Music

As Long as There's Fire: David Bowie's 'Heroes' to 'The Next Day'

Forty years after "Heroes", we discover the doomed couple wasn’t so doomed after all, those declarations of love weren’t as futile as we thought, and there are indeed heroes to be found.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 2 November 2015.

David Bowie has amassed a musical catalog of staggering importance and diversity over his five-decade career. After a health scare abruptly halted the tour in support of his 2003 album Reality, Bowie glided quietly out of the public eye, leaving fans mystified and uneasy. Nobody really thought another album was in the cards, but the man himself had other ideas.

On 8 January 2013, his 66th birthday, he dropped a bombshell. Without even a whisper of warning, the video for “Where Are We Now?” appeared on his website, along with news that The Next Day was imminent. It was a comeback beyond all expectations. Produced with longtime collaborator Tony Visconti, The Next Day ties the disparate threads of Bowie’s past into a tight, harrowing knot. It’s an album soaked in blood and dread, but never with surrender. It’s a piercing indictment of humanity as seen through the lens of Bowie’s own musical legacy.

Interest in Bowie’s musical legacy remains at its highest level in many years. A successful touring exhibition called David Bowie Is, boasting many important original artifacts from throughout his career, opened in London and has traveled to other major cities. In the wake of The Next Day, last fall Bowie released a new reverse-chronology career-spanning retrospective called Nothing Has Changed, featuring the jazzy and wildly off-kilter newly recorded single “Sue (Or in a Moment of Crime)”. This past September he released the lavish box set Five Years (1969 to 1973), which collects, in pristine remastered form and in superb packaging, all of his studio and live albums released during that period, as well as a bonus disc of rarities. Future box sets covering subsequent albums are in the works.

The theater production Bowie co-wrote with Edna Walsh, called Lazarus, opens on 18 November at the New York Theater Workshop and runs until mid-January. Directed by Ivo Van Hove, it stars Michael C. Hall in the role Bowie himself played in the film on which the play is based, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The production will reportedly include reworked classic Bowie material as well as new compositions. As if all this wasn’t enough to keep fans occupied, just last week Bowie announced a new studio album called Blackstar, which will be released in January 2016 (once again on his birthday) with the title-track appearing on 20 November as the first single.

Indeed, after years of nothing but silence, anxious speculation, and a slow trickle of reissues, there has been a veritable rush of activity. It is once again an exciting time to be a fan of David Bowie.

This resurrection started with The Next Day, an album strong enough to stand up to its role of marking a new era in Bowie’s career. With the benefit of hindsight and nearly three years to absorb, its strengths have only become more apparent. Often great works take months or even years to properly understand in the context of an artist’s career, and that is certainly the case for an album as complex and meaningful as The Next Day. Since Bowie hasn’t been giving interviews, the only substantial insight provided by those directly involved in the album’s production come from comments by producer Tony Visconti, guitarist Earl Slick, drummer Zachary Alford and album-cover designer Jonathan Barnbrook. Bowie is content to allow the songs to speak for themselves.

This story begins in October 1977. The Cold War grips the Grey City of Berlin with an iron fist. Surrounded by the decay of industry and war, a young couple huddles furtively in the shadows of the Wall. Weary ghosts born of the Crystal Night and Final Solution roil in the cold wind buffeting the grim monument to mankind’s boundless capacity for brutality. Barbed wires tangle above them, and Red Guards with rifles on towers scan the cityscape for East Berliners trying to flee their urban prison, or West Berliners trying to cross into the zone of terror. The air quivers with the threat of impending violence. There is no place for tenderness or compassion here, only desperation.

Surrounded by a cold and uncaring universe, the young man offers words of empty bravado to his love: “I will be king / and you, you will be queen / we can be heroes, just for one day”. With increasingly feverish urgency he wails into the stony darkness, “We can be heroes!” Does he ever actually believe what he's saying? Perhaps he does. Perhaps he can close his eyes, and kiss “as though nothing could fall”, and allow flickers of love and hope to spark into genuine belief.

But we listeners know (thanks in part to the arch parentheses meant to convey irony bracketing the song’s title), that of course there are no heroes here to be found. We are meant to see them as doomed, despite the wild-eyed but futile declarations of passion. No, you can’t be heroes, just for one day, or even one moment. It’s a fantasy. “Heroes” is stark and unyielding, like the haunted barricade at its center.

Written and recorded in Berlin, a mere few hundred yards from the Wall in the sullen heart of the Iron Curtain, “Heroes” is the most vivid musical portrayal of a treacherous world that we can now only inhabit in memories, history books, and art. The quavering waves of synthesizer, the discordant howls of guitar, and, most of all, the wrenching vocals, dispatch the listener to a private, stolen moment that pierces cold reality, if only briefly. It’s easy to imagine many such moments that the years have erased, but “Heroes” is an eternal snapshot.

Bowie’s cornerstone single is the turbulent well from which The Next Day springs. Sonically the album stays within the confining lines of “Heroes’” universe, which is vast enough to encompass fits and starts in other directions. The next day after the restless, defiantly hopeful rendezvous comes nearly four decades later, and is fraught with the icy fingers of reality. It’s an intentional connection, which Bowie makes clear from the very start.

First single “Where Are We Now?” begins as a melancholy recitation by an aging man wandering with his ghosts and memories in Berlin. Bowie’s rich voice is wan with bittersweet nostalgia as he names landmarks in the city where he recorded some of his finest work. The landmarks are entrenched, permanent, unlike the ephemeral humans who buzz around them like swarms of flies. There are many parallels with “Heroes” beyond just the setting. The Next Day surveys the wreckage of mankind, telling sad tales of woe and heartbreak. “Where Are We Now?” is the spark of humanity amidst the carnage, just like the much younger couple by the Wall so many years earlier. Bowie even indulges in a moment of wry humor, as one crosses the bridge from the West to the East -- “crossing their fingers, just in case”. A nod to past anxieties.

Like “Heroes”, “Where Are We Now?” is built on defiance. The lovers are not fading gracefully into a hazy, comfortable, solemn old age. “As long as there’s fire…/ as long as there’s me / as long as there’s you”. It’s the human impulse to survive, to live until the last gasp of breath. Only death quenches that fire. Bowie’s vocals up until that point are wistful and somber, but the steel creeps in as he vows to cling on to life, and his love, until the very bitter end. It’s an echo of the passion bubbling through the murk of a foreboding, war-torn world we remember from the guy who’s been in such an earlier song. “Where Are We Now?” is the stake on one end tying the narrative to the present, with an iron chain spiked back in 1977 at the foot of the Wall at the other end.

After all these years, finally, an answer to the question we pondered with “Heroes”. Does he really believe what he's saying? Yes. Then, and now. Ever the dreamer, to the end. Perhaps the ultimate message here is that humanity’s capacity for love did in fact chip away those parentheses surrounding "Heroes" just as the Berliners finally chipped away the Wall. Perhaps, 40 years later, we discover the doomed couple wasn’t so doomed after all, those declarations of love weren’t as futile as we thought, and there are indeed heroes to be found. As long as there's fire…

Like “Heroes”, The Next Day was produced by Tony Visconti, who found the slow-burning “Where Are We Now?” and odd choice for lead single. He told BBC News, “I think it's a very reflective track for David. He certainly is looking back on his Berlin period and it evokes this feeling… it's very melancholy, I think. It's the only track on the album that goes this much inward for him.” He’s right -- the rest of the album focuses on characters and their grim stories, as if Bowie has been sitting atop his luxury apartment building in New York City passing judgment on the fractured world that scurries outside his bubble. “Where Are We Now?” is the album’s heartbeat. It was the perfect introduction to his first release in nearly a decade, and Bowie knew it.

It became even more clear that Bowie was consciously mooring The Next Day and “Heroes” together when the album cover art became public. A simple white square pastes over the original “Heroes” cover with “The Next Day” written in bold and simple font right in the center, and the “Heroes” title above crossed out. The original black and white shot was taken by photographer Masayoshi Sukita while Bowie was in Japan helping to promote The Idiot, an album he had just produced with Iggy Pop. In Sukita’s iconic photo Bowie’s face is frozen solid, his anisocoric eyes oddly striking. He wears a leather jacket and coiffed back hair like he’s beamed from the ‘50s, and his hands are positioned in an alien salute. It’s an image redolent of Bowie’s many idiosyncratic explorations of retro-modernism, a musical and thematic conceit that he’s explored numerous times, from “Life on Mars?”, the grandiose ballad about aliens observing the peculiarities of humans from their secret perch, to the grim visage that gazes threateningly on the cover of Heathen.

The Next Day is littered with examples of this as well. Designer Jonathan Barnbrook said of the cover that the white square is “of the moment” and “obliterating the past” while recognizing that “this is never quite the case, no matter how much we try, we cannot break free from the past. When you are creative, it manifests itself in every way -- it seeps out in ever new mark you make.” Barnbrook goes on to say that it’s also about “the wider human condition; we move on relentlessly in our lives to the next day, leaving the past because we have no choice but to.” The Next Day is an examination of the now, from the jaded point of view of the fiery idealist who huddled with his lover in the shadows of the Wall nearly four decades earlier.

The bold hard-rocking opening track and title-song “The Next Day” makes clear any apprehension about this being an “old” album in the wake of the solemn lead single is unfounded. This song bristles with rage and indignation. Of course Bowie is taking a sly swipe at those who speculated about his supposed ill-health when he practically rants the opening lines to the strident chorus: “Here I am / not quite dying!” From a larger view, though, “The Next Day” is about tyranny, and the abject misery and daily drudgery that many people endure. He denounces the hypocritical nature of religions that parade massive displays of wealth and ornate extravagance while purportedly being concerned about society’s poor and helpless. Bowie calls them out with pointed directness in the wonderfully outlandish video starring Gary Oldman as a corrupt priest and Marion Cotillard as a Mary Magdalene figure who develops the stigmata.

Meanwhile, Bowie is backed by his band, crooning in the background, rocking out in a plain brown smock that one could imagine Jesus Christ himself might have worn. Catholic League President Bill Donahue was, of course, unamused. He issued a bitter denunciation of the video, calling Bowie “confused about religion” and referring to him as “the switch-hitting, bisexual, senior citizen from London”, which surely led to some hearty guffaws from everyone involved in Bowie’s project. “The Next Day” is undeniably an aggressive, angry piece that is perhaps intended to provoke. The snarls of guitar sound very much like something from Lodger, just one of many instances on the record in which Bowie incorporates sonic and thematic elements from his storied past. In many ways, The Next Day is a culmination of everything that has come before.

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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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