In the studio

The music of “Heroes” was recorded early on in the sessions for the album.

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 sessions.

David lived with it for quite a while before he identified where he would write the verses and where he would write the choruses, but before that happened we blissfully started overdubbing synthesizers and other guitar parts… Most people should start writing with structure, at least when they’re starting out. And then, when you’re at a master level like David, you can ‘jam’ a song into existence.

Also making a return was Brian Eno, whose synth and experimental ideas had proved so valuable during the recording of Low.

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.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

Bowie and co-producer Tony Visconti chose to treat the recordings as demos, so as to encourage spontaneity and experimentation. However, the professionalism of the musicians meant that, after a few enhancements and edits, the music was suitable for release. According to Visconti, “most tracks were done in about five takes.”

The backing track for “Heroes” was recorded live as an instrumental, with the understanding that Bowie would add vocals at a later stage. At that stage there were no words, melody or title.

The track was recorded live, including Brian and David sitting in with the rhythm section. Brian’s Synthi was plugged into a Marshall guitar amplifier with a large speaker cabinet containing 4×10″ speakers, cranked up fairly high. His whooshing, stuttering sounds could also be heard on Dennis Davis’s drum overhead microphones. David was pounding the chords on the studio’s large grand piano and you could hear the whole band coming down his piano microphones. There was leakage all over the microphones, but it sounded great. Why fix it? “Heroes” was the track with the most leakage.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book

The basic backing tracks for the album were complete in little over a week, after which Alomar, Murray and David left the studio. Eno stayed behind, and was joined by King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp.

Robert Fripp, Colin Thurston, David Bowie and Brian Eno recording "Heroes", Berlin, 1977

Robert Fripp, Colin Thurston, David Bowie and Brian Eno recording “Heroes”, Berlin, 1977

Eno’s weapon of choice was an EMS Synthi synthesiser, with which he created the distinctive shimmering, swirling effects heard on “Heroes”. Fripp’s guitar was fed into the synth, with Eno manipulating the sound as he played. The pair had previously collaborated on the albums (No Pussyfooting), Here Come The Warm Jets, Evening Star, and Another Green World.

That’s Eno magic. He has an old synthesizer that fits into a briefcase made by a defunct company called EMS. It didn’t have a piano keyboard like modern synths. It did have a lot of little knobs, a peg board and little pegs, like an old telephone switch board to connect the various parameters to one another. But its piece de resistance was a little “joystick” that you find on arcade games. He would pan that joystick around in circles and make the swirling sounds you heard on that track. He would also put Robert Fripp’s guitar into this synth and “process” the sound.

He [Fripp] is the master of feedback. He steps closer and farther away from the speakers depending on the note he is playing. His guitar also went through Brian Eno’s briefcase synthesizer made in the 70s by a company called EMS. Brian randomly changed the filtering whilst Robert was playing. This is a technique they developed in a past collaboration.

Tony Visconti
tonyvisconti.com

Visconti recorded three takes of Fripp’s guitar feedback, which were later assembled into a composite master track.

Fripp was finally called and arrived with only a guitar; no amplifier was needed. 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.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy

Fripp spent just two days overdubbing guitar onto the “Heroes” songs, and Eno left Berlin during the third week. Thereafter the studio personnel was mainly just David Bowie, Visconti, and Hansa’s in-house engineer Edu Meyer.

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.
Tony Visconti
Bowie, Bolan And The Brooklyn Boy