This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #63: “Heroes” by David Bowie.
If there is one thing I will take away from writing all of these posts for this countdown it is this: I always knew that David Bowie was a talented singer and that he was famous because of his music. But, I never realized the extent to which he supported other big name acts, in real life, behind the scenes. Nor, did I know the extent to which his career was so interwoven into so many famous events from History. As much as I anyone on this list, I have come to find David Bowie to be amazing and, certainly, the biggest surprise for me as a result of doing this countdown with all of you.
In the course of talking about the song, “Heroes”, I will be talking about a great many connections that Bowie and this song had to other singers, songs and events. Hopefully, I can recreate it all in a somewhat coherent order. Here goes.
David Bowie recorded “Heroes” in Germany during that time of his career known as “the Berlin years”. It was while he was there that he was living with Iggy Pop and helping him survive his drug addiction. *(You can read about how helped Iggy write “China Girl” during this time, here). He recorded the song at a studio called Hansa by the Wall. Ironically enough, Hansa by the Wall was where U2 went to record their album, “Aching Baby!” and where the song, “One” was born. *(Read about that, here).
“Heroes” was written during a time when Germany was still a country divided by a guarded wall; with East Germany practising Communism and West Germany adopting more Western ideals such as Capitalism. When Bowie was in Berlin, he was living in sight of the Berlin Wall. For many, the Wall was an unjust barrier to a fairer world where people would be freer to live as they saw fit. At the time, it was dangerous to loiter by the Wall. Guards with machine guns made it clear that The Wall was no tourist site, nor should anyone get any ideas about escaping from the East side to the West or, conversely, anyone from the West, helping friends and family in the East. It was in this environment that David Bowie was inspired to write “Heroes”. The specific inspiration came from a musical friend named Tony Visconti. At the time that Tony Visconti was working with Bowie, he was married to a famous English singer named Mary Hopkin. Hopkin was quite beloved in my own family home for singing nostalgic gems like, “Those Were the Days My Friend”. In any case, while Visconti was in Berlin, he started an affair with another woman and was seen by Bowie, kissing her at the base of the Berlin Wall. Visconti implored Bowie to keep his secret, as he was in the process of getting a divorce from Hopkin back in England. Bowie’s response was to keep his mouth closed…..sort of. He wrote the song “Heroes” and made Visconti work on it with him, giving him a formal credit on the song. The title of “Heroes” actually contains the quotation marks I am using, as if I was speaking aloud and saying the word sarcastically, using air quotes as I spoke. So, the song, “Heroes” is really a public admission of guilt as authored by the perpetrator, himself, Tony Visconti.
Of course, most who hear “Heroes” care not one whit about Tony Visconti. What matters to most listeners is that the song has become a rallying cry against aspects of life that are unfair and unjust. It is a call to rise up and be brave and affect change. One of the ways that this song manages to convey that message is because of the way it was recorded during production at Hansa by the Wall Studio. In the studio, Bowie was mic-ed using three microphones that were staggered at different lengths away from his mouth. There was the usual microphone directly in front of him and then, two others; one twenty feet away and another, fifty feet away. Only one microphone would be active at any one time. As the song begins, it is the microphone closest to Bowie that is on. But, as the song moves along, that microphone was muted, forcing Bowie to sing more loudly and with greater passion in order to be heard. By the end of the song, it is only the microphone furthest away that is active. That is the portion of the song where Bowie is most passionate and the song takes it greatest energy.
The final aspect of this song is the role that it ended up playing in world history. As the 1980s rolled along, it became apparent that Soviet Communism was undergoing a major change. The new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, singled a willingness to adopt some Western reforms and began loosening his country’s iron grip of neighbouring countries, allowing them to experience a form of political autonomy. As a symbolic gesture, US President Ronald Reagan, asked Gorbachev to take down the Berlin Wall so that Germany could be reunited. In the lead up to this happening, there were series of massive music concerts given; one by David Bowie in West Berlin, one by Bruce Springsteen in East Berlin and one by TV star, David Hasselhoff…..I kid you not. These concerts happened over the course of a couple of years but, they all helped provide fuel for the popular sentiment toward reunification. In fact, when David Bowie passed away, the country of Germany issued an official statement thanking Bowie for his direct role in helping to bring down the Berlin Wall. This guy! My word.
David Bowie, it seems, was everywhere, helping everyone, including the people of Germany to be reunited with their friends and family members. So, while I was someone who always admired David Bowie as a performer, it turns out that was only a small part of who this great man was. Singer. Producer. Actor. Activist. Husband. Friend. Fashionista. Forward-thinker. Creator. Bowie.
So, without further delay, here is one of his signature songs, “Heroes” by David Bowie and Tony Visconti. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “Heroes” by David Bowie, can be found here.
The link to the official website for David Bowie, can be found here.
Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the best and most important music of all-time. The link to their official website can be found here.