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.