On Second Thought
David Bowie - "Heroes"

for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

This is it, for me; the ne plus ultra of Bowie’s work. The album that, if asked to provide one non-compilation disc as an introduction to Bowie, I would hand over without reservation. And although I don’t believe they are necessary, it’s got most of the trappings of a Great Album too, from the wonderfully bizarre cover photo of Bowie (mismatched eyes on full display) performing what looks to be some sort of ritual gesture to the stories about its making (recorded in what used to be a Gestapo ballroom! all of Fripp’s guitar parts done in one shot having never heard the songs before!).

After 1977’s Low was released in the early part of the year, the same crew soon reconvened in Berlin to record another album. They moved so swiftly that ”Heroes” was in stores before the end of 1977. Things were looking up; they had, as Visconti says, read only their good reviews and since Eno and Bowie weren’t known for repeating themselves everyone looked forward to what might come next.

What came next started with “Beauty And The Beast”, the lurching keyboard-and-Fripp opening that steadily heightens the tension, until the track breaks open into a funkier groove than anything heard on Low. The rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray are not particularly lionized but their performances are crucial to ”Heroes” whether they’re driving songs like this one or unobtrusively anchoring them (the title track). Bowie’s singing is still mannered but he now sounds arch, rather than reserved—back in full control of his enormous arsenal of style. If Low hinted that Bowie had emerged from L.A. with his sense of humour intact, songs like “Beauty And The Beast” made it clear. The ever so slightly camp spin Bowie gives lines like “My, my / Someone fetch a priest / You can’t say no to the beauty and the beast” is a welcome return to form.

“Joe The Lion” follows, and is even more of a rush than “Beauty And The Beast”. Here, it’s made obvious that ”Heroes” won’t be the stripped down affair that was Low. Most of the tracks have a much fuller, chaotic sound, with “Joe The Lion” pitting music hall piano against Bowie and the guitars for room in the mix. The first two songs on ”Heroes” sound strangely joyous despite their content; Bowie yelping “You get up and sleep” shouldn’t be as rousing as it is. These songs may have been recorded in a studio in Berlin by a relatively austere Bowie, fully engaging with life minus drugs again, but they possess a hedonistic-sounding charge that shows him grappling with his previous state without ironic distance for the first time. If Station To Station was a manic, unreal grin and Low a state of more somber reflection, ”Heroes” finds Bowie smiling again.

But after two raucous avant-rock tracks we come to the true center of the album, the title track. I still cannot believe that there is a three-and-a-half single edit of “Heroes” (or since the quotation marks given to the title of the album are also present for the song, “”Heroes””), diluting the impact of the over six minutes present on record seems both sacrilegious and needless—who gets tired of “”Heroes””? Who tires of that endlessly unspooling guitar part, the spectral tambourine clang of the second half, and Bowie’s delivery, slowly edging towards impassioned? The first time Bowie’s composure breaks, at about three and a half minutes, is maybe the single finest instant in all of his work. Perhaps the knowledge that the lyrics were improvised makes it even better.

Those quotation marks on album and song title feel crucial, but their meaning remains elusive; all that is sure is that when Bowie sings “We can be heroes” he is no longer positioning himself as the hero, set apart and above of his audience. His head has leveled after the purgations of Station To Station and Low; no more Ziggy, not even the Thin White Duke. Even Major Tom would soon be laid to rest. If ”Heroes” and the work after it heralds a new Bowie character, it is Bowie as purely human. True, he loses some of the conceptual charge of his earlier work, but the first half of ”Heroes” is the most buoyant music he’d ever made, even if the lyrics are impressionistic collages of disorientation and excess.

“Sons Of The Silent Age” has to follow up “”Heroes””, and it’s no surprise it’s the least interesting song on the first side. While the first two songs and the forthcoming “Blackout” are all noisily chaotic, “Sons Of The Silent Age” is a smoother, quieter song. It starts with alienated verses depicting the titular sons, men who “Rise for a year or two then make war / Search through their one inch thoughts / Then decide it couldn’t be done”, who “make love only once but dream and dream”. The mixed distaste and (perhaps unwilling) sympathy for the figures swirls through the song, backed by Bowie’s sax. But then the choruses bust out into outlandish, swooning romanticism, Bowie wailing with one hand artfully on heart: “Baby baby baby, I’ll never let you down”. Whether parody or heartfelt, it shocks the song to life and, while either half by itself would remain inert, the strange crossbreed is actually quite captivating.

“Blackout” stomps in on the tails of “Sons Of The Silent Age”, to great effect. “”Heroes”” is the center and heart of the first side, but “Blackout” is the piece de resistance, the final morsel that pushes the meal (or in this case the first side) from merely good to truly great. Over a shrieking, thumping background Bowie howls “Get me off the streets” and spins a disjointed tale of Japanese influence and fleeing town. The mocking backing vocals only add to the nightmarish feel, while in the background a faux harmonica wails away. “Blackout” is, in addition to being a great song, the sound of Bowie admitting that he has been out of control and his inability to save himself.

Bowie and Eno have again divided the album up between relatively conventional songs and instrumentals. The second side lurches into action with the Kraftwerk homage “V-2 Schneider”, which begins with a screaming (the V-2, one presumes) across the sky. But then over the steady rhythm section a multi-tracked Bowie comes in with his saxophone and blows the dust off the track. The rest of it is nothing more than Bowie’s slurred repetition of the title track and his horn playing, plus the rising tide of guitar feedback at the very end, but again it’s more cheerful than anything on the second half of Low, even if it is a bit inconsequential.

But after “V-2 Schneider” fades out the suite of three linked instrumentals that dominates the second side of ”Heroes” starts up. This is where the second half of ”Heroes” has it over Low; while nothing here is as individually stunning as “Warszawa”, these three songs gel in a way the latter section of Low never managed to, and the cumulative effect is much stronger.

“Sense Of Doubt” begins the series uneasily, a four note keyboard refrain doomily crashing in over windswept ambience and fake horns, Bowie staggering around in the background gasping and croaking like he’s had his throat cut. But even here you can see how things have improved—it’s not “Sense Of Dread” or “Despair” or even “Alienation”, it’s “Doubt”. A recovered Bowie is not one who is going to stay away from the darker side of things, which would have crippled his art; but since Bowie no longer had to deal with things affecting him directly there is more balance. “Sense Of Doubt” seamlessly flows into the much more tranquil “Moss Garden”, the whole thing coated in echo, the occasional string hit standing out. A deep and compelling sense of well-being flows from the calm and beauty of “Moss Garden”, aided by Eno’s treatments and Bowie’s koto. It ebbs to a halt after five minutes, but you could listen it for an hour or more without it getting boring.

Instead we are swept from its calm respite into “Neukoln”, named for a section of Berlin mostly inhabited by Turkish immigrants. Immediately a synthesized rippling sound starts up in the background, followed soon by imperial synths and quasi-free sax blowing from Bowie. The piece has a formalistic air to it that most of Bowie’s instrumental work from this period doesn’t, having much less forward momentum than most, but it works. The sense of doubt returns, stronger this time, leaving the second half pitched sharply between peace and worry.

But, famously, that’s not the way things end; instead, once “Neukoln” ends with a final dying saxophone keen, “The Secret Life Of Arabia” jubilantly leaps to life. Some claim it ruins the feel of the second half, but this inconsequential but fun song does no such thing. It feels like a coda to this period of Bowie’s life. It’s full of high spirits and is a return to the more funky sound of old and to the idea of life as art; “You must see the movie, the sand in my eyes”. It also hearkens ahead to the globe-spanning first side of the upcoming Lodger, and as the endless groove slowly fades out you get the sense that the party is continuing, albeit just out of earshot. Having finally returned to fighting form, Bowie would soon be able to focus his music on more than just his own recovery, as Lodger would soon show.

Although I like the noisy, lived-in sound of ”Heroes” more than the other three albums from this period, I think the reason it stands out so strongly for me has more to do with mood. Even on the darkest songs there is a renewed sense of joie de vivre that lifts them up and makes them shine, especially on “”Heroes”” itself (one of the great romantic rock songs of all time). ”Heroes” is the album where everything comes together, an utterly flawless LP that veers from pop perfection to ambient calm without missing a beat.

By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-06-15
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