Get In Touch,
Publishing Inquiries

33 at 45: David Bowie’s “Heroes”

“Whether or not you can actually see the Berlin Wall from the Hansa window is a controversial subject, actually. If you lean out of the window far enough it is possible, but did David Bowie really crane his neck round to see Tony Visconti kissing his girlfriend? We’ll never know.” Neil Tennant, 2020

Ever the restless artist, David Jones a.k.a Bowie discovered himself in Berlin. Desperate to escape the cocaine and claustrophobia of Los Angeles, he’d gone to Germany at the tail end of 1976 and found he could do normal things like go shopping and extinguish his cigarettes out on fans’ ears for a drunken jolly. It all just added to the mystique he craved for himself.

The recordings he produced in what was then West Berlin with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti are probably the most innovative of his career. Without question, Bowie left his mark on the city like no other artist. His presence helped put the now reunified German capital on the musical map and made it a hip and fashionable place where every artist worth his salt had to execute a stint. That is his legacy to the city and one that continues 45 years after “Heroes”. This is its story.

Long regarded as one of the western world’s finest entertainment centres, like London, Nashville and New York, Berlin is a vibrant, eclectic city with music at its beating heart.

The sounds that gets the blood flowing in Germany’s historic and cultural capital are generally dark, experimental, and very hedonistic. With its fingers and fists on the pulse, Berlin is awash with underground electro clubs, techno and house gatherings, cool jazz cafes and more anything goes party nights than you’d care to imagine. The notorious Berghain? You may want to take your wetsuit.

In terms of actual recordings, everyone has a favourite Berlin song. It could well be U2’s Zoo Station, or Rufus Wainwright’s Tiergarten featuring Neil Tennant, or Wedding In Berlin by the Pet Shop Boys themselves, who own a studio in the city. 

But for scores of rock and pop lovers, particularly from outside its leafy environs, the most resonant is “Heroes” by David Bowie. Befitting a soaring anthem with such a rich history and a prominent place in popular culture, it’s also the track that gets the most airplay on documentaries about the Berlin Wall, deservedly so. 

Bowie had been enamoured of Berlin since he was introduced to German expressionist art and Fritz Lang’s pioneering science-fiction film Metropolis while studying at Bromley Technical High School in south-east London. The singer very quickly developed what he called “an obsession for the angst-ridden, emotional work of expressionists, both artists and film-makers, and their spiritual home: Berlin”.

On the edge of physical and mental collapse, when the thin white Dame and his personal assistant Coco Schwab moved from Los Angeles via Paris to Berlin in late 1976, it was undoubtedly Europe’s most surreal location; a former (and future) capital city of a divided country, partitioned and populated on one side of a big wall by secret police, Communists and imprisoned locals, and on the other side by junkies, misfits and artsy types. 

There was danger in the air but also a sense of intrigue. 

When Bowie first moved to Germany, he stayed with Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream in an apartment in Berlin’s Bavarian Quarter. An undoubted influence on Station To Station, the Thin White Duke was particularly impressed by Froese’s 1975 album Ypsilon In Malaysian Pale and the randomness of its compositions, a mode that he was determined to utilise more in his own music.

So Bowie subconsciously followed Edgar to Berlin. Though there was another important factor in the decision, as producer Tony Visconti recalls.

“Because Berlin was cheap, it suited his financial situation at the time, as he was almost bankrupt. He was divorcing his wife, separating from lawyers and management – and it cost him a fortune, but the financial costs gave him artistic freedom. So the first album he worked on in Berlin was Low, the title reflecting his personal mood at the time; then, once his legal situation was sorted, he began work on “Heroes”.”

At first, Bowie fell back on old habits, cruising around the divided city with fellow miscreant Iggy Pop, drinking KöPi at Joe’s Beer House, stumbling into gutters and transvestite bars, clubbing at the Dschungel and the Unlimited.

Much later, the Ig recalled his time there.

“In Berlin you had a city that was built to hold millions of people, and in the western half there were very few people – around half a million – and most of those were draft-dodging, grumpy German students, resistant to any western influences. And then you had the very personable pre-war leftovers: bankers, cab drivers, restaurateurs, innkeepers. And, most importantly, there was very cheap space. There was no economy. The whole premise was being propped up artificially by political pressures of the time, and that’s what made it interesting. And Bowie’s wise investment was that he’d gotten to a point that he could afford to go there.”

One night, Iggy sat in the passenger seat as a bipolar Bowie rammed their drug dealer’s car again and again, for five crazed minutes. As alluded to in Low‘s evocative Always Crashing In The Same Car, he then drove around their hotel’s underground car park, pushing 70mph, screaming above the screech of the tyres that he wanted to end it all by driving into a concrete wall. Until his car ran out of fuel and the two comrades collapsed in hysterics. 

A little later Bowie rented a spartan but spacious seven-room first floor apartment in an art nouveau building above an auto-repair shop in Schöneberg’s Hauptstraße, literally, the ‘Main Street’. Though he wasn’t quite alone. The devoted Coco, who had found the property, had her own room and the sticky pair co-opted Iggy into taking a smaller pad at the rear of the building.

They would often visit the Brücke Museum, to gaze at the works of Kirchner, Kollwitz and Heckel. The expressionists’ rough, bold strokes and melancholic mood captured a sense of the ephemeral, as well as Bowie’s imagination. Away from the limelight, he composed, painted and, for the first time in years, “felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing”, as he put it.

Manchester musician Mark Reeder moved to Berlin in 1978, just after David gave up the place, if not the keys. Gaining access to 155 Hauptstraße, it was, he says, “Just the way he had left it. I was quite surprised by that, too, as it wasn’t the trendy, artistic dwelling I had expected from a creative of his stature. It looked very normal, very working-class Berlin, with ‘70s patterned wallpaper and a cheap carpet.” 

Hauptstraße is where much of the “Heroes” and Iggy’s Lust For Life albums were sketched out, with the city’s culture and characters making their way into several songs (though the doomy Sons Of The Silent Age largely dates from his LA period a couple of years earlier, even referencing one of the Thin White one’s Hollywood highs — a drug supplier model and romantic dalliance by the name of Sam ‘Therapy’ Rey).

“Heroes” would be recorded at the now legendary Hansa By The Wall studios, and such was its impact that everyone from David Sylvian to Depeche Mode, Pixies to Pet Shop Boys and the Manic Street Preachers have recorded there, hoping to soak up Bowie’s sonic waters.

As the name would suggest, Hansa was famously situated close to the Berlin Wall— just 150 metres from it, in fact — which gave the recordings a ubiquitous feeling of tension, as they were under constant surveillance from the guards “on the other side”. It was this climate that spawned the famous lyrics of the title track of “Heroes”.

Bowie pointed out that the quotation marks wrapped around the title are there to denote a sense of irony about the whole concept of heroism, telling the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray that “I thought I’d pick on the only narrative song to use as the title. It was arbitrary, really, because there’s no concept to the album.”

“I was very lucky to be there at that time, mainly because it was undergoing artistically its greatest renaissance since the Weimar days of the 1920s, when it was definitely the cultural gateway to Europe. When I was there the whole new German expressionist period had started, and all of the German electronic bands were starting to come down to Berlin to work.” 

“I liked the idea of the Berlin Wall because, at that time, I felt that it was always necessary to be in a place where there was tension,” Bowie said later. “And you couldn’t find a place with more tension than… West Berlin [with its] factional elements, both musically and artistically. There was also a very strong socialist left-wing element there which gave it this kind of anarchistic vibe. I can see why, throughout the 20th century, it was the city [that] writers continually returned to, because both the negative and positive aspects of whatever’s going to happen in Europe always emanate at some point, right back to the 1920s, from Berlin.”

“Heroes” became a soundtrack for the collapse of the Wall, describing a tale of a pair of young lovers about to flee dictatorship stealing a kiss. The Spree River is on the other side, and the border guards shoot at them. Originally, Bowie stated that the lyrics were inspired by a couple he used to watch from the control room window at Hansa.

“The situation that sparked off the whole thing was – I thought – highly ironic. There’s a wall by the studio – the album having been recorded at Hansa By The Wall in West Berlin – about there. It’s about twenty or thirty metres away from the studio and the control room looks out onto it. There’s a turret on top of the wall where the guards sit and during the course of lunch break every day, a boy and girl would meet out there and carry on. They were obviously having an affair.” 

“And I thought of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the Wall? And I, using license, presumed that they were feeling somewhat guilty about this affair and so they had imposed this restriction on themselves, thereby giving themselves an excuse for their heroic act. I used this as a basis… therefore it is ironic.”

However, the reality was rather more mundane: Bowie and Schwab had caught sight of Visconti and Antonia Maaß, the project’s producer and backing singer respectively, enjoying an outdoor “flingette” during a break in recording. In an interview with Performing Songwriter in 2003, Bowie revealed the truth about its inspiration:

“I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Wall that prompted the idea for “Heroes”. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was [laughs]. But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met while we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly his marriage was in the last few months. And it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”

For the last four decades, music critics of all stripes and types have completely bought, sold and swallowed the myth of a ‘Berlin Trilogy,’ the series of late ’70s albums that boasts Low, “Heroes,” and Lodger. Probably because that’s the way Bowie wanted it. Both Low and “Heroes” were heavy on experimental and instrumental numbers made with new collaborator Eno and old producer Visconti. Assuming that the trio form a coherent artistic statement (they don’t), the obvious link is that the celebrated “triptych” synthesized Bowie’s personal sense of alienation arising from his nightmare cocaine addiction in Los Angeles with the real-world detachment of a concrete divided Berlin. 

“Heroes” is deep, dark and complex, is undoubtedly the central album in the trilogy (and the only one wholly recorded in Germany), and, it has to be said, a fairly challenging, histrionic listen in places. Though noisier than its predecessor, it follows the Low template of more traditional ‘tunes’ on its first side, and ambient instrumentals on the second — with the exception of the Secret Life Of Arabia, a desolate “desert song” that closes the album on a wave of sandstorm austerity.

Team Bowie’s working method was to build layered tracks that would later inspire lyric and melody, like making the frame before the picture. And using Eno’s ‘oblique strategies’ cards (aphorisms that encouraged lateral thinking and thus, like Bowie’s cut-up techniques, help overcome creative blocks), they would often give themselves artistic dilemmas within that frame. 

Bowie threw his restricted chord progression out to the band, and they ran with it, building a six-minute groove into a triumphant crescendo. The underlying riff of “Heroes” came from rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, with the hypnotic pulse provided by bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis. “With such great musicians the notes we were never in doubt,” the singer later said. “We looked at ‘feel’ as being the priority.” As Carlos Alomar told David Buckley in the excellent Strange Fascination, “The air was thick with a darker vibe. We’re painting a picture based on our emotional disposition and you’re thinking: Germans, Nazis, the Wall, oppression. We asked them to open the curtains, and when they did that we saw where the gunner is, and that was rather a rude awakening. It gave us a heavier resolve about the intensity of what we were doing.” 

From the start, egghead Eno described the music as “grand and heroic”, and said he had “that very word, ‘heroes’, in mind.” After the basic track was done, he overdubbed shuddering atmospherics by twiddling knobs on his EMS Synth, a mini synthesizer built into a briefcase. Wrapped in abrasive Krautrockian textures, the final touch was added by lead guitarist Robert Fripp. What the coruscating King Crimson mainman later called “hairy rock ’n’ roll” was more a soaring series of aria-like feedback loops. Fripp marked with adhesive tape the spots on the studio floor where he could lock into certain singing tones.

For a guitarist known for playing while seated, it’s interesting that one of his most enduring performances came from stepping and swaying. In light of recent legal claims, I’m tempted to call him a featured artist but have no horse to back right now. 

“Heroes” emphasised the symbolic importance of Berlin and the influence of its unique zeitgeist on Bowie’s music during this artistically rewarding period. West Berlin, the symbol of democratic-capitalist freedom, and East Berlin, the symbol of ideological, state-sponsored tyranny, formed a perfect milieu of opposing forces: good vs. evil, freedom of thought vs. communist dogma, the openly erotic vs. drab sexlessness.

Since one of the positive outcomes of conflict is its ability to clarify individual identity and priorities, Berlin would have seemed like a good destination for a man who felt he had lost his direction in the pharmaceutical-fed swirl of La-La Land and in the assumed identity of demonic The Thin White Duke.

Given The Dame’s overt theatricality and gender-bending tendencies (he was dating a Dutch transexual, Romy Haag, at the time), it certainly didn’t hurt that Berlin was also a universal symbol of decadence, a notion that had been reinforced in the minds of common folk with the release of the film musical Cabaret in 1972, based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel published at the outbreak of World War Two, Goodbye To Berlin. But it’s what Bowie said next about performing the song in 1987, when the Glass Spider tour stopped off in West Berlin, that really touches on what rock ‘n’ roll meant to people around the world before the Wall fell:

“I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realise in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side.” God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. “When we did “Heroes” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more.”

Just when people thought that the Berlin years were far behind him, on his 66th birthday in January 2013, Bowie released a brand new single without any warning. Where Are We Now is laced with poignant references to the city as he considers the ways it has changed since his seventies sojourn, as a symbolic platform for reflecting on the passage of time. Platz des 9. November 1989 – the place where the wall first fell back in 1989 – included:

“Twenty thousand people/Cross Bösebrücke/Fingers are crossed/Just in case/Walking the dead”

Bowie’s years in Berlin are still deeply felt in the city, as each influenced the other in tremendous ways. And, not at all surprisingly, “Heroes” has inspired countless cover versions, becoming his most performed song after Rebel Rebel, with a recently released Highline Session Version by Depeche Mode joining the likes of Prince, Oasis, Blondie, Motörhead, Nico, P.J. Proby, LCD Soundsystem, Peter Gabriel, Billy Preston, Arcade Fire, Janelle Monae, Philip Glass, Kasabian, Magnetic Fields, TV On The Radio, The Wallflowers, the (shudder) X Factor 2010 Finalists and many more. 

Even King Crimson have had a go. Imagine being privy to the royalty squabbles over that, even if just for one day.

Steve Pafford

We crumble and fall: Revisiting the Berlin Wall, Bowie & “Heroes” is here

Liked it? Take a second to support Steve Pafford on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

We use cookies to give you the best experience. Cookie Policy