Recently, we spoke with Dougie from the band Travis, who declared that Honky Dory may be the greatest album of all time, but he also somehow wasn’t even sure it was David Bowie’s best. The intergalactic Rockstar is forever throwing up contradictions like this one and nowhere are they more apparent than on perfectly mental 1977 record Low.
With Low Bowie, Brain Eno and Tony Visconti threw up music contradictions by the hatful. They created unlikely hits with the sub-three-minute instrumental jaunt ‘A New Career in a New Town’ and ‘Sound and Vision’ snatched an improbable podium position. Experimentation was rife in the studio and the gilded pieces of perfect ambient weirdness that they cooked up like musical alchemists form an essential part of Bowie’s oeuvre.
Whilst the front half of the record could be passed off as Bowie-mangled pop, side two sounds like a journey into the belly of East Berlin’s misery and forages further still into some murky primordial depths. Bowie and his trusty producers were plucking sonic waves form the ether and the miasmic atmosphere they managed harnessed was tremendously ominous. One song, in particular, captures the full force of dread, the eponymous Bowie Berlin song ‘Warszawa’.
As Bowie once explained, the arrangement is meant to evoke the “very bleak atmosphere” that he felt surrounded by in the war-torn and divided city of Warsaw. He wanted the piece to be “emotive, almost religious,” and you’d have to say that he achieved that no end.
Bowie’s experimentation with words can be seen throughout the album. He was “intolerably bored” with the way that narrative rock ‘n’ roll lyricism was headed and as ever he sought to be the change he wished to see in the world. Mostly his new take on lyricism was confined to a technique pioneered by beat writer and Bowie hero William S. Burroughs. Bowie would slice up conventional chunks of text and use the kaleidoscopic melee of words to “ignite anything that might be in his imagination.” Bowie would later use this technique to produce a sort of primitive App when he invented the Verbasizer in his studio in the 1990s. However, in 1977 he was simply slicing up old diaries and such like, “finding out amazing things about me and what I had done and where I was going.”
On ‘Warszawa’ the language we hear is not the product of sliced-up words, but rather a sort of poetic butchering of Polish. On an excursion from Berlin into the Polish capital with Iggy Pop, Bowie picked up a recording of ‘Helokanie’ by the Polish folk choir Ślask. The man who fell to Earth then attempted to recreate the singing he heard without being able to speak a word of Polish. The result is a phonetic chanted incantation of a romantically fictionalised language that somehow evades silliness and manages to capture something spiritual.
All of the 110 voices featured on the track belong to Bowie alone, with the rest of the track bearing the unmistakable watermark of Eno. The song is a fevered example of Bowie’s tireless boundary-pushing creativity that changed the face of music. As ever Bowie ventured into the dark enchanted unknown and plucked the fruits of made-up language that The Cocteau Twins would popularise almost a decade later. Moreover, the foreboding aura of the song proved so effectual that Joy Division were originally called Warsaw in homage to the track. Only Bowie could cough up lyrics like, “Mmmm-mm-mm-ommm / Sula vie dilejo. / Mmmm-mm-mm-ommm / Sula vie milejo / Mmm-omm,” and somehow achieve something almost hymnally spiritual.