip of Bowie singing "Heroes" at Earl's Court in 1978. 


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