Bowie and the song that changed the world


THERE are some ‘stars’ out there, and the preposterous behatted gnome from U2 comes to mind, who would like to think they can alter the course of history. David Bowie actually did.

With the title song of his album Heroes, he could justifiably claim to have contributed to the demolition of the Berlin Wall and subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union. It’s a great listen, too.

A previous column left Bowie basking in the critical and commercial success of his eleventh studio album Low, much of which was recorded in West Berlin. He returned to the Hansa studio in 1977 with producers Tony Visconti and Brian Eno, plus Robert Fripp, brought in to add his inimitable guitar to the mix.

Fripp, who had already collaborated with Eno several times, was living in New York following the first break-up of King Crimson when he received a call from his chum, who said he was recording in Germany and passed the phone over to Bowie.

According to Fripp, ‘David said, “Would you be interested in playing some hairy rock ‘n’ roll guitar?” I said, “Well, I haven’t really played for three years – but if you’re prepared to take a risk, so will I”.’ 

Within hours Fripp was flying Lufthansa first-class to Berlin, where he went straight to the studio and, despite being jetlagged, recorded a guitar section for what would become the album’s opening track Beauty and the Beast.

Hansa’s location, only yards from the Berlin Wall, was a dominant factor in Heroes. Visconti declared that it was one of his ‘last great adventures’ and added that Red Guards on the checkpoints ‘would look into our control-room window with powerful binoculars’.

Heroes begins with the aforementioned Beauty and the Beast, complete with Fripp’s first take fresh off the plane. The lyrics are seen by some as a reference to Bowie’s schizophrenia during the preceding years of cocaine addiction. They could also reflect the two sides of Berlin divided by the Wall.

Joe the Lion is a nod to a performance artist named Chris Burden, who was nailed to a Volkswagen in 1974 – ‘Nail me to my car and I’ll show you who you are’.

The title track is in my opinion Bowie’s finest achievement. Described by one critic as ‘perhaps pop’s definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity’, it tells the story of lovers from either side of the Wall, inspired by the deaths of two East Germans trying to flee their country that year and by Bowie looking out of the studio window and seeing Visconti in an embrace with backing singer Antonia Maass.

I, I can remember
Standing, by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall.

The guitar sound on Heroes was apparently produced by Fripp allowing his guitar to feed back and repeatedly changing his position in the studio to alter the pitch. He must have been proud of it because King Crimson continue to play the song to this day. Here’s a historic performance in Berlin’s Admiralspalast almost 40 years after the Hansa sessions. 

Sons of the Silent Age is the only track which had been composed before recording began, with everything else improvised in the studio.

Blackout, according to Bowie, is about power cuts although the NME’s Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray speculated that it might refer to a breakdown the star suffered while in Berlin.

That completes side one, so while Mrs Ashworth turns over the LP on our steam-powered radiogram-cum-cocktail-cabinet here’s a story you might not have heard. U2 were on stage when little Bonio stared at the multitudes before him and began to raise and lower his arm at five-second intervals. ‘Every time I do this,’ he intoned, ‘a child dies in Africa.’ To which a wag in the crowd shouted: ‘Well don’t f***in’ do it then!’ Tee hee.

Side two kicks off with the excellent V2 Schneider, whose title is a tribute to Florian Schneider, leader of the German band Kraftwerk, a major influence on Bowie in the late 70s. This was released as the B-side to the Heroes single, which disappointingly reached only No 24 in the UK charts. Joe the Lion did even worse.

Although the album is more accessible and impassioned than its predecessor, it does have its quirky side thanks to the presence of Eno and his famous ‘oblique strategies’. These are based on a deck of cards each containing an instruction such as ‘play the next bit backwards’ or ‘work at a different speed’. When a song reached a creative impasse, out came the cards and the top one was obeyed. This approach explains how Eno transformed the work of bands such as Genesis and Talking Heads by encouraging them to embrace the unorthodox.

The dark instrumental Sense of Doubt is a prime example of the approach, with Bowie having drawn a card telling him to ‘emphasise differences’ and Eno’s card advising: ‘Make everything as similar as possible’. Daft, eh? This segues into Moss Garden and Neukoln, two more wordless pieces heavy on the Enossifications. Finally, Bowie hams it up on The Secret Life of Arabia, co-written with Eno and Carlos Alomar, the guitarist who first played on his 1974 album Young Americans and stayed with him right into the 21st century.

Ten years after Heroes was released, Bowie sobbed as he performed the song in front of the Reichstag in West Berlin with thousands of fans singing along on the other side of the Wall in defiance of the guards above them on their gun towers. East German police later launched a violent crackdown on the crowds, leading to a backlash against the state. This, along with President Reagan visiting a week later and calling on President Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall’,  is seen by many as a key factor in the barrier’s collapse and the reunification of Germany.

When Bowie died of liver cancer four years ago, aged 69, the German Foreign Office bade farewell, thanked him for ‘helping to bring down the Wall’ and added: ‘You are now among Heroes.’ 


One Reply to “Bowie and the song that changed the world”

  1. I’m a big fan of “Heroes” and I’d not heard the King Crimson version before. Superb!

    Re. Bono; he’s given us some laughs over the years the pompous ass. Has he ever duetted with Sinead O’Connor? That would be a self-righteous pair; imagine the good they could do for the world* pooling their greatness together.

    *The world of comedy, that is.

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