Episode 66, February 9, 2019: HEROES
NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Welcome Back! It’s the next episode of How Good It Is, a weekly podcast that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.
My name is Claude Call, and I feel as though I’ve eaten a lot of birthday cake this week.
Hey, don’t forget to check out the website, and the Twitter thing, and of course the Facebook page, which can be found over at Facebook dot com, slash, How Good It Is Pod.
I have a fine trivia question for ye today! Name the artist who had exactly two songs that went to Number One during the 1960s, and both songs had one-word titles. Got that? This artist had two songs go to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and they each had one-word titles. As a hint, I’ll tell you that one song is from 1962, and the other is from 1969. I’ll have the answer for you at the end of the show.
By 1976, David Bowie had already released ten albums. And while that tenth album, Station to Station, was well-received and very influential, and did yield a big hit in “Golden Years,” Bowie himself had gotten into a bad place with cocaine and general burnout. In fact, in interviews later on, Bowie admitted that he remembered almost nothing about the recording sessions. And after making Station to Station, he took on the soundtrack to the film he’d already shot, The Man Who Fell to Earth—in fact, the Station to Station album cover is a still from that movie—but after recording a few tracks he got into a dispute with the producers and withdrew altogether from the project. Bowie also got into a little hot water because he’d made some comments that appeared to be in favor of Fascism. It was really more akin to John Lennon’s quip about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus, and it had much the same effect.
So Bowie did the smart thing and retreated for awhile, going to Switzerland, and later on Berlin, with his friend Iggy Pop and staying in an apartment that Pop had there in West Berlin.
[SOUND AND VISION]
Bowie wrote three albums while he was there, which is why collectively they’re called the “Berlin Trilogy”. The first, from 1977, is called Low, the second from later that same year was Heroes, and the third was titled Lodger, which was released in 1979. Of the three, only Heroes was also mostly recorded in that city. Low represented a move into electronic and ambient sounds, and has a bunch of avant garde sound fragments in it. But in Heroes he does a little bit of a course correction back into a rock and pop sound, and it’s the title track we’re going to talk about in a minute. Heroes marks Bowie’s return to physical and mental health, and allowed him to be both more experimental for Lodger, with nods to new wave and world music, and also more conventional, with a fuller sound than the other two, which have a sparse feel to them.
Now, for the younger crowd I have to say Gather Round Kiddies, because there’s a bit of a history lesson here. After the end of World War Two in 1945, the entire nation of Germany was divided into four zones, each of which would be controlled by one of the major occupying nations. Those were the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. What’s more, Germany’s capital, Berlin, was also divided into four sections despite the fact that it lay entirely in the Soviet zone. Within a couple of years, political divisions between the Soviets and the other three powers began to widen. By the early 1950s the other three zones had merged back into one, but East Germany, and East Berlin remained firmly under Soviet control. Finally, in 1961 as part of an effort to prevent people from leaving the Soviet zone, the Soviet Union closed all the borders between East and West Berlin, and construction of a physical wall began. In addition, the Soviets closed off the border between East and West Germany, putting up chain fences, minefields or other obstacles, with a wide, clear No Man’s Land that gave soldiers a clear line of sight to shoot at anyone who tried to cross over. The Berlin Wall didn’t come down until 1989, which means it was still in place during the time that Bowie lived in that city.
The song itself tells the story of a German couple who are in love, and they’re so determined to be together, that they meet every day at the Berlin Wall, under a gun turret. He doesn’t mention the Berlin Wall explicity, but he does bring up “the wall” and the guns being fired overhead. Co-writer Brian Eno said in a 2007 interview that, quote, “It’s a beautiful song. But incredibly melancholy at the same time. We can be heroes, but actually we know that something’s missing, something’s lost.”
But it turns out that the whole bit about the young lovers by the Berlin Wall was a little bit of a smokescreen. Bowie’s producer, Tony Visconti, was married to Mary Hopkin at the time.
[THOSE WERE THE DAYS CLIP]
Yes, that Mary Hopkin. At any rate, while he was in Berlin working with Bowie, he was having an affair with one of the backing vocalists, Antonia Maass. At one point, Bowie spotted them embracing from the studio window and that was the inspiration for the song. In the 1999 book Strange Fascination—David Bowie: The Definitive Story, Visconti told this story, and said that Bowie was protecting him and the affair. Bowie, however, didn’t confirm the story until a few years later.
Now, there are two things about the way this record sounds that I’ve always appreciated. One of them is how they managed to approximate a “Wall of Sound” sensation, and I think it’s because the entire thing hits you at once from the first note:
BOOM! And you’re off and running. It’s very noisy and very forceful, and the synthesizers are at the same time insistent and oscillating. In addition, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp, who is playing on this track, is moving around the room and playing with the pitch of his guitar’s feedback.
But the other cool thing about this record is Bowie’s vocal, and the way it was recorded. Visconti used three microphones to record the vocal. One of them was set quite close to his face, the second one was set 20 feet away and the third 50 feet away. And as Bowie moved from one verse to the next, Visconti would mute one microphone and turn on the next one. Now, ordinarily this effect would just make him sound a little more hollowed-out and farther away, but Visconti added an extra detail, with a creative use of a technique called gating. Now, this is going to be a gross oversimplification, but electronically, a “gate” controls the volume of an audio signal, but there’s a specific range set by the user that determines what’s going to pass through the processor. So if the signal is above or below a given threshold, the signal doesn’t go through.
Now, if I move further away from my microphone…
…my voice sounds both softer and further away. I’m just a couple of feet from the mic, but I haven’t changed the way that I typically speak on mic. If this mic were gated, you wouldn’t hear me at all unless I spoke louder.
If you’ve noticed that you can always tell when Phil Collins was drumming on a record, it’s because he’s using a combination of reverb, compression but also gating.
So as Bowie sang each verse and the microphones switched, he was forced to sing louder and then louder still, in order for the mic to pick him up, otherwise it wouldn’t pick up anything at all.
[HEROES LAST HALF]
So by the time Bowie gets to that final verse, he has to shout just to be heard, and he gets pushed back into the mix just a little bit more each time, which makes him sound just a little more passionate, a little more desperate, and a little more like the doomed lovers in the song.
“Heroes” was released in several languages, and frankly it didn’t do very well early on. It only went to Number 24 in the UK, and didn’t chart at all in the United States. The highest it charted on its initial release was Number Eight, in Ireland, and Number Nine, in the Netherlands. It took time for the song to gain some acclaim and respect. It was one of Bowie’s concert mainstays, though he noted in an interview with Q Magazine that it’s a tough song to sing in concert because of the need to really belt it out near the end. He had to place it near a point where he could take a vocal break afterwards.
Bowie has performed the song on a few notable occasions. He performed it at the Concert for New York as a tribute to the first responders involved in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, he played it at the Live Aid show in 1985, but perhaps the biggest deal as far as concert performances was the time in 1987 when he played it at the Berlin Wall itself, not long before it came down. In an interview with Performing Songwriter Magazine, he described it as one of the most emotional performances he’d ever done. The stage was backed up TO the wall, and he’d hoped that some of the East Berliners would be on the other side and able to hear it. What nobody realized was just how many people would be there. It turned out to be in the thousands, and he could hear them cheering and singing along.
But there are a couple of television performances that are worth pointing out. The first time he performed it on TV was for a show hosted by Marc Bolan, the lead singer for T-Rex. About a week after that show, Bolan was killed in an auto accident. I’m going to link the video at the website because so many of them are out of synch, but I managed to find a good one.
The other? Well, there’s something interesting to that one. Do you know the duet that Bowie does with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy”? If you’re not aware, that recording was made for Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas special, which aired in 1977. And once again, I think there’s a clip you have to watch if you haven’t already seen it. It opens with a skit that had to feel forced even forty years ago, as Bowie comes to Crosby’s house looking for a friend who’s supposed to live in this house, and apparently lets him use the piano. Instead of his friend, he finds Bing Crosby and they make some holiday tradition chit-chat, before Bowie breaks out a piece of sheet music and they sing the duet. Got all that? Because it’s during that same Christmas special that Bowie prepared a video of Heroes just for this show. Bowie is singing live against a recorded track, and there’s some extra echo added to his voice, and he does a really interesting lip synch performance that includes some interesting dance moves.
Unfortunately for Bing, he never saw the Christmas special because it was shot in September 1977, and he died in October. The show aired posthumously for Bing, on November 30.
And finally, I suppose it’s worth mentioning that after Bowie’s death in 2016, the song was streamed on Spotify more than any other of his songs, and it reached a new height of Number 12 in the UK, number 11 in the US and Number Three on the Euro Digital Songs chart.
Now it’s time to answer today’s trivia question! Back on Page Two I asked you to identify the artist who reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 only two times, once in 1962 and again in 1969, and both songs had a one-word title.
That artist would be Tommy Roe. In 1962 he went to Number One with the song “Sheila”, remaining there for two weeks. Incidentally, while the song was written about a girl he knew in high school, the name Sheila comes from Tommy’s aunt, who happened to be visiting.
The other song is “Dizzy,” which spent four weeks in the Number One position in March of 1969. “Dizzy,” incidentally, changes keys eleven times across four different keys, three of them in the choruses.
Tommy Roe had a half-dozen songs go to the Top 10, but these two are his only Number One songs.
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