In the studio
The core members of David Bowie’s live and studio band during the latter half of the 1970s – rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar, bass guitarist George Murray, and drummer Dennis Davis – were brought back for the “Heroes” sessions.
Also making a return was Brian Eno, whose synth and experimental ideas had proved so valuable during the recording of Low.
Only one song, ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’, had been written beforehand. The rest all evolved in the recording studio.
True to form, we all congregated in Berlin with nothing more than chord changes and rhythm ideas, not yet songs. Carlos, George and Dennis instinctively knew what to do from the start but played harder than the previous album. Low was like learning a new alphabet. “Heroes” was the subsequent pulp fiction novel! Like Low, it didn’t take very long to record the seven band tracks. They took less than a week. Carlos stayed behind to add more guitar but the parts were more supportive than fiery. We were expecting Robert Fripp to start the fire.
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book
Bowie and Tony Visconti co-produced the album. Their modus operandi was to treat the recordings as demos, which after a few enhancements and edits were suitable for release.
Sometimes I would take a great section and copy it and edit it into the song later on, cutting right across the 24-track tape. I wouldn’t say they were first takes, we worked hard and long on each track. We didn’t go into say 25 takes, but I’d say that most tracks were done in about five takes.
Uncut, April 2001
The speed of the sessions was in no small part due to the tightness of Bowie’s band. Brian Eno credited Carlos Alomar as particularly versatile in the studio.
David would say ‘Okay, it’s that, that, twice as long on that, and then that – and we do this a couple of times and then back to that again.’ And after that very brief instruction, we’d start playing – and, in that tiny space of time, Carlos would have worked out this lovely line. He’s quite remarkable. He gives those pieces a lot of character. The whole thing was evolved on the spot in the studio. Not only that, everything on the album is a first take! I mean, we did second takes but they weren’t nearly as good.
NME, 3 December 1977
The “Heroes” album broadly retained Low’s format of songs on side one and instrumentals on side two, although a departure was made with the inclusion of ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ as the closing song.
The side two instrumentals were recorded in weeks two and three of the sessions. These were more experimental pieces than on the first half, and utilised techniques including Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards.
In the background was the inaudible click track, each click had its own number. With ‘Moss Garden’, Brian excelled himself with textures that imitated nature, atmospheric elements of distant thunder, wind, water and bird call, all originating from his manipulation of the Synthi. David played his Chamberlin sampler, the successor to the Mellotron. He played alto saxophone with tortured angst on ‘Neuköln’. Earlier in the album he played with Art Pepper elegance on ‘Sons Of The Silent Age’. On ‘Sense Of Doubt’, effective sounds were made organically by dragging a guitar pick slowly along a guitar string with David doubling it by imitating that sound in the back of his throat.
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book
Bowie took all the songwriting credits on the album, with four exceptions: ‘Moss Garden’ and ‘Neuköln’ were credited to Bowie/Eno, as was the music for the song “Heroes”; and ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’ was credited to Bowie/Eno/Alomar.
He got into a very peculiar state when he was working. It used to strike me as very paradoxical that two comparatively well-known people would be staggering home at six in the morning, and he’d break a raw egg into his mouth and that was his food for the day, virtually. It was really slummy. We’d sit around the kitchen table at dawn feeling a bit tired and a bit fed up – me with a bowl of crummy German cereal and him with albumen from the egg running down his shirt.
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
His work complete, Eno left Hansa during the third week, and thereafter the studio personnel was mainly just David Bowie, Visconti, and Hansa’s in-house engineer Edu Meyer.
Another two weeks were spent on recording an ambient music Side B, of which ‘Moss Garden’ is my favourite. The last track of the ambient side broke from the pattern of Low by ending with a rock track with a vocal. After Brian left Berlin we added some percussion to some tracks; all this was typical of how David worked. His ideas were spontaneous and he liked them executed quickly to see how the notion played out. In David’s mind “Heroes” cried out for a cowbell, but it was too late to order a box of percussion from a rental company. We couldn’t find a cowbell anywhere in the studio but we found an empty tape platter (in those days it was a German recording preference to put a tightly wound reel of tape on an open platter with the top of the tape exposed). Because we had a limited number of tracks David and I overdubbed the percussion elements of ‘tape platter’ and tambourine standing side by side.
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy