Heroes is one of Bowie’s most famous songs along with Space Oddity. As so often, it is about a couple fighting against the rest of the world for their love. They lean against a wall and imagine a better future. It is not just any couple and it is not just any wall. It is the Berlin Wall. And the couple is probably fighting not only against political powers, but also against the conventions of marriage.
David Bowie and the Berlin years
At the end of the 70s Bowie lived for some time in West Berlin. He began his time in Germany’s capital with a cold detox at the house of composer Edgar Froese. His cocaine addiction had become a problem. A good start into this new phase of his life, which, among other things, gave birth to the so-called Berlin Trilogy. He calls the middle part of this trilogy Heroes with the title track of the same name, which is what this trilogy is about. In addition to this project, which we will focus on in a moment, he plays alongside the famous Marlene Dietrich in her last film and produces the albums The Idiot and Lust for Life for his friend Iggy Pop, who also moved to Berlin.
Inspiration Berlin Wall
The pieces of the Berlin period were recorded in the Hansa recording studios, which were located near the wall that at that time still divided Berlin and Germany. And so the Berlin Wall inspired Bowie to write the following text:
I, I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns, shot above our heads
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
While Bowie had already finished the melody, he was still missing the lyrics to the song. When he looked out of the window, he saw a couple leaning against the wall. It was his producer Tony Visconti and his friend Antonia Maass.
He was still married then, so I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. (…) I think his marriage was probably as good as over then. And it was quite touching because I could see how much Tony was in love with this girl. That relationship became the inspiration for the song.
Heroes was released in September 1977, but initially only made it to number 24 in the UK charts.
Heroes at the „Concert for Berlin“ Festival 1987
Ten years after Heroes was released, Bowie played at a festival in the middle of West Berlin, not far from the Hansa Studios. In 1987, the three-day „Concert for Berlin“ took place on the Platz der Republik square. While people could not overcome the wall, music could.
More and more people also gathered on the East Berlin side of the Wall. At the beginning there were only a few hundred young people, but soon the news of the festival spread and there were thousands. The Volkspolizei began to take action against the assembled people and shouts were heard: „The Wall must go! The so-called Whitsun riots, triggered by the festival on the West Berlin side, were described by the civil rights activist Wolfgang Templin as „spontaneous politicization that took in much more than a few young people“.
Bowie also played Heroes at that concert. Later he reports that this performance was one of the most emotional moments on stage.
This was a double concert with the wall as a partition. And we heard them cheering and singing along on the other side. Even now it still moves me to tears.
Even at a normal festival the atmosphere is incredible. The air is full of possibilities and you are electrified by the music. I think you can hardly imagine how euphoric and sad this festival must have been for Berlin. Music has the power to unite people, to encourage and to overcome borders together. Sounds pathetic, but it is.