- Vancouver, British Columbia - When I reviewed the first entry in the Berlin trilogy, Low, I noted that it was a pretty light album and fun at times. It’s interesting because at the time, it was regarded as a fairly dark and melancholy album. I guess I have to assume that it was for 1977. Well, less than a year later, Bowie and Brian Eno recorded and released “Heroes” in Berlin, technically making it the only ‘true’ entry in the trilogy, as it was wholly completed in Berlin. Again, as stated in the last entry, Eno was not the producer of this album (Bowie and Tony Visconti were), but a collaborator. Interestingly enough, Eno had persuaded King Crimson founder and guitarist Robert Fripp to come play on the album, which he did in one day. Apparently Fripp had no interest being in the music scene again, but working on this album rekindled something within him. Fripp would go on to continue working with Peter Gabriel in his solo albums, and would reform King Crimson in 1981. But for more information on that, stay tuned to Doug Ferguson’s “The History of the Crimson King” series here on Sour Grapes Winery.
“Heroes” was the first Bowie album I had heard start to finish. Sure, I’d heard a lot of his hits and I think we’ve all seen Labyrinth, but never a complete work. It was once I was partway through the second half of the album that I really began to dig it. Much like Low, the two halves formed two distinct sides on the vinyl release. Side 1 was the three minute long radio friendly songs, whereas side 2 was the experimental, mostly instrumental dabbling. But where Low has an unbalanced track count per side due to the experimental songs being quite long, “Heroes” is split evenly with five songs per half. From a technical standpoint, I actually find the structure quite intriguing because the last song of the album, the stunningly complex “The Secret Life of Arabia” actually has a full set of lyrics (as opposed to the preceding four tracks) and seems to sum up the album; the music is still very experimental but it has the energy of the first half. And for the record, that song is simply amazing. Easily my favourite song by Bowie…ever.
I feel there are two themes running through this album. The first one is fairly well understood – the album deals strongly with Germany, and Berlin in particular, being a very divided country. The title track has explicitly been explained as being about two lovers separated by the Berlin Wall. There’s a running exploration of the concept of a polar dichotomy all through out this album, starting with the structure, going through the lyrical content, and even running in Bowie’s vocal inflections (“Sons of the Silent Age” and “Blackout” immediately come to mind). The Wall was within sight of the studio that Bowie was recording at, so the whole atmosphere was undoubtedly tangible during every step of the process.
There’s another theme that I think is generally ignored. I really feel there is a statement in here about the unfortunate state of terrorism in the Middle East. I might be off my rocker, I know, but look at the lyrics of the songs, all of them. They can very easily be interpreted as such. In this case, the title tracks parentheses would be reflective of the fact that these terrorists view themselves as heroes, and the pedestal they put themselves on. “Joe The Lion” could easily be about a bomb. There are very clear Middle Eastern influences in the music on the second half, particularly on the Eno-heavy “Moss Garden.” And with a closing track like “The Secret Life of Arabia,” I think it is fair to say that there was at least some thought of more than the immediate area. And with the unrest in the Middle East, particularly Afghanistan, in that time, I don’t think you could escape the politics and conflict.
As I stated at the beginning of the article, Low was viewed as a melancholy album, and when “Heroes” was released it was seen as a more positive and upbeat direction. At this point, I think I’m going to be a little contrary. I think Low is the more upbeat and positive album, with hindsight. I had likened it at one point to having a very extra-terrestrial feel to it. At times, when I’m listening to “Heroes” I almost feel like it could be the soundtrack to Blade Runner. It has a grittier feel to it; almost dystopic at times. And given the subject material (whichever one you like), is that so surprising? “Sense of Doubt” and “Neuköln” are very dark tracks with a tremendous feeling of suspicion in them. It’s almost like “Moss Garden,” which is in between the two, was like a reprieve of calm in the eye of a storm.
“Heroes” is perhaps one of Bowie’s best known albums, and for good reason. Many aspects of the album were improvised within days or hours of recording, but the songs feel tremendously unified and musically complete. I give this album hearty praise for not only being tremendously topical, even relatable today, but for demonstrating Bowie’s remarkable music talent and persistent passion. Next week we look at Lodger, the final part of the Berlin Trilogy, which garnered many disappointing reviews when released.
Steve’s Track Picks
The Secret Life of Arabia
Rating: 5/5 Sour Grapes