As part of the promotion for my new EP, Demos from Safety, I’m posting reviews of some of the works which inspired each song on the album. I’ll admit that the inspiration of “Heroes” on my song “The Difference” was a bit roundabout. I had spent some time studying Bowie’s key changes and consciously attempting to replicate them, and “The Difference” was a product of that, but I focused more on “Life on Mars?”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”, “Zeroes”, and those works of his which actually had lots of innovative key changes. “Heroes” doesn’t have a lot of them- indeed, I could talk more about the ubiquitous key changes on Bowie’s previous album, Low. “Speed of Life” alternates between the keys of D# and G, “Breaking Glass” alternates between G# and A minor, “What in the World” alternates between F Mixolydian and G major, and so on. Yet in those cyclical key changes, there are no permanent changes, just some short periods of aberration from the norm before a return to the beginning. I was tasked with writing an essay on the Berlin Trilogy (Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger), and I wrote about how these key changes perfectly represented Bowie’s fears at the beginning of the journey to sobriety that prompted his stay in Berlin: that he would simply relapse. That’s one of the reasons why it was so nice to see him progress past that on later works, like “Heroes”, where Bowie ditches the cycles in favor of steady, resolute, epics, and Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), where the key changes are longer and more complex. When I wrote “The Difference”, I used my understanding of Bowie’s key changes to write the key changes in the bridge. Furthermore, I knew that I didn’t want it to be a song of a cycle, where things just go back to normal, so we never get back to that initial key of B minor after those key changes. The ending to the song isn’t a repeat of the chorus- it’s a rejection of it, a passage meant to put the chorus in the past. It’s in the key of A, and the mode mixture makes clear that it’s not set in stone. The journey of self-discovery in the song creates change, and that is good, and I figured that out examining the Berlin Trilogy. Here is my actual review of the centerpiece; it’s a good long one.
If it were revealed to me somehow that “Heroes” is the greatest album of all time, I would not be surprised. When Bowie’s drug addiction spiraled out of control and completely derailed his life, his friends, collaborators, and then-housemates Iggy Pop and Coco Schwab evacuated him from America and brought him to Berlin at the height of the Cold War. After getting lost in the fascist persona of the Thin White Duke, Bowie was forced to confront himself with a nation that had seen the horrors of Nazism. He went from getting high and suicidally driving in circles in a parking lot to joyfully driving around the beautiful German countryside with close friends. He got lost in the beautiful art scene of what had once been a haven for the queer movement, becoming a die-hard Kraftwerk fan and naming “V-2 Schneider” after Florian Schneider. It was this creative process of metamorphosis that had been Bowie’s life, and here it would save him, and, then, with the release of this album’s title track, a love song which asked its listeners to conceive of a peaceful world without the Berlin Wall, he saved the world.
Musically, the album is perfect. The composition was a collaboration between David Bowie and ambient legend Brian Eno, resulting in some beautifully produced wild rock tracks full of innovative chords, extremely charismatic vocals, and visionary production, and also some incredible, unprecedented ambient instrumentals. You’ve almost certainly heard the title track, but go back and focus on it again; it is so joyous, so perfect, that it still sends chills up my spine. That’s Robert Fripp of King Crimson playing the lead guitar, by the way; when they called him in to make the album, he mentioned that he hadn’t played guitar in three years and described bringing him on as a “risk”. His guitar lines are transcendent and legendary, always taking center stage and fanatically letting loose. Bowie’s saxophone is similarly fanatical; his disjointed solo at the end of “Neukoln” brings a real finality to the decaying, despondent atempo chorale, and his methodical riffing builds terrific anticipatory tension in “V-2 Schneider”. “Sons of the Silent Age” is another highlight, with the spiraling, unmoored harmony of its verses and the complete turnabout of the exuberant resolution in its chorus. That’s the beauty of having Eno on keys: under all those already contrapuntal musical parts, you get brilliant harmony, like in the valorous fills on “The Secret Life of Arabia”. The brilliance of Bowie, Eno, Fripp, and rhythm guitar Carlos Alomar trading off is most clear on “Beauty and the Beast”, with its postmodern, insane patterns; the song turns wildly through exaggerated vocal harmonies; chaotic, angular synth solos; a bridge that collapses out of the key through dissonant, almost radioactive decay; and flamboyant, mad vocals. (“Joe the Lion” functions much the same way, full of frenetic, seemingly undirected guitar and inimitable harmony.) I should note, George Murray’s bass is also perfect and lovely, and I constantly find myself wanting to dance along to his parts specifically. Listen to this album, and then listen to it again and again. It’s worth it.