Sometimes it is truly fascinating to see how a single track can have a ripple effect that reaches beyond boundaries and across time. When David Bowie recorded and performed “Heroes” in Berlin, perhaps this was his intention – to reach across both a literal and figurative wall. The song soon became Bowie’s greatest feat and an anthem that describes the triumph of love. So what inspired this track that moved thousands of people and brought down a wall? Let’s find out!
“Heroes” has one of the most romantic backstories that you will ever hear. A fine blend of fact and fiction, the song was composed by Bowie and Brian Eno and was produced by Tony Visconti. Each one of them made “Heroes” a shining example of brilliant songwriting and composing. Bowie weaved this imaginary love story after watching two lovers embrace underneath the Berlin Wall. He later revealed that these two lovers were none other than Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass, who were involved in an illicit love affair;
“I’m allowed to talk about it now. I wasn’t at the time. I always said it was a couple of lovers by the Berlin Wall that prompted the idea. Actually, it was Tony Visconti and his girlfriend. Tony was married at the time. And I could never say who it was…it was very touching because I could see that Tony was very much in love with this girl, and it was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”
Bowie’s imaginary love story told through music and verse, the song soon became the anthem of separated lovers from East and West Berlin.
The track was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall and released on September 23, 1977, as the lead single of Bowie’s album ‘Heroes’. Despite the current legendary status of the song, it only performed fairly well on its release. “Heroes” did not make the cut to be included in any of the Billboard charts and only reached #24 on the UK Singles Chart. The legacy of “Heroes” was only cemented after Bowie’s memorable 1987 performance at the Berlin Wall. It was this particular performance that is accredited as being a catalyst for bringing down the wall. Bowie reminisced about this experience;
“They’d backed up the stage to the wall itself so that the wall was acting as our backdrop. We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart. I’d never done anything like that in my life, and I guess I never will again. When we did “Heroes” it really felt anthemic, almost like a prayer.”
The Berlin Wall was torn down two years after this performance, uniting the separated people of Germany and symbolizing the triumph of love. The song received many accolades over time and charted #3 in Billboard Euro Digital Song Sales and #12 on the UK Singles chart after Bowie’s death in 2016. It was listed in Time magazine’s All-Time 100 Songs and Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Listen to “Heroes” by David Bowie
Buy ‘Best of Bowie’ Album on Apple Music & Amazon
David Bowie “Heroes” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
“Heroes” is recognized by critics as a remarkably well-put-together song. On one hand, Eno’s direction in music composition branded the song as experimental rock. On the other hand, Visconti creatively used the gating method turning off the microphones closest to Bowie after each verse, forcing Bowie to belt out the last few verses. This meant that Bowie’s voice sounded more and more powerful as the song progressed, almost like a passionate lover shouting to be heard. This contributed to the overall premise of “Heroes”, bringing to mind a lover shouting across the wall.
“We can beat them just for one day
We can be heroes just for one day”
There is no doubt that “Heroes” celebrate love above all things. Bowie’s description of the lovers in this tale is likened to a king and a queen, two people standing at the top of the world and remaining undefeated. This is only emphasized by the lines that follow. The lovers will not be shaken in the face of adversity and even for one day, they would be the protagonists, the ‘heroes’ of their own tale.
“’Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that”
This verse brings out a certain sense of liberation, for Bowie sings that each lover could do whatever they wanted – and it doesn’t matter if one is mean and the other would drink all the time. Perhaps what he wanted to convey was that love cannot and won’t be restrained. Even more so when he was talking about two lovers that were carrying out an illicit affair, like many others who dared to love across the wall. So one could interpret that Bowie considered these lovers to be heroes because they dared to love and to be unashamedly themselves – to be unrestrained and uninhibited because that is how lovers should be.
“Though nothing will keep us together
We could steal time just for one day”
Yet the one thing that Bowie is keenly aware of right throughout is that the time these lovers have together is limited. He keeps repeating ‘one day’ over and over, knowing that this love is short-lived and the lovers would soon have to go their own ways. But one cannot help but see it in a different way as well. Perhaps Bowie’s wish for his friend was that this impossible love would come true ‘one day’.
“I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”
Seemingly whimsical, these lines actually carry a wealth of meaning. Bowie had once told his wife Iman that he had incorporated a part of his favorite book into “Heroes”. Written by Alberto Denti di Pirajno, this particular book titled A Grave For A Dolphin was about a magical love story between a dolphin and a Somali girl. Putting further emphasis on the themes of love’s triumph and liberation, Bowie conjures the image of dolphins swimming in the ocean unrestricted and free – just as the two lovers wished to be. The refrain tops off this verse and claims that the lovers could beat them ‘forever and ever’. The unconquerable nature of love cannot be described any better than this!
Watch David Bowie Perform “Heroes” Live at Live Aid in 1985
“Standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall”
So we come to the scene that inspired it all! Here Bowie talks of his friend Visconti and his lover kissing each other underneath the Berlin Wall. We could only imagine how romantic and magical the moment must have been to Bowie who oversaw the two lovers from the studio. It must have been a daring picture, the two lovers defying authority and kissing right underneath a gun turret where the guards were keeping watch. It is no wonder that this song was taken up by the people of Berlin as an anthem. In fact, it is said that the East Berliners had shouted “The wall must go!” after Bowie’s 1987 performance. It is Bowie’s lyrical genius that inspired an entire people to stand up against the authorities that kept loved ones apart. What a powerful moment it must have been!
“We’re nothing, and nothing will help us
Maybe we’re lying, then you better not stay”
Bringing this amazing song to a close, Bowie expresses the fears of the two lovers hell-bent on being together. The odds are still stacked against them, but the beauty of it all is that despite everything, love will conquer all – ‘just for one day.’
So we are left with one question, are these lovers truly heroes? Or are they risking it all for a fleeting romance? No matter what your answer is, it is the nature of love to ignore all conventions and boundaries. Maybe that is what Bowie wanted to convey and it was the right message at the time. When an ideological difference separated a nation by a physical wall, it was “Heroes” that brought this wall down. This feat alone is enough to immortalize this track as the greatest hit of all time.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.