Lyrics and vocals

David Bowie typically wrote his lyrics and recorded the vocals once the backing tracks were complete, a practice he had deployed since The Man Who Sold The World. Often the musicians and production team had no idea of the song’s subject or final title as they worked.

“Heroes” was no different, and Bowie wrote no lyrics whatsoever until just he, producer Tony Visconti, and engineer Edu Meyer were the only ones still working on the album.

Not a single vocal had been recorded, or a melody and lyric written until just David and I remained at Hansa. This was no easy task and there were long lulls when David had to concentrate on writing. He’d arrive at the studio with a partial lyric, and we’d start recording his vocal with what little he’d have. I would record the first two lines, then he would hold up his hand for me to stop, listen to the playback, and then he’d write another scribbled couplet on his pad atop the studio piano. I could hear him off mic mumbling a few alternates then walk up to the mic with something to sing. When he had something he’d ask me to ‘drop-in’ his voice immediately after his first couplet. As tedious as this might sound he’d usually finish writing the song and performing the final vocal in under two hours. This would also include double tracking some lines and a chorus, if need be.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Bowie’s producers often spoke of his ability to lay down a perfect vocal in just one or two takes. Most of the songs on “Heroes” were took a single take, and some were recorded in a piecemeal fashion, with just one or two lines sung at a time – a technique he adopted after working with Iggy Pop on The Idiot and Lust For Life.

Most of my vocals were first takes, some written as I sang. Most famously ‘Joe The Lion’ I suppose. I would put the headphones on, stand at the mike, listen to a verse, jot down some key words that came into mind then take. Then I would repeat the same process for the next section, etc. It was something that I learnt from working with Iggy and I thought a very effective way of breaking normality in the lyric.
David Bowie, 1999
Uncut, April 2001

The backing vocals were performed by Bowie, Tony Visconti, and Visconti’s new girlfriend, local jazz singer Antonia Maass.

David and I sang the backing vocals, embellishing and answering certain lines. You can hear my lovely Brooklyn accent on lines like ‘I remember’ and ‘By the wall’. It has been erroneously written that Brian Eno and David sang back-ups on “Heroes”, but the album credits clearly state that they were sung by David, myself and sometimes Antonia Maass, a singer we met in a club in Berlin.
Tony Visconti
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

The couple’s kiss in the shadows of the Berlin Wall famously inspired the lyrics of the title track.

After a few days of lead vocals David decided to have a go at “Heroes”. He had to write the lyrics first and it seemed to be taking a long time. Antonia was visiting and our conversation, albeit a quiet one, was distracting him. He asked us to literally ‘take a walk’ so he could finish the lyrics. The area around the studio only had a few shops and a coffee house and it was late evening. It was kind of bleak. The control room window faced a forsaken empty lot sometimes used as a gypsy encampment, with the ubiquitous Wall looming in the distance. Antonia and I had a coffee and walked around a bit but didn’t go very far as it felt unsafe. We stopped beneath the control room window to look at the Wall. We had a little chat about it that somehow turned into a little snog. We chatted some more and then returned to the studio. When we returned David was now beaming with a certain Bowie smile, like the cat that ate the canary. Obviously the song was finished. Coco [Schwab] whispered to me, ‘You two are in the song,’ verse five to be precise.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book

When Bowie came to record his vocals, he ran through the song a couple of times, but was unsure where to let loose and sing an octave higher.

We eventually came to the conclusion to sing the first two verses down an octave and the rest of the song up an octave. That was another good way of building up the track, and it prompted the break in his voice which he himself calls ‘Bowie histrionics’, where he has to put everything into it in order to hit those high notes. It’s right at the end of his range.

My input at this point was to suggest using the room on his voice and drop the conventional method of just singing into one microphone. He agreed, and so I set up three microphones. We only had two or three tracks left, and I needed one of these for backing vocals. I couldn’t even bounce down, and so we’d snookered ourselves. Therefore, even though I would have ideally loved to put each mic on a separate track — enabling us to capture the whole room when he sang loud, and just that one mic right in front of his face when he sang quietly — I put gates on mics two and three. Mic number one was in front of him with fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he was really going to shout, and it all went down to one track. This was recording by the seat of your pants, and Bowie was thrilled with the idea that I wanted to do something unique. He thrives on anything that’s different and someone else hasn’t thought of yet, and I just thought ‘Let’s do this live,’ because he’s a great singer and he could always sing it again if I made a mistake. That’s the luxury of working with him: he’s consistently good when he sings. He’s in tune, he’s passionate, and he delivers an arena-type performance every time.

Tony Visconti
Sound On Sound, October 2004

The three microphones were triggered depending on the volume of Bowie’s singing.

Mic number one was a valve U47, and with the other two on gates I made sure that number two, an 87 placed about 15 feet away from him, would go on at a certain level, while the third mic, another 87 that was all the way at the other end of the room, didn’t open up until he really sang loud. That reverb on his voice is therefore the room itself, none of it is artificial, and it’s his voice triggering the gates. What is really great is that the sound of the opening two verses is really intimate. It doesn’t sound like a big room yet, it sounds like somebody just singing about a foot away from your ear. The whole idea worked, and what you hear on the record is probably take three. We wouldn’t go beyond that. He was really worked up by then and I can tell you he was feeling it. It was quite an emotional song for him to sing, he deliberated long and hard over these lyrics, and he was ready to go, there was no holding him back. We probably punched in a few things, but it’s pretty much a complete take save for a couple of notes that he redid.

This was immediately after he’d written the lyrics, and immediately after this he said ‘Come on in, let’s do backing vocals.’ You see, I’m his utility person – if there’s a guitar part that needs to be played and there’s no guitarist in the studio, I’ll play it, and the same goes for bass guitar, keyboards and singing. So, Bowie and I performed the two tracks of backing vocals on that song, meaning that writing the lyrics, singing the lead vocal and then the backing vocals was all done within the space of about five hours. That doesn’t always happen, and since then I’ve regretted telling this story to other groups I’ve worked with who think they can do the same thing. Very few people can write the lyrics on the spot in the studio and then perform a great vocal in just a few takes. Bowie’s one of the few people on this planet who can actually pull that off.

Tony Visconti
Sound On Sound, October 2004

Once the vocals for “Heroes” were complete, the album was mixed at Hansa’s Studio 1 on Nestorstraße, where Bowie and Visconti had previously mixed Low.

Bowie also recorded two foreign language versions of the title track. “Héros” and “Helden” were released as singles in France and Germany respectively.

David thought it would be marvellous to sing it in German, because it had a Wagnerian sound. He wasn’t so keen on the French version. He got a little tongue-tied on that one.
Tony Visconti
Q magazine, November 2005

The new vocals were also dubbed onto the opening verses on the album releases in France and Germany. The new vocals were recorded in Switzerland in August 1977, after the completion of the album.

The French and German language versions were recorded in Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland with Coco as the French coach and Antonia as the German coach. I flew there especially for this session and duplicated our backing vocals in both French and German.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town book