Some artists are lucky to have one defining moment on a record. For David Bowie, he had far too many to mention. But one thing that is for sure, most people would count his ‘Berlin period’ as one of the most fruitful songwriting stretches of his entire career if not the entire music world. While the other two albums in that trilogy are well worth their weight in gold, it is on his seminal record Heroes that the Bowie we know and love finally became what he had always been set out to be—an icon.
The only ‘Berlin’ album to be entirely recorded in the German capital, Bowie reflects the intensity and vulnerability of a city which is split down the middle. Arriving during the Cold War, Bowie and Visconti set up camp in West Berlin and looked across the wall at a completely different life almost every day.
It was a grand metaphor that overran the entire record, the duality of Bowie’s desire for recognition and fame with his pursuit of avant-garde art. This was the album that proved he could have it all. So, in celebration of its release, we’re ranking the songs on the record in order of greatness.
See the list, below.
David Bowie’s Heroes ranked from worst to best:
10. ‘Moss Garden’
As the winds of ‘Moss Garden’ coming flowing through the speakers and the production of Tony Visconti is given ample room to mature and develop, one is quickly whisked away into the world Bowie is creating on Heroes.
As an instrumental piece, it feels a little bit cheap to compare it strongly against the rest of the record—an album which has such a strict identity—but such is the game. The song is also fighting against two other more fully-realised pieces, so this one will end up at the bottom of the pile despite how vital it is.
9. ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’
Final tracks on albums can go one of two ways: they can either leave you with a sense of wonder, a real wave of open-mouthed joy. Or, as is the case on Heroes and the final song ‘The Secret Life of Arabia’, they can leave you feeling a little deflated.
There’s no doubt that Heroes is a top tier album but on the final song the stark and strong images are slightly diluted and Bowie’s artistry left a little out in the cold. However, something can be said for the repetitive bounce of the final notes reverberating around our heads until we hit play on Heroes one more time.
‘Neukoln’ finishes up the trio of instrumental pieces that appeared on side two of the record. With it, we see the beginning of Bowie’s exploration and experimentation with industrial sounds. A glitchy and gilded piece, Bowie lets all the space neurosis of his past filter out into the music.
Artistically it could fit easily within any science fiction film you like, that is, until, Bowie comes in with his now-iconic saxophone. It rips the cord from the wall and proclaims both ‘Neukoln’ and Bowie as pieces of walking talking art.
7. ‘Sense of Doubt’
Another instrumental piece form Bowie, Eno and Visconti who saw the vitality of an instrumental piece being able to tell the story of their surroundings more eloquently than Bowie ever could. Why Bowie, an artist who had cherished lyrics so fervently in his early career, was now so ready to give them up speaks volumes of the artist inside.
The story of Heroes is the story of Berlin and looking back there are simply no words that could more accurately describe the state of the city—and Germany as a nation—than this experimental piece of synth-heavy doom-facing beauty. ‘Sense of Doubt’ is a piece of art worth remembering on its own.
6. ‘Beauty and the Beast’
As one might imagine, ‘Beauty and the Beast’ sees Bowie provide one of his more distinct and clearer narrative song structures through some of his most erratic lyrics. In the song, he provides a basic feeling of frightening evil and yet still allows for personal reading of the two characters in question.
Musically the song is another piece which highlights the dark and twisted feelings that Bowie was trying to express from the heart of the German capital and as the first moments of the album, we have the sense of the cabaret rock that’s about to unfold.
One of Bowie’s more schizophrenic songs on the record, which in itself is rather split down the middle, ‘Blackout’ is one piece that has a distinct source—a power cut. While many have pointed to the New York blackout of 1977, Bowie himself isn’t so sure: “I can’t, in all honesty, say that it was the NY one, though it is entirely likely that that image locked itself in my head.”
The song also includes a slight precursor to how Bowie would continue his career—through the industrial. Bowie uses the metallic backing of this song to create an internal situation in the listener that feels abrasive, cold and, ultimately, vulnerable.
4. ‘Sons of the Silent Age’
According to Brian Eno, who worked as a producer and collaborator on the album, this was the only song of the recording session that was composed outside of the studio. It’s clearly a song that was close to Bowie’s heart as he had earmarked it to be the titular track of the LP.
The song is another showing of Bowie’s internal battle. So desperate to make himself artistically credible (the doom-laden sax notes) interplay with the pursuit of fame and fortune being seen in the somewhat cheesy choruses where Bowie employs his best impression of Major Tom. The song, meanwhile, takes on the idea of psychotic withdrawal, something Bowie had already become familiar with on Low. What transpires is a piece of performance art that perfectly summarises Bowie at the time.
3. ‘V-2 Schneider’
It’s not often that largely instrumental pieces are included so far up our list of rankings. But then again, this isn’t your everyday instrumental. Inspired by the Kraftwerk co-founder, the late, great Florian Schneider, whom Bowie acknowledged as huge inspirations at the time, and the V-2 rocket, Bowie makes a serious statement on this piece.
The V-2 rocket designers played a large hand in designing the American space programme and Bowie’s keen to highlight this duality of life. The distorted phrasing of the title is the only lyrics and the song also includes some off-beat saxophone from Bowie himself. Add it all together and you’ve got some of Bowie’s most derange and yet wonderful work.
2. ‘Joe The Lion’
‘Joe The Lion’ is one of the hidden gems on Heroes. The song, often overlooked as one of Bowie’s finest, is listed by the mercurial guitar sound of Robert Fripp and underpinned by Bowie’s incessant groove. Of course, lyrically the words are nonsensical but compiled together with the music and this track becomes a winner.
Whether it is Fripp’s tonal guitar sound or the gobbledygook backing vocals, there’s something beguiling about this abuse of your eardrums. It sounds like Bowie has left his bonkers bunker and spouted the first few things that came to his mind. It’s an absolute joy.
It would be almost irresponsible for us to not put this ultimate anthem of Bowie’s at the top of the tree. Though there are moments across this album that are more artistically pure or perhaps more daring and in keeping with Bowie’s drive, there’s something about this song which is just utterly arresting.
The LP’s title song, and perhaps one of Bowie’s most loved songs, was written after the Starman caught a glimpse of Visconti and his mistress hugging on the wall itself. It was a startling message of unity written about something so divisive and became part of the reason Bowie performed it in the city over a decade later, even pointing the speaker toward East Berlin.
It is a song which has seen not only people connect to and enjoy one another but also to hold hands while bringing down those who oppress them. It has become the montage sequence of Bowie’s entire career.