When David Bowie released ‘Heroes’ on September 23rd, 1977, he will have known that the song was a work of utter magnificence. However, even Nostradamus couldn’t have foreseen the track going on to be one of the beloved efforts of all time. The track goes way beyond simply being The Starman’s magnum opus, entering a realm of a masterclass in songwriting and composing music.
‘Heroes’ captures not only the zenith of Bowie’s fabled Berlin years but quite possibly artistry as a whole. After being burnt out from the music industry, which was coupled with a burning disdain for Los Angeles, Bowie retreated from the west coast and moved to Berlin in 1976. There, he rediscovered his musical mojo, he rented a cheap apartment above an auto-repair shop and return to the familiar settings that had produced his first great works. Brian Eno made the move to Berlin with Bowie and worked on his albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger which, as a body of work, were much more experimental and less commercial than Bowie’s previous LPs but met with vast critical acclaim.
Undoubtedly, ‘Heroes’ remains one of Bowie’s greatest feats. This song tells the story of a German couple who are so determined to be together despite the political climate of the day that was preventing them and, in that desperation, they meet every day under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall. Bowie was inspired by an affair between his legendary producer Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass who, it is said, would kiss “by the wall” in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window. For a creative mind like the Thin White Duke, the imagery was tyoo tempting to resist.
“I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time,” Bowie said to Performing Songwriter in 2003. “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. But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin,” he added.
“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,” Bowie revealed.
As well as being a track about love triumphing overall, the song has since taken on more gravitas. ‘Heroes’ soon became the symbolic anthem that captured Berlin during this troubled period as the city remained divided. It created a poignant moment when, in 1987, Bowie performed a unifying rendition of the track at the Berlin Wall just two years before it demolition began — with the power of music for one night only bringing these two opposing sides together.
“When we did ‘Heroes’ [at the 1987 Berlin concert] it felt anthemic, almost like a prayer,” he remarked in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I’ve never felt it like that again. That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation it was written about. It was just extraordinary. I was so drained after the show.”
“It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done,” RS reports Bowie said back in 2003. “I was in tears. There were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we could hear them cheering and singing from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart and I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. It was so touching.”
The power of ‘Heroes’ transcends music and although, of course, it wasn’t the sole reason for the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, many have suggested that it was one of the drops in the ocean that created a strong ripple effect. However, what happened that night is a moment of cultural significance which meant the world to everybody who was in attendance including Bowie, who had a special place in his heart for the German capital.
Although the song is a love story about a couple who are having their relationship snatched from their grasp, because of Bowie and Eno’s knack for songwriting ‘Heroes’ took on a universal meaning which allows any listener the opportunity to relate to it in one sense or another. Despite Bowie only being 30 when he released the track, it elevated him to his deserved legendary status and confirmed his godlike gift.