“Heroes”: The Triumph And Despair Behind David Bowie’s Anthemic Song

Playing together live, the sound from each musician’s instrument bled into other bandmates’ microphones – but where many artists would have sought greater perfection in the recording, Bowie and co realised this only added to the song’s grandeur. “There was leakage all over the microphones,” Visconti admitted in his liner notes for the box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982), “but it sounded great. Why fix it?”

“The constant mutations of the sounds was entirely complimentary, and we had the intro of ‘Heroes’”

Choice overdubs gave further texture to what was shaping up to become Bowie’s new-wave answer to Phil Spector’s 60s “Wall Of Sound” production style, with Bowie playing a planned horn line on a Chamberlin electric keyboard, and adding synth strings with his ARP Solina. Extra percussion came from tambourine and an empty metal tape cannister, yet it was a sonic pas de deux between Eno and lead guitarist Robert Fripp that provided a throughline for “Heroes”’s disparate elements.

On temporary leave from King Crimson, the prog-rock behemoths he had formed a decade earlier, Fripp was already acquainted with Eno’s unorthodox recording methods, having recorded the albums (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star with the former Roxy Music architect in 1973 and 1975, respectively. A “master of feedback”, as Visconti put it, Fripp recorded three guitar solos lasting the full six minutes of “Heroes”’s backing track, taking each one at a different distance from his speaker in order to create unique squalls of noise which Eno ran through his trusty EMS Synthi in real time. “It really was a two-man performance as Eno constantly mutated Fripp’s sound,” Visconti would recall in his memoir, Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy. “After they were finished we knew we had some great ideas on tape, but we realised a great deal of non-linear editing would be needed to make a composite guitar track.” As it happened, the finished song would feature all three of Fripp’s solos layered on top of one another, after a chance experiment in the overdubbing stage.

“I casually placed the three guitar takes together and it had a jaw-dropping effect on all of us,” Visconti recalled. “The constant mutations of the sounds was entirely complimentary and we had the intro of ‘Heroes’ without doing anything more.”

With the music for the “Heroes” album’s seven songs compete, Bowie, Visconti and engineer Peter Burgon remained in Hansa Tonstudio while Bowie penned his lyrics and recorded his vocals. For a while, however, it seemed as though “Heroes” itself may have remained an instrumental tune.

“David lived with it for quite a while before he identified where he would write the verses and where he would write the choruses,” Visconti observed, later telling Bowie biographer Paul Trynka, “He would scribble down a few notes on the top of the piano, then say, ‘OK, drop me in after “Dolphins can swim”,’ and that way he wrote and sang ‘Heroes’ simultaneously.”

Working in the heat of the moment, a request for some alone time ended up giving Bowie the inspiration he needed to pen one of the song’s most memorable verses.

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