The Great Albums


June 2, 2002


When David Bowie released " 'Heroes' " in 1977, the Berlin Wall had been
standing for 16 years. Erected by the Soviet Union to stop the exodus of people
fleeing toward the West to escape a harsh and repressive life in the Communist
bloc, this imposing structure loomed even larger as an image than it did as
reality. It captured people's imaginations.

The middle installment of what has become known as the Great Chameleon's
"Berlin trilogy," the album still seems startlingly ahead of its time a
quarter-century later, from its unique sonic mix of rock drive and ambient
atmospherics (hello, Radiohead!), to its ironic self-consciousness (note that the
quotation marks are an official part of the album title). A spirit of decadence and
a defiant lust for freedom--the spirit of Berlin itself--permeates the disc.

By the mid-'70s, the one-time British folk-rocker David Jones had already
reinvented himself several times, introducing a procession of unforgettable rock
personas: the alien glam-rocker Ziggy Stardust, the emaciated waif Aladdin
Sane; the positively decadent Diamond Dog, and the soul-goes-to-outer-space
enigma of the Thin White Duke. But rock's most infamous appropriator of others'
innovations was arguably never more creative in his own right than he was on
his three Berlin albums--though many would assign much of the credit to his
collaborator/producer, Brian Eno.

After splitting with the pioneering glam/art-rock band Roxy Music following two
brilliant albums on which he served as the synthesizer player and sonic
pervert/audio manipulator, Eno had crafted some wonderfully unconventional pop
music on a series of solo albums (one year Eno's elder, Bowie was particularly
impressed by 1976's "Another Green World"), as well as experimenting with
what he called "ambient music"--instrumental compositions that lacked vocals
and obvious rhythmic drive and which boasted only simple, minimal hooks,
when there were any at all.

Ambient music was music designed to subliminally enhance the thousand
tasks of everyday life, Eno said. It rewarded close listening, but it did not
demand it. Bowie and Eno began working on sounds in this vein with 1976's
"Low," and they would continue with '79's "Lodger." But " 'Heroes' " was their
finest moment together, an attempt to combine pop, rock and soul music with
ambient experimentation, just as Eno had done with equally spectacular results
on "Another Green World."

Ably abetted by Eno himself, and joined by his longtime producer, Tony
Visconti, Bowie also drew on the contributions of two extremely different but
phenomenally inventive guitarists: the soulful Carlos Alomar, and the
progressive-rock hero Robert Fripp, a veteran of King Crimson who had
collaborated with Eno on the 1975 ambient outing, "No Pussyfooting." This
diverse ensemble bunkered down at Berlin's Hansa Studio--"by the wall," as
Bowie would sing.

Very much a relic of the vinyl era when albums had two distinct sides, " 'Heroes'
" can be neatly divided between the vocal- and guitar-driven music of the first
half and the more meandering instrumental music of the second half. But in its
best moments, especially during the masterful title track, the ambient ideas are
intertwined with great, catchy rock music, all in the same memorable package.

Driven by an infectious, tubular Fripp guitar riff and a steady, metronomic drum
beat, and subtly decorated by Eno's synthesizer squeals and bleeps, the song
" 'Heroes' " is a futuristic take on a Velvet Underground drone (Eno and Bowie
were both fans of Lou Reed's first band, and Bowie had covered the Velvets
several times). The result is a mysterious, enigmatic-sounding backing track for
an apocalyptic scene whose drama is conveyed by the emotion of Bowie's
vocals, even if it is never specifically addressed in the lyrics.

Rising to his theatrical best, the singer spits out the words as if dictating an
urgent telegram: "I ... I remember ... standing ... by the wall. The guns ... shot
about our heads ... and we kissed ... as though nothing could fall." The tune
could be about everything (the end of the world in a nuclear holocaust?) or
nothing at all (one man's "I can be king" delusions?), depending on what the
listen chooses to read into it.

Slightly less complex, the other proper songs are only marginally less powerful.
"Beauty and the Beast" and "Joe the Lion" are hard-hitting if somewhat twisted
rockers with prime Bowie vocal turns; "Sons of the Silent Age" harkens back to
his "Space Oddity"-era solo work with less obvious, more oblique production
twists; "The Secret Life of Arabia" is a nice little snake-charmer mood piece,
and "Blackout" expands on the dance-groove funkiness of "Young Americans"
and "Station to Station," adding a sort of distant android coldness to the mix.

The instrumentals are primarily comprised of Eno's synths, a stringed Japanese
instrument called a samisen, and Bowie's heavily treated saxophone. There are
moments of static beauty, haunting sparseness, and pointless
wankery--sometimes all in the same tune. The creepy "Neukoln" is named for
the Berlin neighborhood where Bowie stayed, and the lulling "Moss Garden" is
redolent of the work of Cluster, a German group with whom Eno had

The best song, "V-2 Schneider," name checks the Nazi rockets that fell on the
World War II England of Bowie's youth, as well as Florian Schneider, one of the
two driving forces of the groundbreaking German electronic band, Kraftwerk.
Bowie and Eno were both hugely enamored of this and other Krautrock groups,
including Tangerine Dream, Neu!, Cluster, and Faust. Their influence permeates
the album, and they continue to inspire underground musicians today, from
Chicago's Tortoise to London's Stereolab.

"Artistically, 1977-81 were absolutely dynamic," Bowie would later conclude
from the safe distance of the '90s. "Brian Eno treats studios the way no other
person has. He works with it like an instrument, which is actually quite the thing
now, especially in dance music, but at the particular time, there was no one
else doing that, except for a couple of Germans. He really hipped me to the
potential of arranging musical accidents."

After completing his trilogy the following year with "Lodger," Bowie would spin
off into increasingly vapid dance-pop, and then begin revisiting earlier
accomplishments with lesser results and a lack of fresh inspiration. This leaves
" 'Heroes' " to stand as his last truly inspired moment, if not his most creative
effort ever.