Summer 1977 and London was the place to be. It was the summer of punk and there was a sense of creative energy, virtually every week there was a new record out which was essential listening.
David Bowie was possibly the only artist who had existed pre 1976 who no one had a bad word to say about. Things had got a bit rocky in America, he was taking a lot of cocaine and on his triumphant return to blighty had appeared to be flirting with fascism but that was a couple of years in the past.
Bowie had recovered by absconding to Berlin with Brian Eno,Iggy Pop and producer Tony Visconti, the outcome of this alliance was the album Low, if push comes to shove I would name this as my favourite Bowie LP, it still amazes me to this day there are sounds on it that don’t belong in 1977, or any other year.
Truth be told, in 1977 we weren’t really that bothered about the next Bowie product, there were plenty of shiny new things to distract us but Bowie and his team were working on more of the same which in some ways would prove to be even greater.
I have my own memories of hearing the track ‘Heroes’ for the first time but kind of doubted my own recollection, luckily the internet is there for once to prove I was actually correct.
By 1977 Bowie’s old mate and Visconti’s prodigy Marc Bolan was in the process of making a comeback. Like Bowie, Bolan had been having problems with cocaine. A massive egotist on herbal tea alone, this was the wrong drug for Bolan. Bolan had also continued an impressive alcohol intake where Bowie had become frighteningly skeletal Bolan had bloated out loosing a main selling point which was his pretty boy looks.
Like Bowie he was back from the abyss but being a far lesser talent this meant that he had toured around the provincial circuit with The Dammed as support and then had presented his own TV show. Its pretty obvious that TV has struggled to ‘get’ rock music and ‘Marc’ was no exception, produced by Granada TV about 5,000 from the epicentre of activity in London, ‘Marc’ is pretty corny. The show was enlivened by Bolan’s own irreverent campiness and the fact that it was an opportunity to see some of the new acts such as Generation X and Eddie and the Hot Rods which he had invited on the show to demonstrate that he still had his finger on the pulse.
The last show of the series was the big one with David Bowie making an appearance singing his latest single ‘Heroes’
Over the summer Bowie, Eno and Visconti had been recording at Hansa Studio ‘by the wall’ in West Berlin. Also present were the fantastic musicians who had featured on Low, Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on Bass and Dennis Davis on drums. Ricky Gardener the lead guitarist on Low was missing but in his place was Robert Fripp King Crimson leader and previous Eno collaborator.
I loved Low but for some reason I never felt the need to listed to the album Heroes for at least 25 years. If an artist can produce something really good that’s enough for me, lets face it, how many times does someone produce a great album and follow it up with another great album ? True to form of course, when I finally listened to Heroes all the way through I was disappointed.
But the single is/was/ever will be great, or at least it will be until I catch an X factor contestant ruining it with their horrible show off warbling.
The original is a real wall of noise, Visconti considers it his last great adventure in producing, he would never get the chance to be so bold again. Apparently Eno’s synthesisers are all oscillating slightly differently to create the juddering effect which is enhanced by Fripp’s guitar feedback. It’s kind of the musical equivalent of being in a washing machine. Vocally there were apparently some strange gating effects going on. Gating effects are used to produce those huge 80’s drum sounds and involves only letting certain frequencies through, hence the ‘gate’. In order to get his vocal even on tape Bowie had to really project, hence the intensity of his vocal performance.
It sounds almost as if he is drowning in sound, he is singing defiance, the human spirit struggling to triumph through the adversity of the instrumentation. The track in fact started as an instrumental, using the title Hero from a Neu track and this was to be the overall quality of the music. Adding lyrics Bowie drew on an incident where he saw Visconti, at the time married to singer Mary Hopkin, embracing backing singer Antonia Maass. This back story, not confirmed by Bowie until 2003, enhances the sense of doomed but triumphant failure inherent in the song, yes we can be heroes but ‘just for one day’.
The version I heard for the first time on 20th September 1977 was not quite the same track. This version was recorded with Marc’s backing band, a bunch of top session guys who do a decent job but it’s sorely missing Eno. Allegedly the guitarist on the track is credited Bolan himself although I remain sceptical.
I have written before about the finale to Bolan’s last ever show but it was a remarkable event (for the wrong reasons) so I will retell…..
Bowie and Bolan were due to perform a number together but things were running late. Due to time constraints the Hot Rods were about to be squeezed out,seeing as they had been waiting for two days this was something of a final straw for them. The issue would be that the studio would stop recording at 7pm, there would be no ‘extra mile’ or ‘can do attitude’ from the unionised studio team at 7pm the plugs would be pulled. Bowie and Bolan were recording live and were struggling with equipment problems. They finally got it together on a nondescript blues chug-along when Bolan fell off the stage. It was 7pm, end of show.
Apparently Bolan was in tears of frustration at this missed opportunity. It would get worse, in few days time his mini driven by his girlfriend Gloria Jones would skid into a tree killing Bolan in the process.
We can be heroes.