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Best of 2023: This summer marked 46 years since Heroes – aka the greatest song ever written – was recorded at the mighty Hansa Studios in Berlin.
During July and August 1977 the Bowie and Brian Eno song Heroes was put together with producer Tony Visconti at Hansa Studios for Bowie's album of the same name. Some of the best musicians of the time played on the track including Carlos Alomar (guitar), Robert Fripp (treated guitar), George Murray (bass), and Dennis Davis (drums), with both Eno and Bowie taking up keyboard duties on synth, piano and Solina strings.
There were several cutting-edge recording techniques employed during the recording of the song, including Fripp's guitar being treated through an EMS synth, which combined to create what Visconti called "a celestial Fripp sound".
But the most famous technique was the three-microphone method that Visconti deployed to record Bowie's vocal. Here he used one mic up close to Bowie, one around 20 feet away and the third 50 feet away to capture the full sound at Hansa, which was originally designed as a large concert hall. The resulting recording not only captured the sound of the room but gave Bowie's vocals an eerie but enormous quality.
You could also argue that the track also utilised early sampling, with Bowie employing a Chamberlin instrument to play tapes of brass instrument stabs throughout.
Visconti discusses the track below. Who knew the Eno synth and Fripp's guitar were so pivotal, not to mention the cheesy Bowie strings? In fact, as Visconti reveals, many of the tracks in isolation sounded less than great.
What mattered, though, was the combination of these sounds in the final mix. And what a result… eventually.
Heroes did its job as the standout title track of the album but didn't exactly set the world on fire back in '77. It scraped a top 30 chart placing in the UK but, like the best songs and wines, it would take a few years to mature.
In 1985, Heroes was the standout track in Bowie's Live Aid set. He dedicated it to his son and all the children of the world and it still remains an emotive and captivating (if faster) performance.
Since then, of course, Heroes has become the definitive Bowie song, covered by many an artist and used as the backdrop to everything from money-raising charity events to the appearance of the GB Olympic team.
Covering such an iconic song is a daunting task. What can you add, if anything? Are you just going for the straight cover, or your own interpretation? How far away from the original can you go? And with such an iconic song and sound, should you really even be trying in the first place?
These are questions that the following artists must have grappled with, but answered well, because these six versions are at the top of our tree of Heroes covers. They each add a little, maybe a lot, and nor do they take away from the original song's atmosphere, message and emotion.
Most importantly, each version demonstrates a clear level of respect for both Bowie and the song, making them some of the finest tributes to one of the greatest artists and songs of our time.
Heroes (Reprise Version) feat. Mindy Jones by Moby (2021)
Moby has spent the last few years revisiting some of his own tracks for the albums Reprise (2021) and Resound NYC (2023). He has drafted in some of the best vocalists around to sing over completely new arrangements and interpretations of his famous tracks, plus the odd classic by someone else.
For Reprise, he and singer Mindy Jones recorded this extraordinary version of Heroes. As ever with Moby, he builds the strings and the emotion as the arrangement progresses, but this time he leaves enough space in the mix for Jones to shine and take the plaudits for a wonderful performance that manages to be both powerful and understated.
Heroes by Depeche Mode (2017)
Covering Heroes for Depeche Mode was poignant as it was a tribute to their own hero, Bowie, after he died in 2016. And while Bowie was the influence, the song has an even greater importance in the history of the band. Heroes was the track that Dave Gahan was singing in a youth club in Basildon when the rest of the members of the time, Andy Fletcher, Vince Clarke and Martin Gore, heard him and asked him to join the band. Gahan bought the name 'Depeche Mode' to the party and 43 years later they're selling out stadiums across the world.
This laid-back version might not be how you expected Depeche to cover Heroes and might even be all the better because of that. Centred around a Gore guitar line and impeccable Gahan vocals, it settles into a slow electro groove while being washed over by synths before a late sequence helps it build.
To our geeky minds and ears, this might well be the best cover of Heroes ever, but that might be because there are lot of close-ups of synth gear in the video. Either way, it's a standout version…
Depeche Mode don't do that many covers – previous to this they were best known for their electro, cross-country live romp of Route 66 – but when they do…
Heroes by Motörhead (2015)
And it doesn't get much more poignant than this one. Motörhead's version of Heroes was one of the last tracks that lead singer Lemmy Kilmister recorded before his death in December 2015, just a couple of weeks before Bowie passed away.
The song was recorded during sessions for what would be the band's last album, Bad Magic, but released on the posthumous covers album Under Cover two years after the singer's death (which also featured a cover of God Save The Queen by The Sex Pistols and Metallica's Whiplash among others).
Obviously this is a rockier and more uptempo version of Heroes compared to our openers – of course it is, this is Motörhead – but it still manages to retain the magic of the original while adding a very large helping of Motörhead's power and Lemmy's charm.
"Lemmy ended up loving our version,” ex Motörhead drummer Mikkey Dee said. “He was very, very proud of it, not only because it turned out so well but because it was fun!"
The video is pretty good too – lots of crowd action and stock footage, yes, but lovely freeze-frame action, and some poignant shots of Lemmy make it both a tribute to Bowie and Lemmy, and you couldn't ask for more than that. And with twice as many Youtube views as the original, it must be doing something right.
Heroes by Peter Gabriel (2010)
Gabriel's 2010 covers album Scratch My Back sounded like a great idea at the time: he would cover a bunch of artists and a second album, I'll Scratch Yours (later with an 'And' added to it), would be released simultaneously with the same artists covering him. Two albums, lots of covers, lots of writing royalties spread out and everyone's a winner.
However, after recording his covers, Gabriel found many of the chosen artists slow to respond to the idea with several – including Bowie, Radiohead and Neil Young – not responding at all. And I'll Scratch Yours eventually appeared some three years later than planned, limping over the line with other artists drafted in to fill the gaps.
Which sadly overshadows Scratch My Back, which does contain some great covers by Gabriel including this version of Heroes. Those after a straight-up take with Gabriel singing the original note for note – and we'd count ourselves in that group – might be disappointed. As ever, Peter delivers his own slant, and it's introspective, a little chin stroking and a bit late-80s David Sylvian.
But Gabriel eventually delivers the vocal you always wanted to hear and if you give the track a few listens, this impressively meticulous take will get under your skin. As it did for the producers of Stranger Things who chose it to be prominently used at the end of Season 3 of the smash hit show.
Heroes by Oasis (1997)
It's hard to say what makes a great cover. Earlier we suggested that a great re-imagining of a song should retain some of the power and majesty of the original, but this Oasis version of Heroes blows that theory out of the water. It's Oasis doing what Oasis did, just knocking out a version of an iconic song for a b-side (to the 1997 single D'You Know What I Mean?).
And if you were an alien landing on Earth in 1997 – who just happened to like Oasis – you'd think they'd written it, so 'Oasis' did they make this version of Heroes sound.
That's not to say that the Gallagher brothers didn't have huge admiration for Bowie. Noel told Rolling Stone just after David's death: "I'd never heard Heroes before, and there was the video of him, looking clearly coked out of his fucking mind, singing this song with the light behind him. It totally fucking blew me away.
"The sentiment is amazing: we all can't make it in life, but we can feel like we make it, for one day at a time. That's why it's my favourite, today anyway."
Heroes by Blondie (1978)
Blondie couldn't really be any cooler, but this last chapter of our Heroes story – which should really be the first – could lead you to think that Blondie were so cool in the late 70s that they were the first band to discover Heroes.
And while this is true, they also couldn't miss it. They were opening for Bowie and Iggy Pop's live shows in as early as 1977 so Heroes would have been in their faces. Nevertheless, they not only steal the honours as being one of the – if not the – first bands to cover the track but also perform it so well live. In fact, most of the renditions of their cover you find will be live versions.
We've chosen this one from 1980, as it shows just how brilliant Blondie were even 40+ years ago. It is very true to the original – as you might expect given that Robert Fripp joined them on stage to play it – and an almost perfect rendition with Harry's vocals shining throughout. It turned out so well that it was eventually released on the 12-inch version of Atomic.
Not quite heroic enough…
Of course not everyone cut the mustard when it came to recording Heroes. And rather than take petty swipes at artists for trying and failing, here are some that almost made the cut, but just fell at the final hurdle, or in David Hasselhoff's case, the Berlin Wall.
He was always destined to record Heroes. He famously performed I've Been Looking For Freedom at the Berlin Wall as it fell in 1989, just a few hundred meters away from where Heroes was originally recorded. And the clip of that is well worth a revisit, believe us. If only for the jacket…
Hasselhoff's version of Heroes is actually not terrible. It's maybe a little too close to the original in some regards – he even uses some kind of effect on his vocal to try and emulate the Bowie Hansa sound, but even that's not too bad. It's just we can't get the image of him singing it – probably standing on 'The Wall', wearing a flashing leather jacket – out of our heads.
Similarly the X-Factor finalists' cover of Heroes is not without worth. It probably raised a ton of money for the Help The Heroes charity it supported, it had a bit of money thrown at the video, and some of its participants even became big stars. But it's the X-Factor – a UK talent show that ruled the charts in the early 21st century – so not only are you spoonfed how you are supposed to feel watching the video, but pretty much every singer in the song uses at least twice as many notes as they need to while singing each lyric.
Finally, Philip Glass is a bit of a hero of ours, with seminal operas, soundtracks and symphonies making him one of the greatest composers of our time. But his cover of Heroes, isn't a cover, simple as that. It might have been 'inspired by the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno', but that's as far as it goes, so take it out of your top Heroes covers charts folks, it's a Philip Glass composition.