The crowning moment of the Berlin stage

By Sergio Ariza

They don’t call David Bowie the chameleon for nothing, the author of Changes spent his entire career trying to open new roads, never wanting to get stuck in one spot. There possibly has never been another artist who knew how to assimilate so many different influences as he has, always reaching a result that was absolutely original and personal. He has also been able to take advantage of his collaborators, making many of them give their very best next to him. In 1977 Bowie had been through various stages, from a young mod, to a cabaret singer, from hippie singer/songwriter to 'glam', alien, from a soul singer, to a skinny cocaine head, the previous year he had gone to Berlin along with Brian Eno and delivered one of the most revolutionary records in history, Low. And with those new sounds, greatly influenced by ex Roxy Music leader and the German Krautrock, it was their turn to find a new definitive song by which this stage would be remembered.  

Heroes is the most German of the `Berlin trilogy’, Bowie shows the world his love for `krautrock’ bands, even naming one of his songs V-2 Schneider as a tribute to a member of Kraftwerk, Florian Schneider. As in Low, the record comes in two parts, the first more focussed on conventional songs (within Bowie’s standards) whereas  the second deals more with strange instrumental passages, although it ends with The Secret Life of Arabia, a song closer to those on the first side and which was co-written by Bowie and guitarist Carlos Alomar. However, despite his excellent work, he isn’t the most outstanding guitarist on the album, that spot is covered by Robert Fripp, the guy Eno called to come to the legendary Hansa studio in Berlin. The leader of King Crimson, who had been 3 years in retirement (with small appearances with others, mainly Eno) did not hesitate in accepting the invitation.  

On the first take he gives his signature guitar sound to the opening song, the threatening The Beauty and the Beast, and on the brilliant Joe the Lion, but the best was yet to come. On what is perhaps his most famous recording, the title song, Fripp manages to find a unique, masterful sound, jumping ahead 10 years to the experiments of My Bloody Valentine with `feedback’. After hearing the song once, he plugged his Les Paul into his Hiwatt with a fuzz pedal and was moving around the room raising the volume to get that sustained note with ‘feedback’. After 3 takes Tony Visconti, the producer, saw that he’d done it to perfection but decided to use the first 2 takes and put them all together at once. As always, Bowie knew how to get the best out many people to get the best from himself, and on this song he got the best number of the Berlin trilogy, (and along with Life on Mars? of his entire career). A hymn where Bowie tells us we can be heroes, just for one day. An enormous song that shows that in spite of everything, humanity will leave a legacy behind itself. If Robert Fripp’s guitar is wonderful, what really makes the song work is Bowie’s own voice, channeled through three different microphones.  

Evidently Heroes is much more than its incredible title song, as shown in the fact that Bowie himself decided to pay homage to the album cover in his triumphant return in 2013, The Next Day, but it’s normal that such an enormous song sticks out above the rest. With Heroes Bowie reaches the top of his new stage, and starts to ponder the next one, although there still remains one more record in Berlin, Bowie already began to shed skin for a new reinvention.