David Bowie - “Heroes” (1977)
After Low, Bowie wasted no time in heading back to the studio for the recording of “Heroes,” which was released later that same year. “Heroes” is very much a continuation of many of the themes on Low, in particular the experimental processes and the sonic representation of Bowie’s surroundings in West Berlin.
Though the album’s title track, “‘Heroes,’” is largely known today as a triumphant exaltation of the strength of the human spirit, having been featured in Glee and the 2012 London Olympics, its origins are slightly more cynical in nature. The song was never intended to be a feel-good crowd-pleaser, and its inspiration is relatively bleak in comparison to its widespread interpretation. Bowie had looked out the window of the recording studio to witness producer Tony Visconti meeting with his mistress directly under the shadow of the Berlin Wall. Thinking this a strikingly grim place to conduct a romance, Bowie wrote a song about two lovers who attempt to assert their triumph over oppressive forces. The quotation marks in the title reflect the irony in the term “heroes,” as the lovers’ struggle is partially self-made and they are already defeated before they have begun. There is even an element of the existential in Bowie’s shriek of “We’re nothing, and nothing will help us,” suggesting the only heroism is in the very fact of their futile action against the insurmountable, rather than in the ultimate outcome.
“‘Heroes’” is as close to perfect as a song can get. There is nothing that can be improved in terms of its completeness or execution. Though I have included the song’s promotional film for its stark beauty, it is only as long as the three-minute single edit, and I recommend listening to the full six minutes in order to truly appreciate how perfectly the song works as a whole composition. The song’s creation exemplifies one of the multiple experimental techniques Bowie explored during this period, in this case specifically at the suggestion of Tony Visconti. Bowie sang the song live into a system of three microphones set up at different intervals further and further away from where he stood. As his voice swelled in force and volume, the more distant microphones were switched on, giving his performance a very literal depth.
Bowie’s vocal delivery moves from a flat croak that would be at home on Low into a frantic cry of desperation. This gradually mounting frenzy in Bowie’s voice is contrasted with Robert Fripp’s circular, repetitive guitar riff. It is as if Bowie’s vocals are caught in an endlessly repeating cycle from which they cannot escape, no matter how hard he fights or how loudly he shrieks. The song ends in a fade out, that same riff continuing on indefinitely, and all of Bowie’s cries rendered ultimately futile. It is the same futility with which the song’s lovers assert their heroism, and the song is a flawless merging of musical form and artistic meaning.