David Bowie (& Śląsk Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble)



David Bowie: Warszawa (Low) – RCA Records

1977 is in its early days. As the furore over The Sex Pistols’ swearing began to finally show signs of fading in Britain and just before a new template for truly independent music was about to be forged by Buzzcock’s Spiral Scratch, David Bowie made his return.

David Bowie Low

On the evening of January 11th, 1977, three days prior to its official release, John Peel was going to play his new album Low on his show. Cue, me making sure a blank cassette tape was at hand, my forefinger poised over record. Wish I’d have kept that tape to hear again Peel’s thoughts on Low, although I’m assuming he was must have been keen enough, or else he wouldn’t have played it in its entirety.

I can’t pretend to remember my exact judgement as it played but I think it mostly confused me. Since it was Bowie, I would have been willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not that I was one of those ‘I’m just a space cadet and Bowie’s the commander’ uberfan types, but the last five years or so of his career suggested that it would be silly to write him off any of his 1970s output after a single hearing. That second side especially, though, was certainly a long way from Starman and Rebel Rebel. But I did quickly grow to love Low to the extent that it became one of my three favourite Bowie albums, together with Hunky Dory and Station To Station.

Here’s a video of a very static David Bowie performing on the final night of his 1978 tour in Tokyo. This is Warszawa, the song that opened his set that evening – with a bit of Art Decade thrown in at the end.

Low arrived with a curious lack of any fanfare. Bowie wasn’t up for interviews and there was very little in the way of an ad campaign. When the first single from the album, Sound and Vision, hit record shops, it came out in a plain sleeve, and as you’ll see from the album’s cover, he was intent keeping a low profile.

He had even recently been speculating about how much longer he could hope for his music to sell in high numbers. Maybe, I guessed, he would concentrate on acting after impressing in Nicolas Roeg’s remarkable 1976 movie The Man Who Fell To Earth. Maybe once punk peaked, he would seem irrelevant. In March, he did get round to performing live, not to promote Low, but to play keyboards in the background as part of Iggy Pop’s band.

Maybe he would retire in the next few years. Quit while he was ahead. He was about to turn thirty. A grand old age I might have thought at the time.

Being half that age, I was definitely naive, and also lacked nearly all the reference points that might have helped to better understand Low.

Eric Satie? Uh uh.

Harmonia? Nope.

Minimalism? What?

Śląsk? Say that again.

The Śląsk story goes roughly like this. Bowie and Iggy hit on the idea of heading out of California, moving to Berlin and getting drug free. Bowie’s stay in LA had seen him disintegrate into a wreck of a man, convinced by all manner of crackpot theories and surviving on a diet of peppers, milk and cocaine. The side effects of the latter doubtless being responsible for him coming out with the kind of appalling statements that make the present day Morrissey sound like an avid Guardian reader.

While based in Berlin, Bowie and Iggy (and some colleagues) take a trip to Moscow. Their train stops off at Warszawa Gdańska Station for a period due to some technical issues. Passengers are told they can stretch their legs for the next forty minutes or so.

Bowie decides to briefly investigate Warsaw, a grey and bleak city with brutalist concrete everywhere. As he walks around the area surrounding the station, he stumbles into a record shop. These would be very different to their equivalents in Britain or America at this time. If you were looking for anything even remotely hip then you would have to go down the black-market route in the Communist Bloc.

But the Thin White Duke works in mysterious ways. Amazingly, he manages to find an album of Silesian folk music from 1959 that he feels he should buy. One track on it, based on a traditional chant that animal herders would sing to pass the time as their cattle grazed, will makes a big impression on him and impact on one track on Low. This is Helokanie by the Śląsk Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble, founded in 1953 by Stanisław Hadyna.

As Bowie does his ‘Sula vie dilejo’ bit in the final third of Warszawa, I’m sure you’ll hear echoes of Helokanie. The track, incidentally, was recently made available in the September issue of Mojo as part of their Crash Course For The Ravers cover CD.

If you want to find out more about Bowie’s short time in the Polish capital, here’s your link.

Yesterday’s Hero (1979): British Movie Night #3


Yesterday's Hero (1979)

The 1970s are drawing to a close and the three Oscars picked up by Rocky are still very fresh in the memory, as is the success of Saturday Night Fever, a film that captivated audiences across the globe and sent the disco boom into overdrive.

So, surely combining a sports movie with some disco would be a winning formula? So thought Jackie Collins. To further her screenplay’s appeal, she centred her plot around a hard drinking, past his prime footballer, Rod Turner (Ian McShane) who bears more than a passing resemblance to George Best, although we learn from the end credits that ‘All the characters and narration of this film are fictitious. Characters and events are not intended to refer to actual persons or events and any similarity is unintentional and entirely coincidental.’

Ian McShane as Rod Turner

This isn’t what McShane later told the Independent. ‘The whole story was based on George Best,’ he admitted, going on to further explain: ‘It couldn’t be anyone else, really.’ Although, to be fair to Collins, Rod is as much Roy of the Rovers as the wayward Northern Irish winger.

Add in a wealthy pop star team chairman (like Elton John but with even worse songs) and a glampuss disco diva called Cloudy, and stir.

What the Queen of the British bonkbuster likely forgot to take into account was that for every Rocky, there’s a dozen stinkers like Rocky 4 or Rocky 5 and for every Saturday Night Fever there’s a Roller Boogie and Disco Godfather – although the latter film is hilarious, albeit for all the wrong reasons.

Yesterday’s Hero kicks off appropriately enough at a shoddy looking stadium where a match is taking place on a quagmire of a pitch that few fans have turned up to see. This footage is accompanied by a sludgy and supposed to be inspirational MOR dirge written by Frank Musker and Dominic Bugatti – who had previously penned Reggae Like It Used To Be for Paul Nicholas and later wrote that sickly Modern Girl hit for Sheena Easton. They have a lot to answer for.

As the teams troop of the pitch, Rod takes the time to chat to a young fan and sign his autograph book (to demonstrate to the audience that for all his faults he’s still a good guy). Afterwards, in the team coach, he glugs whisky straight from the bottle and discusses the rise of rivals the Saints, recently bought over by chairman Clint Simon played by the aformentioned Nicholas.

I wonder why the subject of the Saints has been brought up?

Yesterday's Hero Rod & Susan

Suitably blootered, Rod returns to a bedsit that is almost as shabby as his treatment of his girlfriend of sorts, Susan (Glynis Barber, swoon, swoon, and swoon again). For some mystifying reason, rather than spend every minute he can with here, he prefers to spend the bulk of his spare time taking out a bunch of kids from a convent school for training, and buying pints for his father and his old codger buddies down the local bar, where they appear to have taken up residence in order to drink, smoke and play dominoes incessantly.

Unbeknownst to Rod, Clint Simon needs cover for an injured player and with the vast wealth of footballing knowledge he has accumulated as a pop star duetting with the lovely Cloudy Martin (Suzanne Somers), he decides that a has-been alcoholic is the ideal replacement, despite the reservations of manager Jake Marsh (Adam ‘Budgie’ Faith). And in the kind of coincidence that is only too common in this kind of film, Cloudy and Rod were once an item.

Simon woos Rod, flying him out to Paris on his private jet and plying him with champagne as he takes part in a recording session with Cloudy. Rod doesn’t particularly want to sign with the Saints, despite them doing well in Division 3 and having already qualified for the last four of the FA Cup. Maybe Rod reckons the chances of minnows like them lifting the cup are negligible. Teams in the third tier of English football just don’t win that, do they?

Ian McShane drinking White Horse

Instead, he seeks to manoeuvre a move to the States through an old pal Georgie Moore, a white suited medallion man played by Alan Lake, an actor who has effortlessly oozed sleaze in every single movie I’ve seen him in.

Let down by Moore, he reluctantly takes up the offer from Clint and is given a start against Hamilton United in the cup semi-final. And here is some trivia. You may be aware that Ian McShane’s dad Harry was a Lanarkshire born footballer, whose career included a spell at Manchester United. What isn’t so commonly known is that during WWII, he also guested many times as a player for Hamilton. Hamilton Accies that this.

Rod Turner

On his debut, Rod scores in the first half of the semi but is caught taking a sneaky swig of Scotch during the interval by Marsh, who smashes the bottle out his hand. Rod retaliates, grabbing his manager by the collar and pinning him against the dressing room wall.

‘After this game you’re out,’ Marsh warns him. ‘You’re suspended.’

Thus ending any chance of Rob clinching some late-career silverware.

Unless by some miracle, he can somehow find a way into the Saints squad for the Cup Final and, who knows? come on as a substitute against the mighty Leicester Forest and score to equalise. And then get the chance to take a penalty kick in the dying seconds of the game that would win the cup for the Saints. No that would just be silly.

That night he takes a swing at Marsh in a local nightclub, falling to the disco floor in the process. On the plus side, he gets to spend a night with Cloudy. Clearly, the idea of reigniting his romance with her is enough for him to quit drinking and undergo a strenuous training regime to regain his fitness – and this is helped immeasurably by the motivational music that drives him on relentlessly.

Yesterday's Hero Clint and Cloudy

Yesterday’s Hero obviously has its more than its fair share of faults. Collins heaps the cliches on till breaking-point while the overlong Cloudy and Clint disco tunes make The Dooleys sound like Donna Summer – I know because The Dooleys’ Wanted soundtracks one of the nightclub scenes – while failing to move the plot forward by one iota.

On the plus side, McShane is well cast and looks genuinely jaked up in the first two-thirds of the film. I’m far from an expert on football and can’t claim to have to even ever watched an English Cup final but thought the on-field action worked well, with sequences borrowed from the 1979 League Cup final at Wembley between Southampton and Nottingham Forest cut into the film expertly, so credit to Frank McLintock as the film’s footballing advisor.

But in terms of quality and believability, the plot’s definitely more Brechin City than Barcelona.

You can see Yesterday’s Hero here on YouTube.

George Best

So, how would a washed up bevvy merchant, whose glory days were long gone, perform in the late 1970s?

Well, around about the time of the release of Yesterday’s Hero, George Best was lured to Hibernian, then struggling at the bottom of the Scottish Premier League.

The signing split opinions. Many in the media saw it as a publicity stunt while most Hibs fans were delighted. As for the manager Eddie Turnbull, he had no say in the transfer, later commenting on Best in his autobiography Having A Ball: ‘He was overweight, unfit and frankly not ready to play professional football at a high level.’ The move had been the idea of chairman Tom Hart, and he was paying for it through his own pocket.

Asked by the Evening Times if he was concerned at Hibs’ lowly league position, he spoke of them being a young side and how having an older, more experienced player to help guide them would be advantageous.

Best as a role model is certainly an interesting concept.

‘As they are at the bottom, there is only one way they can go.’

Just like Rod Turner, Best bagged a goal on his debut, although it was only a consolation goal against St.Mirren in the league.

George Best Hibernian v St Mirren

In his 2003 book Scoring at Half-Time, Best enthused about his time in Edinburgh, talking up his performances. ‘Not long after my arrival we beat Glasgow Rangers and I laid on both our goals, we drew with Celtic and I scored, and we drew at Aberdeen. We even reached the semi-final of the Scottish Cup.’

That might sound pretty impressive albeit not quite a Rod Turneresque fairy-tale – yes he did score a last minute penalty to win the FA Cup. During Hibs’ Scottish Cup cup run, they only needed to beat Meadowbank Thistle, Ayr United and Berwick Rangers to reach the last four and they needed a replay to scrape past Berwick along the way. I doubt many vividly remember Hibs’ 2-0 win at Easter Road against Ayr, but they might recall the match being overshadowed by the erratic behaviour of Best off the pitch.

A boozy night in his Princes Street hotel drinking with some of the French rugby side (who had taken on Scotland at Murrayfield earlier that day) saw him being suspended when he was too hungover to turn up for Hibs the following day.

The incident made front pages in Scotland and over the years there’s even been claims that Debbie Harry joined in the fun as Blondie were playing the Odeon that night. A great story but likely only a story. Blondie had played that venue over a month earlier. If true, though, I’m sure even the harshest Alex Ferguson style disciplinarian would have been hard pressed to honestly condemn Best for choosing a night with Debbie Harry over a game against some hairy-arsed Ayrshire men.

Reinstated, George played in a further eight games, including a 5-0 Scottish Cup semi-final drubbing by Celtic which saw Eddie Turnbull losing his job.

The 33 year old Best is said to have shown some real flashes of his old magic in Scotland but he was far from the genius who terrorised defenders in his Manchester United heyday.

Over the course of 22 matches, he only found the net three times, and he couldn’t save Hibs from relegation. He was undeniably box-office, though, and put thousands on gates.

The other episode that is still discussed even all these years later in relation to his stay north of the border is when Rangers fans travelled to Easter Road for a league match. Best was mercilessly taunted over his drink problem and some fans even threw cans of beer in his direction.

Best responded by picking up one of them and pretending to sip from it. Or, according to some, he downed the contents of the can in one gulp. Whatever the truth of the matter is, his actions immediately ended the abuse. Both sets of fans gave him a round of applause.

Pity Jackie Collins hadn’t included something similar in her screenplay. It would have made for a more memorable scene than any of those she did dream up.