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"Heroes" by David Bowie

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“Heroes”

Written by David Bowie and Brian Eno (1977)

Performed by David Bowie

The Music

In the summer of 1977, David Bowie was living in Berlin and working on a new album. One evening, he saw his producer Tony Visconti sitting on a bench near the Berlin Wall with a young German woman. “Tony was married at the time,” Bowie recalled, “I think the marriage was in the last few months, and it was very touching because I could see that he was very much in love with this girl. It was that relationship which sort of motivated the song.”

The song, “Heroes,” about a love that defies borders, was the title track of a landmark Bowie record, part of what later came to be called “the Berlin trilogy.” Bowie’s relationship with the Berlin Wall took an even more poignant turn in 1987, when he performed “Heroes” on a stage near the west side of the wall. He remembered, “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.”

Note: On January 8, Bowie’s 66th birthday, he surprised the world by announcing his first new album in ten years. The lead-off single, “Where Are We Now?” has several lyrical references to the streets and sites of Berlin, fueling speculation that the album, due in March, may pick up the thread of the trilogy.

The History

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On August 13, 1961, the Communist government of East Germany ordered workers to begin building a wall through Berlin. Within two weeks, the wall had blocked nearly a hundred miles of border between the East and West sections of the city. Made of barbed wire, it was christened by the East German leaders as an “Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart” that would shield its population from the corrupting capitalist influences of West Germany. 

But there was a more pressing—though unspoken—reason for the wall. Since 1949, over 3 million East Germans had given up on Communism and defected to the west side of Berlin in search of better lives. Despite the propaganda about anti-fascism, the wall was essentially built to plug that population leak. In time it would come to represent something bigger—the Cold War wedge between Western nations and Eastern Bloc countries.

Two Berlins

How did East and West Germany become divided in the first place? With the defeat of the Nazis and the Axis powers at the end of World War II, Allied leaders met to determine Germany’s future. Shortly after, the country was split into four separate zones. The eastern part went to the Soviet Union, while the west was occupied by the United States, Great Britain, and France.

But the modern city of Berlin was an uneasy fit for the Russians. Leader Nikita Krushchev later complained that it “stuck like a bone in the Soviet throat.” As early as 1948, a Soviet blockade aimed to starve the western influence out of the city. The response by the United States and its allies was the “Berlin Airlift,” where planes flying overhead supplied sectors of the city with over two million tons of food, fuel, and goods. The Soviets called off their blockade the following year.

A decade later, as Russia continued to watch the best minds—engineers, doctors, teachers—flee East Berlin, they made noise again about ousting the Western occupiers. Conferences, summits and negotiations between Russia and the Allied countries followed, but led nowhere. Then, in 1961, after mass defections (in the first 12 days of August, over 18,000 East Germans crossed over), Krushchev authorized the government to shut down the border for good.

Checkpoints and Death Strips

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Before the wall was built, Berliners from both sides could move around the city freely, to shop and go to movies and so on. Trains and subways regularly crossed the border. After the wall was up, that freedom disappeared. There were only three passages through the border: Checkpoint Charlie, Checkpoint Bravo, and Checkpoint Alpha. Patrolled by East German soldiers, these checkpoints were mainly for diplomats and officials, who were thoroughly screened and questioned. It was nearly impossible for ordinary citizens to pass through these checkpoints.

But the checkpoints didn’t stop defectors from finding ways through, under and over the wall. As time passed, East Germany bolstered the crude barbed wire wall with one made of concrete—12-foot tall, 4-foot wide and topped with a pipe that made climbing over it nearly impossible. And for those still brave enough to attempt escape, they had to deal with the so-called “Death Strips.” In front of the wall on the East German side, there were strips of soft sand (to show footprints), floodlights, attack dogs, trip-wire machine guns, and soldiers instructed to shoot escapees on sight. From 1961 to 1989, around 170 people were killed trying to defect. But over 5000 succeeded in crossing the border (by means of everything from hot air balloons to underground sewer pipes).

Tear Down This Wall!

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In 1987, President Reagan gave a speech in Berlin where he famously urged Russian leader Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” It was an important moment in Cold War history, and as a verbal gauntlet, played a part in bringing about the end of the division between East and West Berlin.

That end came on November 9, 1989, when the East German government announced that “permanent relocations can be done through all border checkpoints.” The wall was inundated with people from both sides, crossing over freely, hugging, kissing, and singing in celebration. Some brought hammers and picks, chipping away at the wall. All those pieces eventually became collectible items. East and West Germany reunified into a single state a year later.

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Pop Culture
How Phil Collins Accidentally Created the Sound That Defined 1980s Music
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Unless your technical knowledge of music runs deep, you may have never heard the phrase “gated reverb.” But you’ve definitely heard the effect in action: It’s that punchy snare drum sound that first gained traction in music in the 1980s. If you can play the drum beat from “I Would Die 4 U” by Prince or “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen in your head, you know what sound we’re referring to.

But that iconic element of pop might not have emerged if it wasn’t for Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. As Vox lays out in its new video, the discovery was made in 1979 during the studio recording of Peter Gabriel’s self-titled third solo album (often called Melt because of its cover art). Gabriel’s Genesis bandmate Phil Collins was playing the drums as usual when his beats were accidentally picked up by the microphone used by audio engineers to talk to the band. That microphone wasn’t meant to record music—its heavy compressors were designed to turn down loud sounds while amplifying quiet ones. The equipment also utilized a noise gate, which meant the recorded sounds were cut off shortly after they started. The result was a bright, fleeting percussive sound unlike anything heard in popular music.

Gabriel loved the effect, and made it the signature sound on the opening track of his album. A year later, Collins featured it in his hit single “In the Air Tonight,” perhaps the most famous example of gated reverb to date.

The sound would come to define music of the 1980s and many contemporary artists continue to use it today. Get the full history of gated reverb below.

[h/t Vox]

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entertainment
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Could Have Been a Meat Loaf Song
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Imagine a world in which Bonnie Tyler was not the star performer on the Royal Caribbean Total Eclipse Cruise. Imagine if, instead, as the moon crossed in front of the sun in the path of totality on August 21, 2017, the performer belting out the 1983 hit for cruise ship stargazers was Meat Loaf?

It could have been. Because yes, as Atlas Obscura informs us, the song was originally written for the bestselling rocker (and actor) of Bat Out of Hell fame, not the husky-voiced Welsh singer. Meat Loaf had worked on his 1977 record Bat Out of Hell with Jim Steinman, the composer and producer who would go on to work with the likes of Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand (oddly enough, he also composed Hulk Hogan’s theme song on an album released by the WWE). “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was meant for Meat Loaf’s follow-up album to Bat Out of Hell.

But Meat Loaf’s fruitful collaboration with Steinman was about to end. In the wake of his bestselling record, the artist was going through a rough patch, mentally, financially, and in terms of his singing ability. And the composer wasn’t about to stick around. As Steinman would tell CD Review magazine in 1989 (an article he has since posted on his personal website), "Basically I only stopped working with him because he lost his voice as far as I was concerned. It was his voice I was friends with really.” Harsh, Jim, harsh.

Steinman began working with Bonnie Tyler in 1982, and in 1983, she released her fifth album, Faster Than the Speed of Night, including “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It sold 6 million copies.

Tyler and Steinman both dispute that the song was written specifically for Meat Loaf. “Meat Loaf was apparently very annoyed that Jim gave that to me,” she told The Irish Times in 2014. “But Jim said he didn’t write it for Meat Loaf, that he only finished it after meeting me.”

There isn’t a whole lot of bad blood between the two singers, though. In 1989, they released a joint compilation album: Heaven and Hell.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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