Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Heroes" (1977)


1. Beauty and the Beast: A lurching synth grind, with a menacing double-tracked lead vocal (with a late-arriving bridge that pre-dates the Ashes to Ashes self-examining lyric), Bowie’s new vocal style here is strikingly expressive (especially when compared to Low). Eno’s synthetic ‘flute’ solo a highlight as are the tongue-in-cheek lyrics. The intro to this song is a dead-ringer of Roxy Music’s ‘The Thrill of it All’. Listen to that. 8.0

2. Joe the Lion: Masterpiece #24. A bar-room epic, lyrically random and effortlessly brilliant. Robert Fripp legendarily recording his guitar overdub without even hearing the track beforehand, Bowie’s yelping vocals were recorded on-mike too as he wrote the lyrics (like much of “Heroes”). “It’s Monday” is an album highlight itself. This is as exhilarating as music gets. 10.0

3. “Heroes”: Masterpiece #25. Undoubtedly the finest song in the Bowie cannon, this is essentially an experimental piece of art-rock which sounds like no other song. “Heroes” possesses a hypnotic shudder (created by Eno’s synth playing) and producer Tony Visconti’s filter sweeps generating a superb oscillating effect that slowly builds and becomes more and more powerful towards the end as the vocals soar (there is also no kick-drum whatsoever). A pure lyric of individual connection in adverse times (he wrote the lyrics during a break in recording looking out the windows of Hansa Studios at a strolling Visconti and backing singer Antonia Maass indulging in some covert smooching), complemented by some majestic reverb-drenched “Bowie histrionics”, recorded using several gated microphones rigged-up down the corridor, capturing a great deal of natural reverb and in turn, a wall of sound. The chord changes are multi-layered and anthemic, the Fripp guitar loop spot-on, and the epic 6-minute album version definitive. Accept no imitations. 10.0

4. Sons of the Silent Age: This track was written well before going into the studio, unlike everything else on this record. An operatic vocal performance and some strangled sax from Bowie, he sings of Sam Therapy and King Dice, whoever on earth they are. Unspeakable things happened to this perfectly fine song on the Glass Spider tour. Best not mentioned really. 7.5

5. Blackout: Masterpiece #26. The piece de resistance of the first side, written about Bowie’s own personal meltdown at the time (or more probable the NY blackout of ’77), Blackout veers spectacularly between a full on crescendo and a threatening tendency for low-key detachment (‘I’ll kiss you in the rain’). A fitting chaotic rush of freak-out synths and triple-tracked Frippatronic guitar treatments boil over in a wonderful spoken word climax: “While the streets block off, getting some skin exppposure to the blackout”. 10.0

6. V-2 Schneider: Obviously a tribute to Kraftwerk, the horn section was accidentally turned around to the offbeat in the recording process and they stuck with it. I’m not so sure. It’s when this track ends is when it starts to get interesting. 7.0

7. Sense of Doubt: This song represents fear - and it is genuinely scary. Based around a doom-y descending set of four piano notes, with a dramatic organ accompaniment, there's something creaking around in the background, that lovely windswept beginning and end add to the mystery and atmosphere of the piece. This is when Eno and Bowie were experimenting with the Oblique Strategies cards, a random aid to the creative process, which they used entirely for this track. 8.0

8. Moss Garden: Bowie’s koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) plays over Eno’s gorgeously tranquil atmospherics which ebb and flow as little dogs bark off in the distance. Earlier in the album Bowie had exclaimed he is under Japanese influence and the exquisite Moss Garden is evidence of that. 9.5

9. Neuköln: Named after a district in Berlin, Neuköln recalls the sombre reflection of Low on one hand, but on the other is Bowie enthusiastically throttling his saxophone over a dramatic Eastern-European soundscape, painting a vivid image of a bleak post-war Germany. By the last spiralling sax wail Neuköln is gloriously beyond accessible. 8.0

10. The Secret Life of Arabia: Unlike Low, “Heroes” finishes on a positive note with a hint of things to come in the Eastern sounds of Lodger, the melodic and jubilant The Secret Life of Arabia a somewhat inconsequential number, returning to the funk sounds of old, and just a little bit out of place after the torment of Neuköln which would’ve made for a gutsy closer. I do like this track though – the album’s footnote and Bowie coming out the other end still intact. 8.0


VERDICT: A perfect 10.0 seems like an understatement for “Heroes”. This album for me is the pinnacle of all Bowie recordings and while stylistically similar in structure to Low, “Heroes” has a fuller and more chaotic sound and is significantly more muscular and expressive, both musically and vocally. Recorded in an old Gestapo Ballroom which had been used to record symphonies during World War II, “Heroes” is Part 2 in the Berlin trilogy (and the only one written and recorded entirely in Berlin). Bowie was studying art and immersing himself in Euro-expressionist, synth-based music in 1977, which was a busy year for him. He released Low in January, produced Iggy Pop's The Idiot and Lust For Life, toured as Iggy's keyboard player, starred in a (albeit horrendous) film alongside Marlene Dietrich Just A Gigolo, and narrated Peter And The Wolf for his son in his spare time. He was in career-best form as a vocalist too (most of this was first take recording) and the subsequent tour confirms this theory, listen to 1978’s underrated live outing Stage (9.5). This is also when Bowie still had an air of menace about him - before he turned all smiley and tanned in the 80s. Like Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, the awesome album cover is based on the painting Roquairol by German artist Erich Heckel.

No comments:

Post a Comment