Low album coverWritten by: David Bowie, Brian Eno
Recorded: September-November 1976
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 14 January 1977

Available on:
Low
Stage
Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78)

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals
Brian Eno: piano, Minimoog synthesizer, Chamberlin EMI

‘Warszawa’, the opening track on side two of Low, was inspired by David Bowie’s travels through Poland in 1976.

Side Two was more an observation in musical terms: my reaction to seeing the East bloc, how West Berlin survives in the midst of it all, which was something I couldn’t express in words. Rather it required textures.
David Bowie
NME, 12 November 1977

Bowie later claimed that the second half of Low was “my reaction to certain places”.

‘Warszawa’ is about Warsaw and the very bleak atmosphere I got from that city. ‘Art Decade’ is West Berlin – a city cut off from its world, art and culture, dying with no hope of retribution. ‘Weeping Wall’ is about the Berlin Wall – the misery of it. And ‘Subterraneans’ is about the people that got caught in East Berlin after the separation – hence the faint jazz saxophones representing the memory of what it was.
David Bowie
Record Mirror, 24 September 1977

Bowie had first travelled through Warsaw in 1973. In 1976, accompanied by Iggy Pop, his train again stopped in the city for several hours, allowing the two men time to explore the Żoliborz district.

In a record store, Bowie heard music by Zespół Pieśni i Tańca Śląsk (Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble). He bought the album Hej Te Nasze Góry before returning to Dworzec Gdański station to resume his journey.

Although ‘Warszawa’ contains vocals, they are not in any recognisable language. Bowie was apparently inspired by Stanisław Hadyna’s song ‘Helokanie’, with which ‘Warszawa’ shares some aspects of melody and vocal style.

I loved it when David did the quasi-Balkan singing. He had an old recording of a boys’ choir from one of the Balkan countries and he played it for me at some earlier date (on reflection, this record was not unlike the female choirs of Bulgaria that eventually won a Grammy in the 80s).

‘Warszawa’ reminded him of that recording and he went in front of the microphone to try and re-create it. To make him sound like a boy I slowed the tape down about three semitones and he sang his part slowly. Once it was back up to speed he sounded about eleven years old! I can’t tell you how much fun the three of us had recording side two – it was more fun than side one.

Tony Visconti
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Co-written by Brian Eno, ‘Warszawa’ was one of two tracks on Low on which Bowie shared songwriting credits. The other, ‘Breaking Glass’, was written with George Murray and Dennis Davis.

When I was in Russia, when I took the Trans-Siberian Express, I took a lot of footage there and I started putting those particular pieces – ‘Subterraneans’ and ‘Warszawa’ – against what I’d taken, just 8mm. It is very effective.
David Bowie
Capital Radio, 13 February 1979

‘Warszawa’ was included in the Sound + Vision box set in 1989, and on the All Saints instrumental album.

It also featured in the 1981 film Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, and appeared on the soundtrack album.

In the studio

Although David Bowie wanted to compose a sound impression of Warsaw and the surrounding area, he did not share the intention with Brian Eno. Instead, the pair worked methodically to a click track, then divided the tape into sections for each man to work on.

Oh, on my part that was a quite positive idea to try and take a musical picture of the countryside of Poland. But I didn’t tell Brian that. The procedure of that one was really quite simple.

I said, ‘look, Brian, I want to compose a really slow piece of music, but I want a very emotive, almost religious feel to it. That’s all I want to tell you at this point. What do you suggest as a start?’

And he said, ‘let’s go lay down a track of finger clicks.’ And he laid down I think it was 430 clicks on a clean tape. Then we put them all out as dots on a piece of paper and numbered them all off, and I picked sections of dots and he picked sections, quite arbitrarily.

And then he went back into the studio and played chords, and changed the chord as he hit that number, and went through his piece like that. And I did a similar thing on my areas. We then took the clicks out, heard the piece of music as was, and then wrote over the top of that according to the length of bars we’d given ourselves.

David Bowie
Melody Maker, 18 February 1978

The musicians on Low often took advantage of happy accidents or unexpected outcomes. According to producer Tony Visconti, the motif of three descending notes was first played by his son Morgan.

‘Weeping Wall’ and ‘Warszawa’ were composed and recorded to click track… ‘Warszawa’ took the most time. A little Visconti was involved too, my son Morgan (now a professional musician and composer). At nearly four years old he was sitting at the grand piano playing the low notes A-B-C over and over. When Brian heard this, he brushed Morgan to the side of the piano bench and finished those notes with the main melodic theme of the composition. Low was certainly living up to its concept of an experimental album. Morgan lost interest and went off to play with his new friend Duncan [Jones].

At the end of week two David had to attend some business meetings in Paris. Brian and I continued to work on ‘Warszawa’. At one point he asked, ‘Show me how to change tracks on the machine. I have to do some very tedious layering of notes and textures and it usually bores people to tears. I’d rather do this on my own.’ This was obviously a way he was used to working. There was no official protocol. Neither was it a free for all. At the end of week two Brian had recorded all of his contributions and left us.

Tony Visconti, April 2017
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book

Live performances

‘Warszawa’ was the opening song throughout the Isolar II tour, which kicked off in San Diego on 29 March 1978, and finished on 12 December in Tokyo.

Recordings from the tour can be heard on the live albums Stage and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).

It was performed again during the Heathen Tour. David Bowie’s final performance of ‘Warszawa’ was on 22 September 2002 at the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin.

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Next song: ‘Art Decade’