The song was written by David Bowie and Brian Eno and was on the Heroes album released in 1977. The song peaked at #24 in the UK Charts, #35 in New Zealand, and #11 in Australia in 1978. The song recharted again in 2016. The album peaked at #35 in the Billboard Album Charts, #3 in the UK, #15 in New Zealand, #6 in Australia, and #44 in Canada.
After burn out because of touring Bowie moved to Berlin and rented a cheap apartment above an auto-repair shop, which is where he wrote this album.
Bowie made a video for this song which aired on the Bing Crosby Christmas special. In 1977 Crosby recorded a Christmas special in London called Merrie Olde Christmas, playing the England theme to the hilt. Bowie agreed to sing a duet with Crosby, which became the famous “The Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” mashup. Bowie’s “Heroes” video also aired on the show with an introduction by Crosby. The show aired in November 1977, about a month after Crosby died.
Bowie talked about the song:
“It’s a bitch to sing, ‘cos I really have to give it some towards the end. I pace myself throughout the show and often place it near to a point where I can take a vocal break afterward. As long as I’m touring I don’t see a time when I won’t be singing ‘Heroes.’ It’s a good one to belt out and I get a kick out of it every time.”
This song tells the story of a German couple who are so determined to be together that they meet every day under a gun turret on The Berlin Wall. Bowie, who was living in Berlin at the time, was inspired by an affair between his producer Tony Visconti and backup singer Antonia Maass, who would kiss “by the wall” in front of Bowie as he looked out of the Hansa Studio window. Bowie didn’t mention Visconti’s role in inspiring this song until 2003, when he told Performing Songwriter magazine: “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 (laughs). But I can now say that the lovers were Tony and a German girl that he’d met whilst we were in Berlin. I did ask his permission if I could say that. I think possibly the marriage was in the last few months, and 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.”
Robert Fripp, formerly of King Crimson, played guitar on this track. His band, King Crimson, performed the song at the Admiralspalast in Berlin on September 11, 2016 in celebration of Bowie. This version was released on an EP called Heroes in 2017.
Brian Eno, formerly of Roxy Music, helped Bowie write and produce this. Eno moved to Berlin with Bowie and worked on his albums Low, Heroes, and Lodger. These albums were much more experimental and less commercial than Bowie’s previous work, but they still sold well in England.
Co-writer Eno said of this in the April 2007 Q Magazine: “It’s a beautiful song. But incredibly melancholy at the same time. We can be heroes, but actually, we know that something’s missing, something’s lost.”
Bowie released versions of this song in English, German, and French. The German version is called “Helden”; the French is “Héros.”
Featured in this song are not only Brian Eno’s synthesizer and Robert Fripp’s guitar, but also producer Tony Visconti banging on a metal ashtray that was lying around the studio.
This song is featured in the films Christiane F (1981) and The Parole Officer (2001). It also ended up as a Microsoft commercial theme.
Bowie played this at Live Aid from Wembley Stadium, England in 1985, and also at the Berlin Wall in 1987. Regarding the later performance, Bowie said in his Performing Songwriter interview: “I’ll never forget that. It was one of the most emotional performances I’ve ever done. I was in tears. 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. However well we do it these days, it’s almost like walking through it compared to that night, because it meant so much more. That’s the town where it was written, and that’s the particular situation that it was written about. It was just extraordinary. We did it in Berlin last year as well – ‘Heroes’ – and there’s no other city I can do that song in now that comes close to how it’s received. This time, what was so fantastic is that the audience – it was the Max Schmeling Hall, which holds about 10-15,000 – half the audience had been in East Berlin that time way before. So now I was face-to-face with the people I had been singing it to all those years ago. And we were all singing it together. Again, it was powerful. Things like that really give you a sense of what performance can do. They happen so rarely at that kind of magnitude. Most nights I find very enjoyable. These days, I really enjoy performing. But something like that doesn’t come along very often, and when it does, you kind of think, ‘Well, if I never do anything again, it won’t matter.'”
The Wallflowers covered this in 1998. Their version was used on the soundtrack to the movie Godzilla.
The single version, which appears on the ChangesBowie album, is shortened, leaving out a good chunk of the first verse.
Bowie first performed this on a television show hosted by his friend Marc Bolan, who was the lead singer for T-Rex. A week later, Bolan died when his girlfriend crashed their car into a tree.
Bowie played this at the “Concert For New York.” Organized by Paul McCartney, it was a tribute to the police, firemen, and rescue workers involved in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks.
Blondie recorded a live cover on January 12, 1980 at The Hammersmith Odeon. It can be found on the disc Blondie and Beyond.
This was originally an instrumental composition, whose title was a reference to the 1975 track “Hero” by the German Krautrock band Neu!.
The finalists from the seventh series of The X Factor released a cover version in November 2010 in aid of armed forces charity Help For Heroes, which topped both the UK and Irish Singles Charts. The choice of song follows a trend as in 2008, the fifth series of X Factor finalists reached #1 with a cover of Mariah Carey’s “Hero.”
Despite a plethora of cover versions from other acts over the years, the X Factor 2010 Finalists are the first act aside from Bowie ever to have a hit single with the song.
What became the “official” video for the song was shot later in September 1977 and directed by Nick Ferguson, a painter who also did set design and directed various film and TV projects.
Janelle Monae recorded a cover for a 2014 Pepsi football-based advertising campaign “Now Is What You Make It.” Asked by The Guardian if she needed Bowie’s permission to use his song, the R&B songstress replied: “Oh, he’s a fan. He’s aware of me. His wife Iman is a huge supporter and she has told me countless times what a big fan he is. So he had to clear me doing the song and I’m so grateful.”
This song is central in the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, starring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. You hear it more than once throughout the movie.
Something of an underachiever when originally released, “Heroes” peaked at a lowly #24 back in 1977 in the UK and failed to make the Hot 100. In the week after David Bowie’s death, the song finally made the Top 20 in the country of his birth, leaping into the chart at #12.
I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins
Like dolphins can swim
Though nothing, nothing will keep us together
We can beat them, forever and ever
Oh, we can be heroes just for one day
I, I will be King
And you, you will be Queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us just for one day
I, I can remember
Standing by the wall
(By the wall)
And the guns, shot above our heads
(Over our heads)
And we kissed, as though nothing could fall
(Nothing could fall)
And the shame, was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them, forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes
We can be heroes
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be heroes