Monday, February 15, 2016
"Heroes" - David Bowie
After David Bowie died I heard tributes to him on classic rock radio stations, commercial alternative rock stations and college radio stations which I think is an indication of his eclecticism and musical adventurism. Given that he also dabbled in soul/funk and on his final album jazz, there is practically a Bowie album for everyone who likes pop music no matter what genre. I like all his albums from the 1970s, but my favorites are the Berlin trilogy from the latter part of the decade when Bowie collaborated with Brian Eno on three classic and highly influential albums, "Low," "Lodger" and "'Heroes.'" I love all three but I've opted to discuss this one because it was the one that I bought first and it was the album that made me a Bowie fan. As a teen I was lukewarm about Bowie. I was too uptight and naive to appreciate him during his glam rock phase although I liked several of his singles from that period. I was alienated by his flirtation with soul in the mid 1970s although I came to like it later. This album hit me at just the right time. I had become enamored with the early New Wave bands and was looking for something different from the classic rock I had grown up on. The sound that Bowie and Eno came up with for this album excited me and opened me up to explore new sounds in rock. I consider it one of the key albums in my personal musical history. The album begins with "Beauty and the Beast" which still has the funk sound of Bowie's soul period with its percussive punch, soulful backing vocals and driving bass line. However the song's high energy level, Robert Fripp's noisy guitar work, the frenzy of synth sounds and Bowie's intense vocal make it also sound New Wave. The song evokes cynicism and decadence. "Joe the Lion" also has a pronounced beat suitable for the dance floor but it is even noisier than the opening track with more howling guitar work from Fripp and swirling synth lines. The lyrics are again decadent with imagery suggestive of a pulp novel about the dark side of town. "'Heroes'" was co-written with Eno whose influence is evident in the drone that runs through the song. Bowie begins by seductively crooning and as the song builds he becomes more emotional as he desperately shouts out the words. The song's overt romanticism is powerful, idealistically suggesting that love can overcome the turmoil of the world. Given the climate in the world of the time, it was a resonant message, when the song cites the Berlin Wall it is a reminder that the Cold War was still raging in 1977. The first time I heard this song, it immediately captivated me and I still consider it Bowie's best vocal performance ever. By comparison "Sons of the Silent Age" sounds more conventional aside from Bowie's mannered vocal. It starts out with a Middle Eastern flavor before assuming a romantic pop sound that reminds me of his music from his glam-rock days. The saxophone and synths heighten the romantic feeling generated by the music. The lyrics describe the alienation of urban life and escaping through love much like "'Heroes'" does. Side one concludes with another funky dance tune, "Blackout." It is a harsh portrait of urban desperation and a plea to a lover to rescue him. Aside from "'Heroes'" it is the most dramatic song on the album. The music is richly textured and harsh, bordering on cacophonous and the vocals are screechy befitting the tone of the song. It is one of my favorite tracks on the record. Side one of this album is flawless, the best side of vinyl in the Bowie catalog and one of the great achievements in rock in the late 1970s. Side two is more experimental, consisting largely of electronic music instrumentals. When I first got this record I didn't play side two very much, I found it boring. As my musical tastes expanded, I came to appreciate it much more and now consider it an integral part of the experience of listening to this album. It begins with "V-2 Schneider" which is the most pop oriented of the instrumentals. It has a driving bass riff over which Bowie blows energetic sax lines supplemented by synth drones. It is not purely instrumental since Bowie sporadically sings the words of the title throughout the song. Pop disappears for the menacing "Sense of Doubt" which sounds like the soundtrack to a gothic horror movie. Gloomy synth lines alternate with an atmospheric piano line. The mood lightens with "Moss Garden" which was co-written with Eno. The langurous synth drones convey a dreamy feel to it, like meditation music. Bowie noodles around on a koto giving it an exotic texture suggestive of the Far East. "Neuköln" is another collaboration with Eno. It has some of the ethereal feel of the previous track punctuated by Middle Eastern sounding blasts of sax from Bowie which become harsher and more dissonant near the end of the song. It is my favorite of the instrumentals. The side ends with "The Secret Life Of Arabia" which was co-written with Eno and guitarist Carlos Alomar. This is a funky song that returns to the sound of side one giving the album an upbeat finish. I never get tired of this record. It still stimulates me as much now as it did when it came out. There are several Bowie albums that I don't like very much (most of the 1980s and early 1990s) but I don't think there was ever a more adventurous artist in rock. His artistic restlessness made him one of the most interesting and compelling characters that I've ever encountered in pop music. This quality makes his premature passing seem even more tragic to me, I think he still had the potential to make exciting music as his excellent final album "Blackstar" indicates. I'll miss him and I'll always be grateful for the gift he shared with us. Recommended to fans of "Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)" who wish that Eno was a better singer.