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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: Warszawa

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In Station to Station, Bowie expressed a feeling of emptiness in his Californian life, an emptiness he represented by infusing his funk-rock with the electronic sound that came from Germany, specifically the motorik sound of Kraftwerk and the discomotorik sound of Giorgio Moroder. This was enhanced in his subsequent White Light tour, which opened with some Kraftwerk music and then proceeded to a performance of heavy funk-rock and a blinding lightshow that made the cool Thin White Duke seem almost robotic. The result indicated dehumanization, but the album also offered a way out, pointing to Europe as a place that could offer an aesthetic revival driven by the arty electronic sound. The White Light tour took Bowie to Europe, and he started to look for a home there. At first he made his base in Switzerland, but then he started to get drawn towards Eastern Europe, where the excesses of American capitalism were not so prevalent. In April 1976 he traveled with Iggy Pop to Moscow, and on the way spent a few hours in Warsaw. Walking through the city, Bowie could still see the ruins of WWII compounded by the depression of living under Soviet oppression, and he felt the grim sadness of its situation. Bowie and Iggy brought some of this desolation into The Idiot, an Iggy Pop solo album they created together, in which the equation between soul and electronics weighs heavier towards the electronic side. In Low, it goes a step further.

Side A of Low pretty much picks up where Station to Station left off, a combination of funk-rock and electronics. But Tony Visconti's groundbreaking production makes it sound much less soulful and more like a soul tortured by its existence in an alienated urban world. There are, however, moments of bliss when Bowie disengages from the world and draws back into his soul, finding that his inner world has a life of its own. This was to be the new direction: going inward, trying to find solace inside. All that was needed is music to express this rich inner life, and as always, Bowie found the music to provide him with the language to say what he couldn't iterate before. This time, it was Brian Eno's ambient music.

And so, the track that opens side B introduces us to a whole new musical world which will dominate the entire side. It is a slow ambientic instrumental, representing that other world that was merely hinted at in side A. Gone is the funky rhythm section – the numbers of this side were created by Eno, Bowie and Visconti alone. But it doesn't sound like Eno's ambient music; it is something else, something new. While ambient is devoid of soul and works as background music to affect the back of your mind, here it is fused with a beautiful melody that definitely has soul. 'Warszawa', a musical depiction of what Bowie experienced in that afternoon he roamed the Polish capital, showcases this new fusion and brings it to perfection.

With the opening sounds, we are thrust right back into the nightmarish urban world of 'Mass Production', the closing track of The Idiot. That track showed humanity completely erased by technology, to the point where every human becomes just a product in an assembly line, moving to ominous, industrial and repetitive music. 'Warzsawa' opens in very much the same way, but then we begin to hear other things. Atmospheric ambient music starts to play over the droning industrial emissions, and a haunting melody creeps up slowly as though it is some spirit roaming through the city. It still doesn't sound like anything human, but it is not robotic either. There's a measure of sadness in it, a dose of depression, but also a sense of catharsis. All in all, it is sublime.

This music meanders for more than six minutes, taking us through the cavernous underbelly of the big city, letting its gloom sink into our soul. It is not completely an instrumental, though: four minutes in, Bowie's vocal appears in a choir of many voices. But it is not singing over the music; it blends right in with it, as if coming out of the concrete that surround us, low and humming. It sounds like Gregorian monks chanting, praying, and we feel that Bowie has discovered a new spirituality in the heart of the urban wasteland. Actually, it was found there: the melody he sings is based on a song called 'Helokanie' as performed by the Polish folk group Silask, whose album he bought on that afternoon in Warsaw. 'Helokanie' has high voices singing against a low-voiced choir, and Bowie uses the same effect here, his lonely siren vocal answering the chanting monks. His prayer, however, has no words. Although it sounds like words (and some of the phonetics sound very much like 'Helokanie'), it is actually a made up language, as if Bowie hasn't found the words yet to express this new spirituality. And yet, we feel like we understand it, we feel that Bowie is talking in some primitive universal language which we all share beneath our different dialects. It sounds like Bowie is attempting to talk in a primitive language to express a new humanity being born, like a child making his first steps in the world.

To achieve this childlike quality, several techniques were used. First there are Eno's strategies of randomness, aimed to take the musicians out of their habits and force them to work on unfamiliar musical grounds. Furthermore, Eno built the main melody around three notes played by Visconti's four-year-old son, who just played the a-b-c keys in sequence, not a sequence that a trained musician would often choose. Finally, Bowie's main vocal is speeded up, to make it sound high and childlike. This innocent and pure voice pierces through the gloom, and Warsaw's song of sadness becomes a ray of new light.

'Warszawa' was opened shows throughout the 1978 tour.

Over the years, the track has become legendary. Any performance of it is considered a treat. Here's a 2002 performance:

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