Hash’s Faves: “Heroes” by David Bowie

18 Jan

By now I’m sure you’re all aware that musician/actor David Bowie died on Monday. Although I was never a dyed-in-the-wool fan, I’ve always respected his courage to explore new artistic directions, sometimes at the risk of alienating his fans. Many of his decisions were truly courageous, and he always bucked the prevailing winds. When everyone else had long hair and denim was de rigeur, he became Ziggy Stardust. When glam and flash took over during the disco years he became the Thin White Duke. When many rock stars had trophy blonde companions, he married the Somalian model Iman. He collaborated with John Lennon, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Queen, Niles Rodgers and Trent Reznor. His canny public-relations savvy was evident from the start, when he changed his name from David Jones, knowing that the danger to his career from being confused with teen-pop idol Davy Jones of The Monkees would derail any chance at being considered a serious artist. Bowie’s acting career actually predates his musical career; as one might expect from someone who inhabited so many different personas as a musician, he was very good in front of the cameras. He was 69, and he leaves an enduring and fascinating legacy.

This week’s pick is kind of a duplicate; on Oct. 4, 2010 my Hash’s Fave was David Bowie’s “Heroes.” This is a live performance from 1996, at the benefit concert for Pegi Young’s Bridge School, an educational program aimed at serving the needs of children with severe physical and speech impairments. He sings some new lyrics here, and he’s joined by Gail Ann Dorsey on bass and vocals and Reeves Gabrels on guitar.

Although this is an acoustic version, I think it’s worth revisiting what I wrote about the initial recording of the song:

This week’s entry is rock. It’s David Bowie’s “Heroes”, a song never released on any proper Bowie album. It was released as a single in 1977, and has subsequently been released in a bewildering number of versions and languages, as singles, parts of EPS and on Greatest Hits compilations.

The song was produced by Tony Visconti; King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp contributed heavily-processed guitar and Brian Eno played synthesizer. The other musicians are Carlos Alomar on guitar, George Murray on bass and Dennis Davis on drums (Visconti has occasionally claimed that he played drums and sang backup on the track).

Bowie did not write lyrics for it until the track had been completed, but Eno says that they always had the concept of “heroes” in mind. The song was recorded at Hansa Studios in West Berlin; the studio overlooks the Berlin Wall, and the lyrics that Bowie wrote refer to that proximity. Visconti was conducting a dalliance with the vocalist Antonia Maas; they had slipped out of the sessions and were kissing, literally up against the Wall, providing the central imagery for the song.

I first read about Visconti’s unusual production methods for this track many years ago, and I continue to be impressed with the intuitive flash of genius that gives the track it’s vibe. The room they were recording in at Hansa was a large, stone room, with great natural reverb and ambience (Visconti especially loved using it as a live drum room). Rather than recording Bowie’s overdubbed vocals close and dry, as was the prevailing studio methodology of the time, Visconti put Bowie in the live room (rather than in the vocal booth). He then set up three microphones; one close, as was usually done; another 20 feet away, and the last 50 feet away (like I said, it was a LARGE room). He then put noise gates on the two far mics, set to open up when Bowie’s vocals passed pre-set volume levels. And rather than listen to the recorded track on headphones, the track was played back in the room through speakers. Bowie sang the first verse fairly quietly, so only the close mic was activated. Bowie sang the second verse a little louder, opening up the 2nd mic, and allowing more of the backing track and the room’s air and reverb in. The third verse was sung at maximum rocking level, opening up the final mic; of course from 50 feet away not much of the vocal came through clearly, but the room’s ambience did, resulting in a sound completely unlike what prevailed in the industry at the time.

You can listen to it at the link below:

This post is reprinted from News From The Trenches, a weekly newsletter of commentary from the viewpoint of a working musician published by Chicago bassist Steve Hashimoto. If you’d like to start receiving it, just let him know by emailing him at steven.hashimoto@sbcglobal.net.

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