Robert Fripp & King Crimson Perform a Stirring Cover of “Heroes,” Shortly after David Bowie’s Death (2016)

In 2016, King Crim­son per­formed “Heroes” at the Admi­ralspalast in Berlin, just after David Bowie’s death, and near­ly forty years after the song was writ­ten and record­ed next to the Berlin Wall. It was “a cel­e­bra­tion, a remem­branc­ing and an homage,” gen­tle­man gui­tarist Robert Fripp wrote in a state­ment. The fol­low­ing year, they released the live ver­sion on an EP called Heroes, in hon­or of the clas­sic Bowie album’s 40th anniver­sary.

King Crim­son sounds absolute­ly amaz­ing in the con­cert record­ing. Yet it’s Fripp’s keen­ing gui­tar line—part vio­lin, part theremin—that most calls out to us, a gor­geous­ly heav­en­ly wail. Like many Bowie songs, the writ­ing and record­ing of “Heroes” pro­duced many a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry. Fripp’s con­tri­bu­tion, as a leg­endary char­ac­ter and prog-rock genius, is no excep­tion.

Frip­p’s angel­ic tone on “Heroes,” as Tony Vis­con­ti tells it above (at 2:15), came about most­ly by hap­py acci­dent. Vis­con­ti explains more ful­ly in a Sound Opin­ions inter­view:

Fripp was avail­able only one week­end. So he came to Berlin, brought his gui­tar, no ampli­fi­er. He record­ed his gui­tar in the stu­dio. We had to play the track very very loud because he was rely­ing on the feed­back from the stu­dio mon­i­tors. So it was deaf­en­ing work­ing with him.

Where­as every­one thinks it’s an ebow, this mag­i­cal gui­tar gad­get called an ebow. In fact it was­n’t an ebow, it was just the feedback–Fripp play­ing this “dah uhh­hh dahh uhhh” that beau­ti­ful motif. And Fripp record­ed a sec­ond time with­out hear­ing the first one. It was a lit­tle bit more cohe­sive, but still quite was­n’t right, and he said, “Let me do it again. Just give me anoth­er track. I’ll do it again.” And we silenced the first two tracks and he did a third pass, which was real­ly great. He nailed it. And then I had the bright idea: I said, “Look let me just hear what it sounds like with the oth­er two tracks. You nev­er know.”

We played it, all three tracks togeth­er, and you know, I must reit­er­ate Fripp did not hear the oth­er two tracks when he was doing the third one so he had no way of being in sync. But he was strange­ly in sync. And all his lit­tle out-of-tune wig­gles sud­den­ly worked with the oth­er pre­vi­ous­ly record­ed gui­tars. It seemed to tune up. It got a qual­i­ty that none of us antic­i­pat­ed. It was this dreamy, wail­ing qual­i­ty, almost cry­ing sound in the back­ground. And we were just flab­ber­gast­ed.

It was a typ­i­cal­ly Eno-Vis­con­ti way to find a new sound. That sound, Vis­con­ti says above, is all over the track. For this rea­son, Fripp has been engaged in legal bat­tles with David Bowie’s estate over his cred­it, insist­ing that he should have “fea­tured play­er” sta­tus, a legal des­ig­na­tion that would give him greater rights to remu­ner­a­tion. Always a shame when wran­gling over mon­ey comes between the cre­ators of great music, but in this case, Bri­an Eno and Tony Vis­con­ti both sup­port Fripp’s claims, and so per­haps would Bowie if he were here.

What­ev­er it takes to be a “fea­tured play­er,” Fripp sailed over the thresh­old on “Heroes.” He demon­strates it again in the King Crim­son trib­ute, mak­ing one gui­tar sound like three onstage, and in the video above, which he released with his wife Toy­ah for VE Day. The back­ing track is from the Berlin per­for­mance at the top, with dubbed vocals by Toy­ah and gui­tar, of course, by Fripp, play­ing the same Gib­son Les Paul he flew into the stu­dio with in 1977, and look­ing just as sin­gu­lar­ly unim­pressed by the pro­ceed­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch David Byrne Lead a Mas­sive Choir in Singing David Bowie’s “Heroes”

David Bowie’s “Heroes” Delight­ful­ly Per­formed by the Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Britain

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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