David Bowie’s Heroes: A Chat with Bowie Producer Tony Visconti, on the Album’s 39th Anniversary
Today (Oct. 14) marks the 39th anniversary of one of David Bowie’s most acclaimed and beloved albums—the 1977 LP, Heroes. Back in 2008, I had the pleasure of speaking with producer Tony Visconti about his—and Bowie’s—work on this extraordinary record, as well as Visconti’s work with Bowie in general. Indeed, Visconti’s friendship and working relationship with Bowie began in the late ‘60s, and carried forward right up until the artist’s death in January of this year.
In the following interview, Visconti delves deeply into Bowie’ work methods, the integrity Bowie brought to his craft, and the collaborative brilliance that inspired many backing musicians to do their best work whenever they joined Bowie on a project. One sad but special note: Bowie was very much alive when this interview was conducted; where appropriate, present tense has been changed to past tense.
The songs Bowie wrote as a teenager—“Karma Man,” “In the Heat of the Morning,” “Silly Boy Blue” and so forth–were wonderfully melodic, in the way children’s songs often are. Do you think that period served as a wellspring from which his later work followed?
Visconti: It’s funny. You can trace the work of most rock stars to rock’s roots. They might say they listened to Buddy Holly … someone like that. But David listened to musical theater. He listened to rock music, too, of course, and in fact he loved Little Richard. But he was more influenced by people like Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, who wrote “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and “Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.” He was very serious at an early age about becoming a “music hall” artist. And his manager at the time, Ken Pitt, was doing exactly that for him. Pitt was placing him in that world. Everyone had high hopes for David Bowie the “musical hall” artist. That background gave him a solid grounding in beautiful melodies, and expanded melodies.
He once said to me, “I write good chord changes, don’t I? I’m proud of my chord changes.” And you can trace some of those chord changes back to musical theater. They’re not rock and roll chord changes. You have to be a damn good guitarist to play a David Bowie song. It’s not just five or six chords. But that’s where those melodies come from—the fact that he was very inspired by musical theater.
In retrospect, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World was the album that really moved Bowie out of that world and into the rock world. Do you agree?
That’s right. On the Space Oddity album, we had no idea what we were doing. It was all over the map. Afterwards we looked back at a few tracks and saw places that we felt were going in the right direction. Also, we had met Mick Ronson at the very end of making that album. Ronson had made a brief appearance on “The Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” [from Space Oddity] just clapping his hands and playing a simple guitar line. We really allowed Mick to educate us. We were scratching our heads, thinking, “How do we get a big ‘rock’ sound, for David?”
David felt very awkward, up to that point. He hadn’t worked with serious rock musicians. Ronson was the first person we met who had dedicated himself to being a “rock” guitarist, and specializing in this genre. Mick’s favorite group was Cream, and he specifically told me to listen to Jack Bruce’s bass playing, and to copy him. He made me put down my Fender Precision bass and buy a Gibson EB-3, which is the type that Jack Bruce played. That album, The Man Who Sold the World, was the blueprint for the rest of David’s career. On virtually everything he did afterwards, you can trace something back to that album.
Can you give an example?
Well, it was certainly the blueprint for Ziggy Stardust. It was the same band, except that I was replaced on bass by Trevor Bolder. And then there was all the experimental stuff. We used synthesizers and recorders in a very adventurous way. We had one of those big, 200-pound moog synthesizers. It looked like four black refrigerators, lined up by side by side. There was just one person in England who could actually program it, and that was Chris Thomas, the record producer. So Chris came along with the synthesizer.
In those days we were very naïve. We didn’t realize that a synthesizer was capable of making extraordinary new sounds. I would say things to Chris like, “Can you make it sound like a trombone.” I was using the synthesizer to orchestrate things I would normally have written for live musicians. On “After All,” you hear something that sounds like a trombone solo, in the middle. But then Chris enlightened us. He said, “Yes, you can make a sound like a trombone, but you could also put an ‘envelope filter’ on it.” That was complete Greek to us.
After that David started buying keyboards, and moved on to electric guitars, and moved away from his 12-string guitar. Everyone says he’s a chameleon, but to me he was always the same guy, from album to album. In my view, he was just going down another kind of tangent that was sparked by those beginnings.
The next big project you did with Bowie was the Young Americans album. That album has sound unto itself.
David already had his musical education in his teen years, and he was living it out on these albums. Most British singers–and most English bands–grew up listening to early American R&B music, and blues. It’s evident in the Rolling Stones, and it’s evident in singers like Joe Cocker and Rod Stewart. David was of that same ilk. He adored Little Richard and other R&B artists from the ‘50s. This was something that was always in the back of his mind. You could hear it pop up in his phrasing, on some of the early vocals.
By the time Young Americans came out, the TV show Soul Train had become very big and very influential. David was addicted to that program. He watched it all the time and of course eventually appeared on the show. So it seemed obvious to make an R&B record. And what better place to do that than Sigma Sound, in Philadelphia? So yes, that album had its own world, and its own universe.
It was our first experience with a lot of the musicians who played on the album. It was the first Bowie album that Carlos Alomar appeared on; and also Willie Weeks, from Donnie Hathoway’s band, on bass; and Andy Newmark, the drummer from Sly and the Family Stone. It was Luther Vandross’s debut as well. Before then, I don’t think we had worked with any black musicians. That album, to this day, sounds terrifically fresh. It’s one of my favorite Bowie albums.
Low, the album Bowie made a couple of years later, was an audacious move—a radical turn after he had achieved mainstream success in America. Were the two of you concerned at all, in those days, about the commercial prospects of what you were doing?
Well, I never was. I’ve always believed that if you make a great record, people will buy it. Bowie and I both shared the philosophy that it was better to create a trend, than to follow a trend. When you follow a trend, you’re always going to be at least three months too late, and probably six months too late.
We always had enough brains to figure out new chord changes, new styles, and a fresh approach to things. And of course Brian Eno was of that same mind. We started Low on the premise that we might simply waste a month, that it might be a load of rubbish that we would just throw away. But halfway through the making of the album, we knew we were onto something incredibly exciting. We couldn’t wait to release it to the public.
Fortunately, the public and the critics reacted beautifully. They really felt the album was remarkable. It was the record company who hated it. They wanted Young Americans 2, and they said as much, in so many words. But no, David didn’t really care and I don’t really care. It’s nice to have a hit record, but we wanted to have a hit record on our own terms. I think everyone should have that philosophy.
Of course Heroes followed in that same vein. Robert Fripp’s guitar playing on that album is extraordinary. How did you get the sound on “Joe the Lion,” for instance?
Fripp always carried a couple of gadgets with him, a couple of pedals. He would use a sustain unit and something for distortion, like a “Fuzz Face.” We then fed that output into Brian Eno’s little briefcase-synthesizer. It’s called the EMS Synthi–made by a British company. It doesn’t really have a functioning keyboard—instead, it has a joystick, and rows of holes where you put pegs in, which contain resistors. It’s a true analog additive synthesizer–with envelope filters, and ring modulators, and all that sort of thing. Fripp and Eno had long before worked out how to really mutilate the guitar using that synthesizer. That’s what you hear on “Joe the Lion.”
It was all done live, by the way. None of it was done in the mix. That’s what was so exciting about recording in the ‘70s. You took chances and you committed things to tape, with just 16 tracks. Often two or three people were responsible for making that single sound. I would be twiddling the knobs on the console, Eno would be twiddling the joystick on the EMS Synthi, and Fripp would be playing live. Also, Fripp worked out a feedback technique where he knew exactly where to stand, to sustain certain notes. He put pieces of tape on the floor marked with letters. He would stand on the letter G, if he wanted the G-note to sustain, for instance. It was a matter of how close he moved to the monitor speakers. And he didn’t use an amp–he plugged directly into the console.
So this was an incredible three-man choreography. And of course Bowie’s sitting there monitoring things, the whole time. Between takes, David is saying, “Do this. Try this. I like what you did five minutes ago. Could you do that again?” That’s true record production, in my opinion, where there’s a great flurry of activity in the studio, and so much excitement you can hardly stand it. That’s how Bowie and Eno and Fripp and myself worked in those days.
Is it true that all the backing tracks for the Heroes album were recorded before Bowie came up with the lyrics and melodies?
Yes, and in some cases that was even true about the song structure. In a very free spirit, we would record a lot of backing tracks. The actual song, “Heroes,” went on for almost a full eight minutes, for instance—without our knowing which part was going to be the verse, or which part was going to be the chorus, and with a “la la la” melody that didn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to what the final melody might be. With some of the songs, Bowie just listened to them for a long time, and said, “This is where I’ll start the chorus.” And if we didn’t have a second chorus like that, he would have me copy it, on a multi-track, and then edit it into what we soon agreed would be a verse.
This was similar, in a way, to how people compose on a computer these days. But of course we were doing it with razor blades and empty tape reels. I would say about half the songs on Heroes were composed that way. And that carried on to the next album, Lodger, where we did even more splicing. It was very much like a workshop. Bowie needed to be excited, in order to write. He liked being in the studio, under a bit of pressure, on a deadline, where people were going to leave and go home on a certain day.
You and Bowie used to joke about one day making your Sgt. Pepper’s. Do you feel that Scary Monsters—the album he closed out the ‘70s with–was the closest you came to that?
That had been our running joke, from the beginning. We both saw Sgt. Pepper’s as the ultimate example of an unrestrained artistic situation. You can do whatever you want, and you can take as long as you want. We had reached the point where we had done the three Berlin albums, and we felt we needed to get that work out of our brains, and not copy that. We had taken that approach to its most logical end with the Lodger album. I felt–and I can’t say whether David did, too–that we were running out of steam, on that concept. And although Brian Eno was wonderful to work with, I think David was beginning to feel he couldn’t have Brian be his partner for life. He needed to bring things back to himself again.
So that’s how we started Scary Monsters–with just the two of us. And we indeed took a long time on Scary Monsters. The album was made over the course of about six or seven months. We would record a bit, then take a break, and then we would come together and record a bit more. There are some stunning moments on that record.