Producer Tony Visconti Breaks Down the Making of David Bowie’s Classic “Heroes,” Track by Track

Those famil­iar with David Bowie lore may know one or two things about the record­ing of his sem­i­nal 1978 track “Heroes.” One is that the record­ing stu­dio did, in fact, look out over the Berlin Wall and the lovers that Bowie saw made it into the lyrics (“I can remem­ber stand­ing by the wall/And the guns shot above our heads/And we kissed as though noth­ing could fall”). The oth­er is the micro­phone set up in Hansa’s expan­sive record­ing stu­dio: one next to Bowie’s mouth, anoth­er 15 — 20 feet away, and anoth­er at the far end of the room to catch the reverb. (Hands up how many of us learned about that when Steve Albi­ni copied it for Nirvana’s “All Apolo­gies”? Any­body?) But as this video above with pro­duc­er Tony Vis­con­ti shows, that’s only a few of the mag­i­cal inven­tions and dar­ing deci­sions made for this record­ing. The ses­sion con­tains lessons for any young pro­duc­er end­less­ly fid­dling about with their Pro­Tools and the mil­lions of choic­es afford­ed by a $2.99 synth app for the iPad.

When Bowie added his vocals at the end of the record­ing ses­sion, there was only one track left on the tape, hav­ing filled up the 23 oth­er tracks with the band’s back­ing track, Eno’s synths, extra per­cus­sion, three (!) tracks of Robert Fripp com­mand­ing the gods through his gui­tar pick­up and feed­back, and more. If they didn’t like the take, they’d erase over it with the new one. Those were the ana­log days. But as Vis­con­ti says, that scary deci­sion elec­tri­fied Bowie. As an artist, every­thing was at stake. It’s like they knew they were mak­ing a song for the ages. Maybe it’s Visconti’s 20/20 hind­sight, but they were right.

This small seg­ment above is part of a longer three-hour tour through Visconti’s career, record­ed in 2011 for the Red Bull Acad­e­my lec­ture series. Vis­con­ti talks about work­ing with Marc Bolan, Mor­ris­sey, Paul McCart­ney and oth­ers, along with his thoughts on pro­duc­ing, and a great deal about Bowie’s “Berlin Tril­o­gy.” (The sec­ond half of the talk is here.)

But there’s so much more to be dis­cov­ered among those 24 audio tracks of “Heroes.” In this won­der­ful BBC doc­u­men­tary from 2012 (also see up top), Vis­con­ti sits down with the dig­i­tal­ly trans­ferred mas­ter tapes and takes us through the con­struc­tion of the song. Here we get to hear Robert Fripp’s raw gui­tar tracks which sound so incred­i­bly abra­sive it’s hard to believe they exist in the song; Visconti’s “cow­bell,” which is him hit­ting a pipe out­side in the yard; Eno’s synth in a brief­case, the EMS Synthi‑A; and numer­ous painter­ly daubs of audio that all make up the mix. And then there’s that vocal, which Vis­con­ti lets play with­out any of the music, a song for the his­to­ry books, a voice that couldn’t be con­strained to just one mic. The video unfor­tu­nate­ly could­n’t be embed­ded on our site, but it’s def­i­nite­ly worth your time.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie Per­forms a Live Acoustic Ver­sion of “Heroes,” with a Bot­tle Cap Strapped to His Shoe, Keep­ing the Beat

Hear Demo Record­ings of David Bowie’s “Zig­gy Star­dust,” “Space Odd­i­ty” & “Changes”

Dave: The Best Trib­ute to David Bowie That You’re Going to See

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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