So Motörhead covered David Bowie’s “Heroes.” This is, even for Gotcha Covered, a fairly weird development — not just because it’s an ostensibly unlikely combination of cover artist and original song (though damned if it doesn’t work), but because it’s maybe the strangest form yet of a song’s legacy being stretched beyond its capacity into the uncanny. Lemmy is singular. So is Bowie. They died within a couple weeks of each other, less than a year after the former artist recorded a cover of possibly the latter artist’s most-loved song. But then, Depeche Mode covered it, too. So did Peter Gabriel back in 2010, and it became a big part of the soundtrack to Stranger Things last year. And King Crimson — the band that gave us Robert Fripp, him of the art-of-feedback guitar on the original Bowie song — did their part in tribute last year, too, though it’s been in their live set for a lot longer than that. And so on and so forth, so much in the wake of Bowie’s passing and just as often before then, a song that achieved universality built off something so singular it just had to stall out in its own time. (We love Heroes now, but it wasn’t until Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) that the press and charts figured he was finally breaking out of a cult-artist period into a bonafide mainstream comeback.)
But almost all the things that made this song possible feel lost in translation. Cold War anxiety, the notion of glam finding a new route through art rock, the idea that punk’s inroads to bigger things in the music world could be something new entirely rather than a throwback to “when rock was real” — almost none of this came through in each successive version of the song in the hands of others, and though many artists found their imprint, the impact of all that homage faded and blurred like a fifth-generation photocopy or a tape of a tape of a tape, until we went from Christiane F. to the Emmerich Godzilla. “Heroes” is an amazing song with some fine covers, but it’s a risk: Do it wrong, and you risk losing not only the identity of the song but the identity of the artist performing it. Bowie saw the lovers standing by the Berlin Wall in 1977. Ten years later he played that song there and found more meaning in his own words than anybody else would before or since. Better writers than me have gotten a grasp on what the implications of all the song’s meanings and mutations hold, but for now, let’s look at a few reinterpretive successes — and a few more cautionary tales.
Setlist records show Blondie covering Bowie’s “Heroes” as early as 11/12/1978 — a performance that was captured for posterity on a bootleg that sounds pretty amazing save Debbie Harry’s voice being a little low in the mix. It’s also two months after the release of Blondie’s Parallel Lines, during the album’s eventual climb to the hit-record status that would make Blondie superstars, and when you factor in Robert Fripp coming in for the show on the wave of his guest appearance playing guitar on that album’s “Fade Away And Radiate,” “Heroes” makes all the sense in the world as a cover selection. That ’78 version is almost uncannily faithful, but the most well-known recording of Fripp sitting in with Blondie for “Heroes” was released as a European B-side to the 12″ of “Atomic” (part of a 1/12/80 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon that was preserved as part of the syndicated radio program Super Groups In Concert), and at that point the band had made it a bit more theirs. Harry does a fantastic job of putting her own spin on Bowie’s calm-to-frantic vocal performance, Jimmy Destri’s keyboards give things a unique color, and Fripp’s guitar harmonizes and careens strikingly off Chris Stein’s. Like most of Blondie’s best moments, it’s the kind of thing that lends itself well to thoughts about the potential of new wave — not merely a more commercialized, watered-down version of punk, but a more distinctly futurist sound of its own that does for self-aware cool what its French cinema namesake did a couple decades previous.
Nico seems like a natural fit to cover “Heroes” — a song both recorded in and invoking the uneasy nation-splitting tension of the Warhol Superstar’s native Germany, and something of a legacy to the work the Velvet Underground’s art-rock movement first brought into the spotlight. But there’s a couple strange sets of catches around this one — or two. Nico’s album Drama Of Exile, her post-punk-laced comeback after an intermittent eight-year hiatus, was recorded in 1981 — but then subsequently re-recorded one year later. And both albums have different versions of “Heroes” that attest to a different sort of split at work. The ’81 original version is the only one easily found on streaming sites, as heard above — and it’s a fine version, opting to emphasize a relentless groove over slow-build atmosphere as Nico’s miserable decadence stays clenched-fist tense all the way through. (The last “I will be king” — no pronoun switching here — sounds as icily calculated as the first.)
But shit got complicated before the record even came out. The album’s executive producer, Nadette Duget, had a falling out with the record label Aura over money, after which the label received word that Duget had plans to steal the masters and shop them elsewhere. As the actual rights to the music stood in limbo — Nico had never actually signed a contract with Aura, but the label had dumped enough money into the project that the recording was considered theirs — everybody from Duget and Nico on down to all the supporting musicians decided to record Drama Of Exile all over again, slap a The at the beginning of the title, and put it out on an independent French label in a version everybody involved felt sounded better. It definitely sounds a fair bit dubbier and more cavernous, with the addition of violinist Thierry Matioszek’s performance giving an additional dramatic edge to the backing track. But it also sounds just a little more exhausted — consciously or otherwise. By 1983, both Duget and original producer/mixer Philippe Quilichini were so emotionally and psychologically spent by the legal ordeal that they wound up succumbing to anorexia and a heroin overdose respectively, and the Aura version of the album stood as the official version for years afterwards until things started getting at least a little sorted out. It’s not exactly an East/West clash, but it’s funny how a song invoking the struggle to reconcile togetherness between people separated by a border wall became tangled up in a divided state of its own.
Big Ben Tribe (1983)
One of the reasons “Heroes” works so well is its balance of uplift and anguish, romance and isolation, the hope of forever pitted against the compromise of “just for one day.” So what happens when you turn the dial all the way towards positive euphoria? Italo-disco group Big Ben Tribe gave it a shot, and it’s pretty damned off-putting, even if you spend your efforts focusing on how the song works (more or less) decently enough as a dance cut. It’s not exactly the most inspired interpretation — there are a lot of ways you could translate that Eno/Bowie/Fripp concoction into electro/synthpop, but it’d take a New Order or a Pet Shop Boys to make sure the undercurrent of melancholy remains. But the singer Giulia Crocini sounds a little too glamorously detached to make it really click, as though she’s more interested in hitting the notes than nailing the intent.
Celtic Frost (1990)
But what happens if you turn the dial the other way, until no light escapes and everything feels as imposing and concrete as the rest of that Cold War landscape? Swiss metallers Celtic Frost had their own answer to that, there’s a real irony in it being the first cover of note to come out after the Berlin Wall fell — it’s not exactly the kind of thing you could soundtrack a Brandenburg Gate celebration with. As a CD-only cut to close their 1990 album Vanity / Nemesis it’s something of an outlier, though not quite an outtake, and if it has anything in common with the Bowie song it’s the lyrics alone. The melody, the instrumentation, the nuance — in this version, all of those elements of “Heroes” are disposable. It doesn’t really fit any possible interpretation of the average listener’s memory of the original save the familiar but now empty-feeling words. But at least Curt Victor Bryant’s dive-bombing guitar solos are a particular kind of distorted and gnarled that Fripp might go for. And hell, they absolutely nail Bryan Ferry’s “This Island Earth” earlier on the record.
The Magnetic Fields (1996)
Let’s hear it for Stephin Merritt, that old lo-fi romantic. The Magnetic Fields were already a going concern with a certain rep to maintain by the mid ’90s, and aside from the distinctly bleary indie-synthpop that made the group stand out in the indie-crowded decade, the group’s big appeal was and remains Merritt’s lyrics — arch, sometimes flippant, but uniquely expressive in a way that didn’t blunt emotion. If Merritt ever wanted to operate in someone else’s context, he’d do it through the kind of genre-tweaking pastiche made famous on 69 Love Songs; out-and-out covers under the Magnetic Fields banner were few and far between. So hearing Merritt work through “Heroes” in his inimitable style pretty much immediately has to bring the Magnetic Fields-ish qualities out in the words themselves — a compatibility that stands out even in iconic lines like “You, you can be mean/ And I, I drink all the time/ ‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact/ Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that.” Bonus points for the band’s stripped-down, droning approach putting some motorik grease on the wheels; when you can’t spring for Frippertronics, sounding like a Cluster demo is the next best thing.
The Wallflowers (1998)
And now we confront the dilution. Twenty years after the fact, “Heroes” started being treated as a sort of cool-but-basic inspirational go-to anthem, the stuff of business-boom Microsoft ads and network drama montages. And if all that Anglo-Teutonic feedback and VSC3 drone proved just a little too much towards the avant for the synergistic tech-bubble late ’90s, hey, why not get it all Americana’d up by that band Bob Dylan’s kid sold a bunch of records with? And why not put it on the soundtrack to the Godzilla remake? People gripe about the “Kashmir” lift Diddy did with Jimmy Page for that cash-toilet of a movie, but the only thing it was really guilty of was not being as good as Schoolly D’s “The Signifying Rapper”; meanwhile their soundtrack cohorts the Wallflowers sanded off every intriguing edge and idiosyncratic decision and ambivalent lyric until it sounded like just about every other post-post-post-alternative shrug of a guitar song released in the twilight of corporate rock. Bloated Americanized product without a heart to it, just like the movie it soundtracked.
TV On The Radio (2009)
Janelle Monáe (2014)
So who are the Bowies now, and what will become of them? Every time another cover’s thrown out there, it does a lot to highlight how rare it is for an artist to be pop and art at the same time at a level where they can still be instantly recognized as both a household-name Big Deal and an unpredictable auteur. Radiohead might be the closest we have to that old model nowadays, and it still remains to be seen, 17 years after Kid A, if they’ll ever be as widely adopted as even Berlin-era Bowie was; their following is fervent but there’s still too many people to whom they’re that “band tuning up is mistaken for avant-garde genius” punchline. We have to find our heirs where we can, but it feels scarce.
So on one hand, you have TV On The Radio, who were at some point — and may be at some point again — at the absolute forefront when it came to representing the sort of nervy collective of art-punk-indie musicians that would rule a world running on the fumes of “Heroes.” Less futurists than the-future-is-now-ists, populist art and artful pop, TVOTR’s version of “Heroes” — as heard on the covers-heavy tribute compilation War Child Heroes — rebuilds all those melodic elements in the image of something as alien to typical ideas of the time as Bowie/Eno/Fripp did in ’77, but in ways that didn’t specifically invoke the feedback or the VSC3 or the vocals. There are mechanical drums that lope with the jittery nerves of a breathing organism, overdriven fuzz bass, production flourishes that sound like dub if dub was invented just that year, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone (and a cameoing Karen O.) harmonizing their way to completely new deliveries of lines everyone else only thought they knew how to remodel. (The delivery of the “I remember standing by the wall…” verse is just a series of knee-buckling knuckleballs.) It’s still exquisitely weird, and no “oh hey it’s that song from that Game Of Thrones trailer” can dent that.
And as for Bowie the theater geek, the movie star, the alter-ego-tripper, the aesthete: Here’s Janelle Monáe. Yes, sure: Her version is a Pepsi-sponsored tie-in for a soundtrack album released concurrently with the 2014 World Cup, and yes, the video is a feel-good power-of-imagination/be-yourself story with a side of early-mid-’10s anti-bullying messaging. But along with the fact that this is a pretty sharp electro-funk take on the song that actually benefits from Monáe’s made-for-the-stage vocals, the idea of a “Heroes” cover from a shameless, unreserved capital-P Performer who’s still on good speaking terms with artistic ambition while thriving on being endearingly weird? That’s a hell of a tribute, too.