In new book Classic Tracks, Richard Buskin looks at the stories behind the creation of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Nirvana and many more by speaking to those responsible for recording them. In an exclusive extract for Q, Tony Visconti and David Bowie himself discuss the creation of Heroes. Buy a copy of Classic Tracks now for the full story and more.
It only reached No. 24 in the UK singles chart and failed to make America’s Billboard Hot 100 at all. Yet, today Heroes is one of David Bowie‘s most popular numbers, named by Rolling Stone and Q magazines as being among the Greatest Songs of All Time. Which just goes to show that first impressions – especially those of a fickle record-buying public – are not always what they’re cracked up to be.
In 2004 – a year after interviewing Bowie – I spoke with his legendary, long-time co-producer Tony Visconti about how these artistic and musical elements came together for the creation of the Heroes album’s hauntingly atmospheric title track.
“Working with Bowie is much more than going to a studio,” asserted Visconti, who has worked on a dozen of the singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist’s albums, from Space Oddity in 1969 to Reality in 2003 [And now 2012 single Where Are We Now?]. “It’s a social event, too. We eat together, go to shows together, go to clubs together and really soak in the local culture. That’s always been his way of working, and Berlin was perfect for him in terms of what he wanted at that time. It was a stark, scary place, yet it had exciting nightlife, with exotic locales such as the Turkish quarter, and it was swarming with artists like Tangerine Dream who were friends of ours. David was writing with Brian Eno back then and the three of us got on really great.
Bowie himself asserted that his approach to songwriting is constantly changing. “Sometimes I’ll inflict rules like, All right, this piece can only have five chords, and go from there,” he explained, “because it can be good to set parameters. Then again, I’ve developed such a lot of different processes over the years, ranging from accidents of looping – taking three or four chords and looping them in a particular way, and then writing a melodic theme over the top of them – to old-fashioned, crafted songs.”
According to Visconti, it was normal for Bowie to pen a song’s lyrics a month or two after its chord structure had already been figured out. “We would work on the musical content,” he remembered. “David would have some idea as to what the song was about, and we would use that idea – like if it was going to be a happy song or a depressing song – to make the instruments come out with an emphatic arrangement or sound in order to invoke the desired emotion. Then the stage would be set and David would throw his lyrics on at the very last minute. He would write his lyrics in a morning, it would take him an hour or two, but beforehand he’d also need a month or two to let the ideas really germinate.”
Such was the case with Heroes. Before recording commenced on the album, Bowie and Eno spent a couple of weeks working out some basic song structures – again without lyrics and melodies – and among the stronger structures was that which would evolve into Heroes.
“There’s a sense of freedom working with Tony that I rarely find with other producers,” David Bowie remarked. “It’s a non-judgemental situation where I can just fart about and play quite badly on all manner of instruments and Tony doesn’t laugh! I can’t tell you how important it is to feel that free in the studio, and that somebody isn’t judging your musical abilities.
“Often, when I’ve done something with Tony, it just sounds right. It might not be played perfectly – there’s no virtuosity on the keyboards or anything – but there’s a certain way that I’ll put a B flat into a chord that nobody else would, probably because they’ve been trained properly, and it just sounds interesting. Well, Tony can spot that, whereas a lot of other producers will say, ‘Whoo, that B flat’s a bit suspect.’ I’ll be thinking, Ah, shit! No, that sounds good, Mr. Producer!”
For more and to purchase a copy of Classic Tracks head to Samplemagic.com. Picture above: Bowie, co-producer/engineer Tony Visconti (centre) and assistant engineer Edu Meyer in the control room of Hansa’s Studio Two, by Barbara Meyer.