Fripp, filters, and feedback

The initial sessions for the backing tracks took place without a lead guitarist. Robert Fripp, who had collaborated with Eno on their albums (No Pussyfooting) and Evening Star, was brought in two weeks into the recordings.

Fripp and Eno dazzled us as collaborators. All the lead guitar was played by Fripp plugged into a few FX pedals for sustain and distortion. The final pedal was plugged into Brian’s EMS briefcase Synthi. It was the ultimate pedal. You couldn’t buy one of these and expect instant gratification on the first day you unboxed it. A thorough technical knowledge of the components of sound is required. Like the four primary flavours in cooking there are four primary types of sound waves: square, rectangular, triangular and saw tooth. A musical sound needs a start, a middle and an end, attack, sustain and decay. For expression there are modulations that can be manipulated such as vibrato, tremolo and other variables. Every sound needed to be built from scratch and Brian Eno had already invested years in this instrument making it bend to his will.

Robert played the notes and Brian constantly manipulated them with filters, knobs and a joy stick. Robert controlled his guitar feedback by stepping on a tape with predetermined distances (worked out long before) between him and the speaker. For instance, if he wanted to feedback a G# he’d step on the G# marked on the tape. For a song like “Heroes”, with the guitar in constant feedback mode, it was quite a back and forth dance for him and lots of twiddles from Eno. David and I stood safely out of the way. It was was impressive!

Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book
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Fripp, an Englishman living in New York, was called in July by Eno. He agreed to join the sessions, and shortly afterwards received first class Lufthansa tickets to Frankfurt and Berlin.

I landed in Frankfurt and had to make the connecting flight, carrying my Cornish pedalboard, with fuzz, wah-wah, and volume pedals. At the time, 1977 in Germany, the Baader Meinhof Group were in active go mode and I remember the German security guard looking at my pedalboard, wondering what on earth I was trying to smuggle on board. So anyway I made the connection to Berlin, caught a taxi to my hotel, which I believe was the former SS headquarters, dumped my stuff, got myself together, and then went to Hansa Studios by the Wall for about quarter to six in the evening, jet-lagged, pretty sleepless, and said to David and Brian, ‘Well, would you like to play me some of the things you’ve been doing?’ Eno said, ‘Why don’t you plug in?’ So I plugged into Eno’s magic suitcase, his VCS3 synthy. They hit the Roll, Play button [makes drumming noises] and then on bar three [makes guitar noises] and sky saw guitars and then straight into ‘Beauty And The Beast’. What you hear on the record, the first track of “Heroes”, is the first note I played on the session.
Robert Fripp
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones

Fripp’s most celebrated contribution to “Heroes” was on the album’s title track. It involved three separate guitar overdubs, which were fed through Eno’s EMS briefcase Synthi. The parts were then brought up and down in the mix by Tony Visconti.

He plugged his guitar into several guitar effects pedals and gave Brian his output from the last effect. After that Brian ‘treated’ the guitar through envelope filters which constantly mutated the sound. Three tracks were recorded in this way for “Heroes” because it was so difficult to perform simultaneously with the effects. It was really a two-man performance as Eno constantly mutated Fripp’s sound. After they were finished we knew we had some great ideas on tape, but we realized a great deal of non-linear editing would be needed to make a composite guitar track. This was a challenge in the days before computer-based recording; the concept of cut-and-paste didn’t exist.

The whole process involved a huge amount of trial and error; we often had to start the two machines at exactly the right moment and freely ‘fly’ a part from one tape machine to another. When it came to adding in Robert’s guitar, I casually played the three guitar takes together and it had a jaw-dropping effect on all of us. The constant mutation of the three sounds was entirely complimentary and we had the intro of “Heroes” without doing anything more. It’s now instantly recognizable as sound in our collective psyche. Fripp overdubbed all his guitar parts in less than two days. What seems like a synth on most of the rock tracks of the album are actually Fripp’s guitar being treated through the ‘magic’ briefcase. Fripp also punctuated his glorious playing with very dry West Country humour, which kept us in stitches. ‘P’raps, Oi’ll wave the “sword of union” with some Berlin lass tonight?’ he’d mumble through a crack in the doorway several times during that weekend.

Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Brian Eno was astounded by the speed at which Fripp worked, and how quickly the backing tracks came together.

We had all these backing tracks very suddenly – it seemed in about two days. And remember: this came after labouring for months and months on my record. And I thought, Shit, it can’t be this easy. But gradually it began to hang together. Fripp did everything he did in about six hours – and that was straight off the plane from New York too! He arrived at the studio at about 11 p.m. and walked in and we said, ‘Do you fancy doing anything?’ and he said, ‘Might as well hear what you’ve been doing.’ And while we were setting up the tapes, he got out his guitar and said, ‘Might as well try a few things.’ So I plugged him into the synthesiser for treatments and we just played virtually everything we’d done at him – and he’d just start up without even knowing the chord sequences. It was a very extraordinary performance. By the next day, he’d finished, packed up, and gone home.
Brian Eno
David Bowie: A Life, Dylan Jones
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