David Bowie wrote countless hits, but many had differing levels of success. In his Berlin period – a time in the 1970s when he was living and recording in Berlin – one of those songs was Heroes. The song has become an anthem, despite it not receiving a huge commercial success when it first came out.
David Bowie moved to Berlin in late 1976, at which time he was attempting to escape what he called a “astronomic” cocaine addiction.
As is chronicled in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination – David Bowie: The Definitive Story, the time before Bowie’s Berlin period was his darkest period, as he become addicted to cocaine so much so that he barely remembered recording Station to Station.
According to an interview in Uncut magazine from 1999, Bowie said the recording of Low, which came as he attempted to escape his addictions: “Yes, it was a dangerous period for me.
“I was at the end of my tether physically and emotionally and had serious doubts about my sanity…
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David Bowie – what was behind the song Heroes?
David Bowie as a young person
“Overall, I get a sense of real optimism through the veils of despair from Low. I can hear myself really struggling to get well.
“Berlin was the first time in years that I had felt a joy of life and a great feeling of release and healing.
“It’s a city eight times bigger than Paris remember and so easy to, get lost; in and to; oneself too.”
He moved into an apartment with his friend, Iggy Pop, and began work on some of his new albums with producer Tony Visconti and performer Brian Eno.
David Bowie after his Berlin period
In 1977, Bowie released two albums: Low, and Heroes, the second of which was led by the single Heroes.
Speaking to Classic Rock in 2015, Bowie said of the song: “I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Wall that prompted the idea for Heroes.
“Actually, it was [Bowie producer] Tony Visconti and his girlfriend.
“Tony was married at the time, so I couldn’t talk about it.
David Bowie in the 1990s on stage
“But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met while we were in Berlin. I think possibly his 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.”
The couple were together outside the Hansa Studio window, where the performers were recording.
The song title itself is a reference to the 1975 track “Hero” by German krautrock band Neu!, a band who Bowie and Eno admired.
The song remained an instrumental for a very long time, until right at the end of the recording process, and in the end the song included quotation marks which was believed to suggest irony about the song’s name.
The B-side was inspired by Kraftwerk performer Florian Schneider, who died on April 30, 2020.
Bowie acknowledged Schneider as a huge influence on him in this time, and the song is mostly instrumental, and references the V-2 rocket, the first ballistic missile, which had been developed for the German Army during the Second World War.
The engineers behind this were also involved in the American space programme, with which Bowie was obsessed.