Lyrics and vocals
“Heroes” depicted two lovers meeting under the Berlin Wall – the 155 km barrier that created a physical and political division between East and West Berlin from 1961 to 1989.
I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.
Visconti’s lover was Antonia Maass, a jazz singer who sang backing vocals on a number of songs on “Heroes”.
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 [kiss]. 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.
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book
“Heroes” was the only album of David Bowie’s so-called ‘Berlin trilogy’ to be completely recorded in the city. Bowie lived in Berlin during the recording, and the culture and characters made their way into several songs.
The content of the album, which was the looking at the street life in Berlin, had a lot to do with the feeling of Joe The Lion and “Heroes”. It’s like the street life in New York but without the emphasis on consumerism. Politically, it’s a lot more radical in its expression; everybody has a very definite political view, either far right or far lest. That kind of friction produces a wonderful… they say zeitgeist. There is a zeitgeist of the future, there is a feeling of social responsibility that’s overpowering. There’s not the kind of lush, decadent thing that’s thrown about concerning Berlin – that’s entirely wrong. There’s a young population there and the middle-aged and the family people have moved out into West Germany because there’s no industry left.
So the people who are in Berlin are older stoics who have no intention of ever moving; or students, because there’s still a great emphasis on education in Berlin. Because of that there’s a serious quality to the people, a resistance to silliness. They want change to come about positively for the people.
Musician magazine, May 1983
Another source of inspiration was A Grave For A Dolphin, a 1956 short story by Alberto Denti di Pirajno.
At some point in the seventies, I had picked up a book containing a short story called A Grave For A Dolphin. An Italian Duke, Albert Denti di Pirajno, had written it in 1956. Unusually, he wrote it in English because of his love of my country. I thought it a magical and beautiful love story and in part had inspired my song “Heroes”. It tells of a twenty-two-year-old Italian boy, Camara, who has been stationed on the coast of Somalia at the end of the Second World War…
Winter had become spring something one doesn’t notice in Los Angeles. It was 1991. Iman and I had been living together for only a matter of months when she received a script from her then film agent. “I’ve been asked to play, surprise, surprise, a Somali girl and they want you to play the European who falls in love with her. It’s the most beautiful story,” she said, “but not a movie I don’t think.” It was a screenplay based on an obscure short story called A Grave For A Dolphin. Things like this happen to us all the time. Incredible coincidences. Mystical, I bet. Like, we’re both skinny and we both get up at about five thirty in the morning. The list goes on and on. I’m glad our story doesn’t follow the one penned by the Duke. We love the dark velvet sky and the moon that throws streaks of gold onto the deep silver sea. We want to swim side by side for as long as we’ve been given till one of us slips under the waves for the final time.
I Am Iman
Bowie’s vocals on “Heroes” were, as with the rest of the album, recorded at Hansa Tonstudio 2 in West Berlin. Studio 2 was also known as the Meistersaal, a grand and spacious room formerly used as a chamber music concert hall.
The luxurious sound of the big hall, the studio where we recorded the band, was crying out to be part of David’s vocals. I told him I had an idea that would allow the room to sound progressively bigger as he sang louder. He told me by all means to set it up. It took three microphones, the first in the traditional position in front of him, the second in the middle of the hall and the third at the far end of the hall. As there was only one track left (of 24) for vocals I had to route the microphones to that one track. I used two electronic ‘gates’ to control the switching on of the further microphones. When David sang louder, microphone two would open and when he sang very loud, the far microphone would open. The reverb on David’s voice is the Hansa hall, nothing else. David could hear the effect in his headphones and he tested how loud he had to sing to make the idea work. He was thrilled with the set up and, with the tape rolling, he began to sing, “I, I will be king…” About 45 minutes later we were standing side by side singing the backing vocals.
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982) book
Bowie’s astonishing lead vocals were recorded in just three takes, after which he and Visconti added two tracks of backing vocals.
After we did a couple of run-throughs during which he wasn’t sure where to place the octave, 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.
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.”
Sound On Sound, October 2004
Bowie also recorded two foreign-language versions of the song, titled and ‘Helden’ and ‘Héros’, for single release in Germany and France respectively. The new vocals were recorded in Switzerland in August 1977, after the completion of the album.
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.
Q magazine, November 2005
The new vocals were also dubbed onto the opening verses on the album releases in France and Germany.
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.
A New Career In A New Town book