Key Tracks: Tony Visconti on “Heroes”

The second album in David Bowie’s fabled “Berlin Trilogy,” “Heroes” was actually the first that The Thin White Duke put together in the German capital. The year was 1977 and the Cold War was in full effect, with the Berlin Wall its most notorious emblem. Red Army guards were able to see Bowie recording in the Hansa Studios via binoculars as they patrolled the East/West border. In an excerpt from his RBMA lecture in 2011, producer Tony Visconti recounts the edgy atmosphere and unique microphone placement that led to the celebrated title track from the album.

David Bowie - Heroes
Masayoshi Sukita

I produced a song by David Bowie called “Heroes.” They use it for every heroic event, although it’s a song about alcoholics. We did it on 24 tracks in Hansa Studios in Berlin. With all of the backing vocals and instruments on it, we only had one track left for the vocal.

So Bowie would do a take and listen to it and he’d say: “I think I’ve got one better.” And I’d say: “Well, you know we can’t keep that take.” This was before digital recording. So he’d pull his socks up, take a deep breath and go and do a better take than the one he did before. And that was it, it was gone, the previous vocal was gone. We kept doing that. Having experience in the studio, you have to know when to say, “I think we've got the take.” There’s no way of going back to take five or take two; they were gone, evaporated. I did a lot of records that way. That’s when you work as a team, as a producer, coach, singer, artist. Everybody’s on the same page and everyone is just hyped up with adrenaline.

It’s not about doing takes, takes, takes and then just comping, comping, comping.

I find that almost completely lacking in today’s recording styles. I lecture students at NYU in New York and I’ve been scratching my head. How do we recreate this? We all know that we have playlists and we can save everything that’s recorded now, from the first groan on day one to the last scream on day seven. We can save all those things.

But it’s not about doing takes, takes, takes and then just comping, comping, comping. There’s no passion in that, there’s no energy in that. So what I asked my NYU students to do is think about that before they go in front of a mic, to think, “The performance I’m going to do will outlive me. I want people 50 years from now to hear what I’m singing. If it’s no good it’ll be thrown away. If it’s great, people 50 years from now will hear my voice singing this song.”

Hansa was a studio where you could record symphony orchestras; you can have about 150 pieces in this room, and here was David Bowie standing in this enormous auditorium. Every time he sang – he could sing very loud – his voice was echoing off the walls and the ceiling and everything. I said, “Could you give me half an hour? I want to set up two microphones.” So I set up a Neumann U-47 in front of him and then about 15 or 20 feet away I set up something like a 67, then way down the hall I set up another condenser microphone.

I only had the one track left, so I couldn’t record these microphones on separate tracks. What I did is put a gate on microphone two and another gate on microphone three, so when he sang like this [deep voice] those microphones wouldn’t open up, you wouldn’t hear the ambience in the room. When he sang like this [loud voice], the middle microphone would open up and when he went [screams] – that’s called Bowie histrionics – all three microphones would open up and the reverb you hear on that recording is only that room. You’ll hear some backing vocalists and that was done by two people only. One person has a British accent, the other has a Brooklyn accent, so you can figure out who’s singing what. I’m the Brooklyn guy.

The women were dressed as if it were the ’50s: they had narrow skirts, beehive hairdos and stiletto heels. It was a most bizarre situation.

[At the time of the recording, Bowie] was living in the Turkish quarter of Berlin, kind of a working-class neighbourhood. Of course, the Berlin Wall was still up. It was a very bizarre situation. Every day we’d see military tanks in the street – really huge tanks that were almost 15 to 20 feet high, with big gun turrets at the front – and black jeeps that weren’t the standard military green. It was almost like being in a futuristic Arnold Schwarzenegger film, but this was happening in the ’70s.

The city was surrounded by a moat that was mined. So if you fancied swimming across from East to West Berlin, you’d probably be either caught in barbed wire or exploded. If you had a British or American passport you could go into East Berlin… and when you went into East Berlin you were going about 30 years into the past. Because it was a communist territory there were no brand names but they had billboards with a picture of a fish saying, “Eat fish” [or a] picture of a milk bottle [that said] “Drink milk” in German. There were no products in a communist country then.

The women were dressed as if it were the ’50s: they had narrow skirts, beehive hairdos and stiletto heels. It was a most bizarre situation. David was parked one night on the West side and he was having a cigarette with a girl in his car and a Red Army guard knocked on his window and asked him for a light. Now, this guy shouldn’t have been in the West. Wacky stuff used to happen like this. He came under the river in a passage to ask him for a light. David was so freaked out. “You guys should be over there, on the other side.” That’s a lyric from “Heroes,” actually.

The control room of Hansa actually faced the Berlin Wall. But the room we recorded the album in didn’t have a glass window. So we would communicate via CCTV and when things got boring, which was hardly ever, [drummer] Dennis Davis was on the camera and he would mime a television show. He’d have us in hysterics.

In the daytime in the control room you could see the Red Army guards looking at us through binoculars. They, of course, knew it was a recording studio. One time we asked our lovely assistant engineer Edu Meyer, “Doesn’t it freak you out that the guards are looking at us all the time?,” ’cause they were about 500 feet away. He said no, and took the overhead light and flashed it in their eyes and stuck his tongue out. We dove under the recording desk, saying, “Don’t do that, don’t do that!” All that edge was in the recording.

By Tony Visconti on February 28, 2013

On a different note