When David Bowie died back in 2016, we were thinking about him a lot here at Original Fuzz. There were many poignant tributes to him during that period, but none of them really taught me anything new until we heard the Sound Opinions Bowie tribute show, which has a great nugget about how Robert Fripp got the iconic guitar sound on "Heroes."
Around minute 32 of the episode, Visconti starts talking about recording "Heroes" in Berlin with Bowie and Brian Eno. He says:
Well "Heroes" was written a couple of weeks before Fripp came down. We recorded the backing track, and it's one of the few times that David actually played piano live. Eno was in the control room with me. We really didn't know what we had. There were no lyrics yet. It was not called "Heroes." It wasn't called anything.
Finally we got something that sounded like, "this could a verse, this could be a chorus," and by that time we needed to do the guitar work. Fripp was available only one weekend. So he came to Berlin, brought his guitar, no amplifier. He recorded his guitar in the studio. We had to play the track very very loud because he was relying on the feedback from the studio monitors. So it was deafening working with him.
Whereas everyone thinks it's an ebow, this magical guitar gadget called an ebow. In fact it wasn't an ebow, it was just the feedback–Fripp playing this "dah uhhhh dahh uhhh" that beautiful motif. And Fripp recorded a second time without hearing the first one. It was a little bit more cohesive, but still quite wasn't right, and he said, "Let me do it again. Just give me another track. I'll do it again." And we silenced the first two tracks and he did a third pass, which was really great. He nailed it. And then I had the bright idea: I said, "Look let me just hear what it sounds like with the other two tracks. You never know."
We played it, all three tracks together, and you know, I must reiterate Fripp did not hear the other two tracks when he was doing the third one so he had no way of being in sync. But he was strangely in sync. And all his little out-of-tune wiggles suddenly worked with the other previously recorded guitars. It seemed to tune up. It got a quality that none of us anticipated. It was this dreamy, wailing quality, almost crying sound in the background. And we were just flabbergasted.
I have to point out, like Marc Bolan, David doesn't like to spend a lot of time in the studio either. He really does believe in the Zen moments. You know the accidents, to him, are more important than finessing something. And I totally agree with him.
So we all looked at each other. It was just Fripp, myself, and Brian Eno in the studio, and David, of course. We just looked at each other and we just couldn't believe our luck, how beautiful it sounded and how well it worked out.
Here's a YouTube video from the BBC where Visconti walks through the entire mix and isolates tracks. It's really cool: