"Helden" and The Craft...
- “Heroes” – David Bowie |
- Released: 1977 Parlophone |
- Produced: Tony Visconti, David Bowie |
- Genre: Genre-defying |
Search through their one inch thoughts /
then decide it couldn’t be done.
When David Bowie died in January 2016, there was a massive outpouring of public grief. People shared their memories, their favourite songs and albums from Bowie’s extensive back catalogue, and their sadness. I know I wasn’t alone in playing his freshly released final album, Blackstar, on repeat for days.
Social media – and Twitter in particular – meant that this collective period of mourning was played out in a public space. This was, to some extent, a double-edged sword: although it was clear to see how many people Bowie and his music had touched, some people’s (I’m sure, perfectly heartfelt) sentiments began to sound…trite. Too similar, too gushing, too, too much.
One such frequently recurring statement was: “He taught me it was OK to be weird.”
Think about that for a second.
Thousands of people whose identity – whose whole conception of themselves – was permanently altered by a musician’s performances. How could one man have inspired three whole generations of individualists? The online cynics followed shortly thereafter. Weren’t they all just jumping on a bandwagon?
And yet I do believe that a great many of those voices were genuine. “Weird” may be over-simplifying it, but Bowie truly was a talented musician, writer, and innovator. He was proud to be different. A true creative soul.
Aaaand there’s another one: a genuine statement that now feels like a platitude.
I think I know why.
It’s not so much that the words themselves have become passé, it’s the underlying truth. Even when he was still with us, people had a tendency to talk about David Bowie like he was an otherworldy being.
Sure, Bowie’s artistic persona and work encouraged this. But it’s a fallacy. A misunderstanding of what creativity actually is.
People talk as if music just poured out of him, fully-formed. Like creativity was in his blood. His DNA.
Really though, he was just some bloke with a few ideas. Great ideas, true, but ideas alone don’t get you very far. What gets lost in the idealised version of Bowie, the phenomena, is the sheer graft that he put in. Few artists have ever delivered such a comprehensive and diverse body of work with such a consistent level of quality. That isn’t possible without an incredible amount of hard work. As well as having the ideas, he was dedicated to his craft.
Take “Heroes”. The title track from the jewel in the crown of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy of albums. It’s a towering slab of anthemic power pop. It features in a climactic moment in the film version of teen melodrama The Perks of Being a Wallflower (which apparently takes place in a world where teenagers have heard of Cocteau Twins but not David Bowie…go figure.) No one would even consider compiling a best of Bowie list without it.
If the legend is to be believed, a burnt out, jaded Bowie saw a young couple mid-tryst at the Berlin wall. And then that was it. “Heroes”. One of the finest songs ever written just…happened.
How could anyone even hope to ever make anything as good as “Heroes”? If it can just spring from the mind of a singular genius, fully formed. Well, the legend doesn’t tell the whole story. For one, the couple Bowie saw was producer Tony Visconti and backing vocalist Antonia Maaß caught in the midst of an affair. Racy.
But it goes deeper than that.
If you’re ever feeling creatively daunted, try taking a more Bowie approach.
3 lessons in creativity from David Bowie
- Bowie’s career was defined by a refusal to stagnate. Never content to just rest on his laurels or rehash the same old sound for an easy ride to guaranteed commercial success, he delivered something new with every single release. So break out of your comfort zone: write something you wouldn’t normally try (like I’m doing with this mini-listicle). Draw something. Make a painting. Pick up an instrument. You don’t have to paint an Aladdin Sane lightning bolt on your face – just do something different. You might like it.
- “Heroes” didn’t just spring out of Bowie’s mind onto the tape. He took a hefty dose of inspiration from German krautrockers NEU! and their song Hero (check the List-ening playlist below if you want to hear it). This isn’t an endorsement of out-and-out plagiarism, obviously. But if David Bowie can borrow some ideas, then so can you – as long as you make them your own. Read, watch, listen, whatever – just find something to inspire you. And then act on it.
- Forgive the hyperbole, but “Heroes” isn’t just a song; it’s a feat of musical engineering. Guitarist Robert Fripp created the eerie, feedback-drenched wail by wandering around the vast warehouse space they were recording in to alter the pitch. Ambient music pioneer Brian Eno programmed a stuttering synth drone. Producer Tony Visconti took the bold decision to turn down one of Dennis Davis’ drums to maintain the tempo. Bowie set up three microphones at different distances from his own face, so when he sang quietly he was only picked up by the closet mic, but when he got louder, his voice was caught in all three mics. This is what creates the almost choral effect when the song reaches its crescendo.
So, two lessons here: surround yourself with other talented people, and focus on honing your craft. Put in the graft required to master your field. (Thinking about it, it should probably be 4 lessons on creativity… I told you I was new to this listicle thing.)
Creativity isn’t an innate trait or a god-given resource.
Yes, you need an intial spark. An idea. But it’s an idea plus hard work, experimentation, inspiration, and craftsmanship. We can’t all be heroes like Bowie says, but we can try to learn from his example.
A playlist inspired by this week’s record, in case your ears haven’t been treated enough yet today.
- Tonight – Iggy Pop
- Berlin Got Blurry – Parquet Courts
- Sound and Vision – David Bowie
- Never Stops – Deerhunter
- Needles in the Camel’s Eye – Brian Eno
- Hero – NEU!
- Autobahn – Kraftwerk
- Vitamin C – CAN
- Bowie – Flight of the Conchords
- All the Young Dudes – Mott the Hoople
- In Berlin – Electrelane
- My Death – Scott Walker
- Caroline Says I – Lou Reed
- The Craft – Blackalicious
- Berlin Song – Ludovico Einaudi
- Art Decade – David Bowie
- Outdoor Miner – Wire
- Andy Warhol – David Bowie
- Bowie – Paul Weller
- Life on Mars? – Seu Jorge
- Gimme Danger (Bowie Mix) – The Stooges
- (David Bowie I Love You) Since I Was Six – Jessica Lea Mayfield & Dan Auerbach
- Pearly-Dewdrops’ Drops – Cocteau Twins
- Summer in Berlin – Alphaville
- Nite Flights – The Walker Brothers
- “Helden” – David Bowie