In the studio

The majority of the songs on “Heroes” were written in the studio, with the musicians having little or no idea of the melodies or lyrics that David Bowie might later add.

Now, here’s another one, a wonderful piece of advice in the Bowie/Eno context. Overnight flight from New York to Frankfurt – first-class – then on to Berlin. Turning up at Hansa Studios at about quarter to six in the evening, with board and guitar. I said to David and to Brian, ‘Is there anything you’d like to play me?’ Brian’s advice was, ‘Plug in.’ So, having heard nothing, no words, plugged in, tape ran, one, two, three, four, and that was ‘Joe The Lion’. I’ve worked with other people who’ve said ‘plug in’ and rolled the tape and expected me to work on the same level with them as I’d been fortunate enough to do with Bowie and Eno – and the result is not the same. Robert is, shall we say, the same, so what is different? Brian and David and Tony Visconti bring something to the party that not everyone does. A certain quality of presence and energy to the occasion.
Robert Fripp
Uncut, August 2020

Bowie later revealed that on ‘Joe The Lion’ he had instructed guitarist Robert Fripp to play an approximation of the blues.

The only premise that I gave him was to play with total abandonment, and in a way that he would never consider playing on his own albums. I said play like ALBERT KING, and he would look puzzled for a few moments, and then he’d go in and try his damnest to get somewhere near it, but it would come out his way. So things like ‘Joe The Lion’ were him really having a bash at the Blues. He was great like that – he really got into the swing of it. He really liked the idea of me giving him an image or a guideline; it was his way of breaking what he normally does. If he went in with his own set of methods it would turn out recognizably like Fripp, but because I would throw this spanner in the works and give him two more signposts as to where to go, he would go ‘ah, right, I see what you mean,’ and he’d do something.
David Bowie, 1999
International Musician, December 1991

The lyrics for ‘Joe The Lion’ were improvised in the studio, while Bowie was at the microphone. According to producer Tony Visconti, the process “took less than an hour”, with the vocals recorded in sections.

The first song David wrote lyrics to was ‘Joe The Lion’. The first time I heard the vocal was when he asked me to roll the tape. I wasn’t expecting the ferocity of the first three words “Joe… the lion”, I almost leapt out of my seat. It was always exciting when finally David said he’d written the song! After a couple of additional scribbles on the lyric page and drop-ins on the tape, we had a lead vocal. It took about half an hour. David always liked to double track certain phrases and single words immediately after singing the lead vocal. After a few playbacks in the control room David asked me to join him to sing backing vocals. I’m the one singing falsetto. We both sang on one microphone and made up harmonies on the spot.
Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Bowie tended to write his lyrics after the majority of the music had been written and recorded, although improvising words at the microphone was less common.

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 release

‘Joe The Lion’ was released on “Heroes” on 14 October 1977.

A remix of the original 1972 recording of ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ was made in 1979. The new mix, which raised the level of Bowie’s vocals and reduced the reverb, was released as a single in 1979 in Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Spain and the USA, with ‘Joe The Lion’ on the b-side.

The 1991 Rykodisc/EMI reissues of “Heroes” contained a remix of ‘Joe The Lion’ by David Richards.

Live performances

‘Joe The Lion’ was rehearsed for the Isolar II Tour in 1978, but was not performed live until the Serious Moonlight Tour in 1983. It was first played on 26 April 1983 at Las Colinas Soundstage in Irving, Texas.

The song was again rehearsed and considered for the Glass Spider Tour in 1987, but was not performed.

David Bowie revived ‘Joe The Lion’ in 1995 for the Outside Tour. A 13 October performance from the Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas, Texas can be heard on the 2020 live album Ouvrez Le Chien (Live Dallas 95).

Bowie’s final performance of ‘Joe The Lion’ took place on 31 October 1995 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles.

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