Wildly Different Covers of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’
“Heroes” holds a unique place in David Bowie’s history.
It’s not his biggest hit: That would be 1975’s “Fame.” “Heroes” doesn’t boast the same artistic flair as the otherworldly “Space Oddity,” either. In fact, “Heroes” was only initially a modest success after its release on Sept. 23, 1977, peaking at No. 24 in the U.K. and failing to make the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 at all.
Yet, decades removed, “Heroes” is perhaps Bowie’s greatest achievement. The song is consistently ranked among fan favorites. Scholars have analyzed the work, discussing everything from its creation to the historical context. It’s been played at everything from sporting events to weddings and funerals, highlighting the depth of this song’s emotional resonance.
“Heroes” is also one of Bowie’s most-covered tunes, as a wide range of artists having tried their hand at the song. Below, we’ve rounded up 28 wildly different versions, a list that includes such vaunted artists as Prince, Peter Gabriel, Motorhead, Depeche Mode and … David Hasselhoff.
Blondie began mixing covers of "Heroes" into live performances as early as 1978. They landed a coveted spot opening for Bowie and Iggy Pop a year earlier, establishing friendships that would last a lifetime. A rendition of “Heroes” from Blondie's Jan. 12, 1980, appearance at London’s famed Hammersmith Odeon would become a popular bootleg.
“Heroes” famously emerged from Bowie’s time in Berlin, so perhaps it’s fitting that a German legend covered the track. Model, actress and avant-garde musician Nico came to prominence in the late ‘60s thanks to her involvement with the Velvet Underground. Her sixth studio album, 1981’s Drama of Exile, featured a rendition of “Heroes,” delivered in post-punk fashion.
After forming in Cincinnati in 1980, the Modulators headed to New York where they regularly played club gigs. The band’s poppy, New Wave sound helped them develop a cult following, though they were never able to break into mainstream success. The group self-released a variety of material, including this quirky take on “Heroes.”
Swiss thrash-metal group Celtic Frost injected heavy-handed adrenaline into their rendition of “Heroes.” With aggressive guitars, stabbing drum beats and primal vocals, the tune bares little resemblance to Bowie’s original (save for the lyrics). The track was included on Celtic Frost’s 1990 album Vanity/Nemesis, their last release before going on hiatus from 1993 to 2006.
Most music fans associate Billy Preston with his work alongside the Beatles and Rolling Stones, or such classic solo hits as “Will it Go Round in Circles” and “Nothing From Nothing.” His most notable material was released in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but Preston continued working up until his death in 2006. He provided vocals to this club mix of “Heroes,” which was released throughout Europe in 1991.
The Magnetic Fields
The Magnetic Fields have carved a long, impressive and critically acclaimed indie-rock career over some 12 studio albums spanning more than 30 years. They were part of an eclectic lineup of acts recruited to contribute to the 1996 Bowie tribute album Crash Course for the Ravers. The Magnetic Fields’ version stays close to the original, but Stephin Merritt’s distinctive baritone voice adds a new layer to Bowie’s masterpiece.
Philip Glass created entire symphonies around all three of a Bowie's Berlin Trilogy albums, with his update of the ‘Heroes’ LP arriving in 1996. The title track served as his symphony’s first movement, as swirling strings and melodic tones created a sound far different from Bowie’s classic. Glass ended up having probing discussions about the new works in which Bowie argued that his “Heroes” symphony stood out because it capturing the themes of the original while remaining such a departure.
“This is the first song I heard by David Bowie,” Noel Gallagher said after Bowie died. “It totally fucking blew me away. I went down to my local second-hand record shop a couple of days later and got Best of Bowie and never looked back.” Somehow, Noel and his Oasis brother/bandmate Liam found enough time in between fights to record their own version. It was released in 1997 as the b-side to the single “D’You Know What I Mean?”
Many music fans remember the Wallflowers’ rendition of “Heroes,” but few likely recall that it was released on the soundtrack to big-budget box office flop Godzilla. Jakob Dylan and his band do the song justice, adding their own brand of grungy emotional resonance to the tune without deviating too far from its classic form. This version was a radio success in 1998, reaching No. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100. It remains the band’s final Top 40 hit.
Robert Fripp played guitar on Bowie’s original version of “Heroes,” so it’s not surprising he regularly mixed it into King Crimson’s set lists. They released a live version on 2000’s Heavy ConstruKction album, then another in 2017 – just a year removed from Bowie’s death.
Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge famously weaved a wide range of popular music within its tragic, romantic tale. An epic scene in which Christian (Ewan McGregor) professes his love for the courtesan Satine (Nicole Kidman) featured a medley of 10 songs, with “Heroes” prominently featured among them.
TV on the Radio
Bowie was doing a photoshoot in New York when he happened to hear Young Liars, the debut EP from TV on the Radio. Intrigued, he ended up getting in touch with the Brooklyn indie-rock group, expressing interest in their work and eventually collaborating on 2006’s “Province.” When War Child International put together their 2009 benefit album War Child Presents Heroes, they asked rock legends to handpick new artists to reinterpret one of their most famous songs. Bowie chose TV on the Radio, who delivered an eclectic art-rock rendition. Their cover earned renewed attention in 2015 when it was featured in the season five trailer for Game of Thrones.
One legend tipped his hat to another when Peter Gabriel covered “Heroes” for his 2010 album Scratch My Back. The former Genesis frontman completely reinterpreted Bowie, opting for a haunting arrangement made up of strings and absent of drums. “‘Heroes’ for me was always one of the great Bowie tracks. It is heroism in the face of oppression and desperation; it’s something triumphant despite the desperate situation,” Gabriel told the Quietus. “I think [the cover is] beautiful because without any of the drive of guitar and drums which were so key to Bowie’s original, it builds an enormous tension that bursts open.”
Finalists from the U.K. reality competition show X Factor performed – and later released – a rendition of the Bowie classic to raise money for Help for Heroes, a charity that supports wounded members of the British armed forces. Among the acts participating in the group performance was One Direction, the boy band which was formed on the show and featured a pre-fame Harry Styles.
New York Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher had already won a World Series and earned an All Star Game selection. So what else was on his bucket list? Apparently, an album of cover songs. Titled Believe, the LP featured Swisher backed by a children’s chorus – appropriate considering proceeds from the release went to a charity for kids battling health crises.
Given the way Glee churned through some of the biggest hits in popular music history, it’s surprising it took until the show’s fourth season for them to cover “Heroes.” The song was delivered as a duet between Blaine (Darren Criss) and Sam (Chord Overstreet). The actors later performed the song together in concert during Criss’ 2013 tour.
Janelle Monae has proven to be a Bowie-like genreless artist, able to shape-shift regardless of the project she’s involved in. There was mutual respect, as Monae later confirmed that Bowie was “a huge supporter of me, the way I dress and my music.” She released a cover of “Heroes” in 2014 on the Pepsi Beats of the Beautiful Game compilation album, tied in with that year’s FIFA World Cup. When Bowie died a couple of years later, Monae wrote an elegant tribute: “You continue to teach me what freedom looks like through the gifts you left behind. ... I often find myself asking, ‘What would Bowie say, what would he do?’”
Local H may be best known for their alt-rock radio hit “Bound for the Floor,” but they have been steadily releasing music for more than 30 years. Local H's Awesome Mix Tape #2 included cover songs from both modern and classic artists. Local H opened with “Heroes,” delivered in an emphatic, grunge-rock fashion.
“Heroes” actually played an integral role in the history of Depeche Mode. In their earliest days as the fledgling group Composition of Sound, Martin Gore and Andy Fletcher happened to hear Dave Gahan singing this Bowie tune in a rehearsal space with a group called French Look. Impressed, Composition of Sound recruited Gahan to become their lead singer and then renamed themselves Depeche Mode. Decades later, they mixed “Heroes” into the set list as a tribute to Bowie and his influence.
Ted Leo has enjoyed a long and successful career as a solo artist, one half of the Both (with Aimee Mann) and fronting the indie-rock band Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. He covered “Heroes” as part of Let All the Children Boogie, a benefit album which raised funds for the LGBTQ youth charity organization It Gets Better. Leo’s rendition is an upbeat, jangly affair, building on the original’s positive vibe.
Arcade Fire became another in the long list of Bowie admirers turned collaborators. “David Bowie was one of the band’s earliest supporters and champions,” they wrote in 2016. “He not only created the world that made it possible for our band to exist, he welcomed us into it with grace and warmth.” They covered “Heroes” a number of times over the years, including during a 2008 concert in support of President Barack Obama and at a second-line parade in New Orleans following Bowie’s death. Fan-shot footage captured the moment.
It should’ve come as no surprise that Chris Martin sang “Heroes” on a Carpool Karaoke segment with late-night host James Corden. After all, Coldplay has performed it in concert more than 65 times, making this Bowie song their second most common cover. Unfortunately, things didn’t go very well when Martin invited Bowie to collaborate in the studio. “It’s not a very good song, is it?” Bowie reportedly replied.
Prince covered “Heroes” on March 25, 2016, in Toronto – two months after Bowie’s death and just a month before his own tragic demise. The show was part of his Piano & A Microphone tour, which found Prince on stage as a solo performer. In a scene as gorgeous as it is heartbreaking, Prince fused lyrics to “Heroes” with his own song “Dolphin,” originally released on 1995’s The Gold Experience.
The posthumously released Motorhead compilation Under Cover featured recordings from throughout Lemmy Kilmister’s career. Included among the previously unreleased songs was a shredding rendition of “Heroes,” reportedly one of the last things Kilmister completed prior to his death in 2015. (Bowie died less than two weeks later.) “It’s such a great Bowie song, one of his best, and I could only see great things coming out of it from us – and so it proved to be,” Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell told Rolling Stone. “And Lemmy ended up loving our version.”
Gang of Youths
Gang of Youths released their cover of “Heroes” in conjunction with the 2017 big-budget action film Justice League. The song was featured in the accompanying trailers, though it did not appear in the movie itself (or on the official soundtrack). The Australian rock group utilized a sparse arrangement of strings, guitar and drums, with frontman David Le’aupepe’s emotive voice powering the track.
Hollywood Vampires bandmate Alice Cooper said there was a reason Johnny Depp took over lead vocals on this cover from 2019's Rise: “I knew Bowie pretty well but I didn’t have an emotional connection” that Depp did, Cooper admitted back then. When Depp said “‘I don’t sing,’ I said, ‘You did Sweeney Todd …’ Reminding him that he sings!” Cooper added. “And he sings it better than I could ever sing it.” They recorded “Heroes” at Hansa Studios in Germany, the same place Bowie cut the original.
David Hasselhoff has enjoyed decades of popularity in Germany, so he perhaps inevitably opted to cover Bowie’s German-language version. “Helden” appeared on Open Your Eyes, the 14th studio album of the former Baywatch star’s singing career. His rendition is noticeably shorter than the original and utilizes a substantial amount of vocal reverb.
Neil Finn staged a series of video and recording sessions during the pandemic lockdown, both with a full band and with sons Liam and Elroy. Most of the videos featured Crowded House favorites, but Finn would occasionally break out a cover with just himself on vocals and acoustic guitar. One was a simple version of “Heroes,” on which Finn appears to be having a great deal of fun.
Moby grew up idolizing Bowie, later became friends and neighbors, and ended up touring and collaborating with him. They performed “Heroes” together at a 2001 charity event in New York before Moby released his own version on 2021's Reprise. He acknowledged it was a risky move: “‘Heroes’ is one of the greatest songs ever written, and having the temerity to cover ‘Heroes’ is kind of like trying to cover the Sistine Chapel, or ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon. Things that should be sacrosanct that you should probably just leave in their original form.” Though best known for his electronic work, Moby’s cover is a rich, orchestral piece, with vocals by Mindy Jones.