From “Heroes” (October 1977); released as a single, September 1977 Highest UK chart position: 24
“There’s old wave. There’s new wave. And there’s David Bowie…” ran the press ads for the “Heroes” album, and Bowie never caught a better balance between epic romantic alienation and cool ironic poise than on the title track. Originally an instrumental composition partly inspired by Neu!’s track “Hero”, Bowie and producer Tony Visconti conjured up a Phil Spector dream of krautrock, from Robert Fripp’s endless feedbacking guitar to Eno’s droning synth discordance. The result is the greatest song of Bowie’s career
JOHN CALE: My first encounter with David was when I was doing A&R at Warners in 1971. I was there to bring in the strange and freaky stuff, the underground stuff. So there we were with Hunky Dory, the deal was on the table and everyone was trying to figure out how this cabaret-ish, Brit art-rock could work. At that time, Warners had The Doobie Brothers and Alice Cooper and all of that, which they understood. But coming around to the art side of things, they just didn’t get what David was doing. It was [producer] Ted Templeman and I who went to [Warners head] Joe Smith and told him the rest of the A&R department was really divided about Hunky Dory. It’s a very difficult thing to fight for in a large corporation like that if no-one understands where they’re going with it. It really wasn’t fair, certainly not to David. There were certain things you knew you weren’t going to get your hands on in those days and that was one of them. You were struggling in the trenches. But I loved Hunky Dory. I saw the Anthony Newley/Lionel Bart vein in it. It was unique, strange and very unorthodox. But if you tried to explain Anthony Newley and British music hall tradition to the executives, they just wouldn’t get it. So I was really disappointed I couldn’t do anything at Warners with him. I think, later on in the ’70s when I saw the whole thing build with David, it all started to make sense to people.
David and I didn’t actually meet until I first went back to New York, after I’d done Patti [Smith; Cale produced Horses in 1975]. When we did that bootleg [Cale and Bowie recorded “Piano-La” and “Velvet Couch” in New York in October 1979], it was like the good old bad old days. We were partying very hard. It was exciting working with him, as there were a lot of possibilities and everything, but we were our own worst enemies at that point. We also played that show for Steve Reich and Philip Glass [1979’s ‘The First Concert Of The Eighties’]. That was a lot of fun. That was when we were hanging out, so I asked David if he’d like to come and play “Sabotage” with me. I ended up teaching him the viola part, which he had a whack at and then ended up playing on stage for the first time. Did I ever want to produce Bowie? After spending time with him, I realised the answer was no. The way we were then would have made it too dangerous. Nowadays it would be different, though. He could improvise songs very well, which was what that bootleg was all about. The great thing about when we met and then started hanging out in the ’70s was that he would say [puts on thick Welsh accent] “That’s Dai Jones from Wales, isn’t it?” He loved all that. That set us off. We got along really well, but most of what we were doing was just partying.
I suppose David and I were similar in that we were coming from the European art side of things as much as rock’n’roll. What struck me about “Heroes” was that branded hammer piano. There was a lot of layering, too, a lot of orchestral stuff on it, but it’s really that two-chord special. It was that “Waiting For The Man” thing, though when we eventually met, we didn’t really talk about The Velvet Underground at all. Aside from the repetitive hammer piano, there’s a real groove in “Heroes”, but it’s very horizontal. And then it was layered with all Brian [Eno]’s stuff. If anything, I think it was their dissimilarity that drew David and Brian together. It was kind of how the VU was with Lou and I: put two people from very different backgrounds in the same room and you get a third thing. And I think that’s what happened with David and Brian. Did I see my own influence on Low and “Heroes”? If you’re talking about David’s use of drone, then yes. It’s all through that stuff. That’s why Brian was involved. But I think the tapestry idea of “Heroes” and blanketing the music to give it depth was a very good idea. I could see David’s progression to making it rhythm-oriented and then disco-oriented, which was the style of the day. Against what was happening with disco, if you had that sustained tapestry of sound behind you, it really helped. Especially if you had material like David had. It wasn’t like doing The Village People.
The imagery in “Heroes” is interesting. Hansa Studios was an interesting place to be at the time. The Berlin Wall was still up. I saw the two lovers by the Wall as two Brits adrift in Berlin, when Berlin was really something you couldn’t pin down at all. You’d have to drive through East Germany to get there. Being in West Berlin was very different from what it is now: everyone was nuts, living on the edge. It was a real circus over there. When Brian and I did that Nico concert where she insisted on singing “Deutschland Über Alles” [in October 1974 at The Nationalgalerie], they really went nuts. All the young people there were living with the Wall. And it was a fiery place to be.
Interviews by David Cavanagh, Carol Clerk, Nick Hasted, Rob Hughes, Tim Jonze, John Lewis, Dan Martin, Andrew Mueller, Sam Richards, John Robinson, Marc Spitz and Stephen Troussé