Named partially in tribute to a Neu! song from 1975, “Heroes” follows the same format as its predecessor, and while Low often commands the lion’s share of attention and celebration, I’ve always found “Heroes” to be the stronger of the two records, by a slight but important margin. For starters, the “pop” songs on side A are much more fleshed out, raging for appropriate lengths in comparison to Low‘s looser studio snippets and curious fade-outs. Bowie seems much more focused here, swinging for the fences with “Beauty and the Beast,” a mechanical roar of intent, both soulful and alien as ever. Whereas Low has flourishes of pastoral warmth, “Heroes” is cold, bleak, and unforgiving, sharing a similar space as The Idiot, Iggy Pop’s masterpiece released earlier in the year. Songs like “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” are dense pre-industrial funk workouts, featuring some of Bowie’s most unhinged and unsettling vocals and pummeling instrumentation. “Sons of the Silent Age,” the only piece written before the initial album sessions, pits two very conflicting pieces of music against each other. The track is a slight throwback to earlier folk epics such as “Cygnet Committee,” and “The Bewlay Brothers,” and is held together by a disjointed, sometimes spoken-word vocal and swinging melodies. The true brilliance of all of these tracks, including the controversial closer “The Secret Life of Arabia” (this writer’s favorite Bowie song, depending on which day you ask), lies in the musicianship. Dennis, Murray, and Alomar keep the songs etched in groove, which prevents “Heroes” from completely drowning underneath it’s bleak exterior.
Of course, I would be remiss in neglecting to gush about the title track, which is debatably Bowie’s strongest single both on an emotional and technical level. Every note of the six-minute epic is perfect, often imitated but never duplicated in a string of covers and live performances. Partially inspired by “A Grave for a Dolphin” by Alberto Denti Di Pirajno and an Otto Mueller painting depicting two lovers between garden walls, the story goes that the central lyric was written after spying a couple embracing beside the Berlin Wall, just outside of Hansa Studios. Penned quickly, the lyrics romanticize the lovers’ plight, stealing away from opposite ends of Berlin for a secret tryst. While it’s since been revealed that the couple was indeed Visconti and backing vocalist Antonia Maass, this is still a powerful image which encapsulates the Cold War’s effect on central Berlin. Meanwhile, the production itself is a masterpiece of songcraft. Bowie’s voice drips with longing, a brilliant production technique that saw Visconti placing gated microphones at various distances for dramatic effect, triggering when Bowie’s voice reached a certain volume. As Bowie screams to trigger the furthest mic, the emotional weight really hits home. Even more notably, Robert Fripp’s guitars shine and soar, but it’s not often noted that the instantly recognizable feedback-laced guitar motif you hear throughout the song’s entirety is actually three last-minute improvisations run through Eno’s EMS synthesizer and masterfully woven together by Visconti. Fripp, considering himself retired from music after King Crimson’s original demise three years prior, flew to Germany from New York and without having heard the material before, plugged in and laid down many of his contributions while immensely jetlagged. “Heroes” is such an effective piece that even a German-sung rendition (as well as a blend of both German and English lyrics) can still convey the emotional weight and brilliance of the track.
As with Low, the second side of “Heroes” is dominated by mostly-instrumental ambient soundscapes, crafted with collaborator Brian Eno. As previously mentioned, Low‘s flip-side invokes Polish folk songs and otherwise warm emotional tangles influenced by Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Popol Vuh. “Heroes” offers a similar palette, but takes these moments in darker directions. “V2-Schneider” (a nod to Kraftwerk in both style and reference to member Florian Schneider) kicks things off as a bridge between both sides, quickly descending into the stark, piano-driven “Sense of Doubt,” a expressionist piece of conflicting motifs driven by Eno’s Oblique Strategies deck. “Sense of Doubt” is one of the most memorable moments on side B and was featured as a centerpiece of Bowie’s Isolar II tour in 1978. “Moss Garden” is quick to follow, and offers perhaps the only bit of warmth to be heard on this record outside of the title track itself. The track’s central Asian influences and use of the traditional Japansese koto points directly toward Bowie’s interest in travel, a central theme to his work on 1979’s Lodger as well as a sister-piece to “Crystal Japan,” a single recorded in 1979 and released in 1980 as part of an ad campaign. The instrumental suite closes with “Neuköln,” named after a district in Berlin. The track is perhaps the crowning moment of the side, with its foreboding atmosphere and menacing guitar, descending into madness with a series of saxophone squawks. To some folks, this is where the album should end, a hopeless din of chaos lost in the fog. Some days, I might agree with this, but I find that the otherwise distant and plastic disco falsetto funk of “The Secret Life of Arabia” to be a perfect counterpoint to close the record. While it does shatter the illusion and atmosphere that “Neuköln” leaves behind, even the nonsensical lyric and otherwise groove-based beat (eat your heart out, “Fashion”) does little to lift the record; it is just another tremendous song to add to the mix.
While originally released to mixed reviews and a similarly chilly reception from his still devoted glam-rock followers, “Heroes” was considered to be a tremendous influence to many musicians both new and old. John Lennon reportedly aimed to replicate the record’s brilliance with his own Double Fantasy, released in 1980. Meanwhile, the legions of new wave and post-punk devotees who followed Bowie down this path found lots to love (and lots of inspiration) over the course of the record’s 10 tracks. Without “Heroes” there may not have been an Unknown Pleasures or a Seventeen Seconds. Just a few years later, artists like The Associates, Modern English, Wire, Magazine, John Foxx, Fad Gadget, and The Human League would soon find a home crafting pop songs with similar icy textures, a true testament to both the appeal and influence of the record.
Happy birthday, “Heroes”, we salute you!