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Oczy Mlody & Other Polish Curiosities in Western Music

Filip Lech
Flaming Lips, fot. materiały promocyjne zespołu
Flaming Lips, photo: Flaming Lips press materials

In light of the premiere of the ‘Polish’ album by The Flaming Lips, we went in search of Polish accents in popular and indie music. Who, apart from David Bowie, was inspired by Warsaw? Who passed through Śląsk? Who was amazed by the history of the Solidarity movement?

Wayne Coyne, frontman of The Flaming Lips put it this way on YouTube:

Our album is called, as far as I know, Oczy Mlody. I’ve never actually heard those words spoken by a real Pole (...) To me, it sounded like a name of a drug, it made me think of Oxycodone...

He really liked that the name which evoked drug connotations actually meant ‘eyes of the young’at least, according to one of the most popular translation websites. Anyone even somewhat more acquainted with the Polish language will quickly notice that the name of The Flaming Lips’ new album is, in fact, incorrect, but no matter. Where did this classic neo-psychedelic indie band even get this phrase? Apparently, they found it while paging through a Polish translation of Erskine Caldwell’s Close To Home from the iconic Koliber series (published in the 1970s and 1980s by the Książka i Wiedza publishing house), which they bought by accident in an antique shop. Coyne said: 

I kept it in the studio for almost 5 years and wondered what the story was about. But I never actually tried to find out what it was, I wasn’t all that interested.

The album Oczy Mlody features a few other ‘Polishisms’: Nigdy Nie, Do Glowy, Blisko Domu. But what about Polish accents in other popular music? Let’s start with geographical names. 

The most well-known ‘Polishism’ in history is without a doubt Warszawa by David Bowie. Legend has it, that Bowie had an hour-long stopover at the Gdańsk railway station in 1973 or 1976. While waiting for his train to Berlin, he stopped by a record store and bought a record by the Śląsk Song and Dance Ensemble. Their piece Helokanie inspired him to write an instrumental composition with Poland’s capital in the title. 

Warsaw is also the title of a song (and album) by Joy Division (which was in turn supposedly inspired by David Bowie). The Manchester musicians, however, changed the name, because there was a punk group nearby called Warsaw Pakt, and they didn’t want to be confused with them. The noise band Unit 6 also named one of their industrial compositions Warsaw (in the background noise, a speech delivered in Polish can be heard). Poland’s capital has also been commemorated in a piece by Ben Klock – a techno producer affiliated with the Berghain club in Berlin and one of the most popular DJs in the world. 

However, it isn't just Warsaw that has inspired foreign artists. Some travelled to Śląsk – for example, the Spanish pioneers of industrial music, Esplendor Geométrico. In 1987, they recorded an album called Kosmos Kino, inspired by Kosmos cinema in Katowice. The album features pieces such as Estación Katowice (dedicated to the brutalist architecture of the Katowice railway station, destroyed in 2010) and Trybuna Robotnicza (Workers’ Tribune, a regional newspaper published in Katowice). 

A New Wave group from Canada, Rational Youth, released a single with the song Saturday in Silesia in 1982. The lyrics reflect on the worker's opposition within the Solidarity movement. ‘Saturdays in Silesia / Holidays are for heroes / City lights – not quite Broadway,’ they sing in the chorus. ‘And if the soldiers put a padlock on the door / We’ll break it open like we’ve always done before,’ says the Silesian in the song. It’s an interesting vision, however quite distant from the reality in Śląsk, especially in the verse about a bus going to the docks.

The Canadians probably confused Śląsk with Gdańsk. The British group Test Dept refer to the imposition of martial law and to the Solidarity movement in their song Gdansk. Unfortunately, the recording above isn’t the best quality, but it is worth watching just to see how the industrial music scene used visuals to comment on the tragic events happening in Poland. What else could inspire half-naked men beating on sheet metal with hammers and screens in the background showing Jaruzelski, the communist army and the British police?

Among other musical tributes to martial law in Poland, it’s worth mentioning New Year’s Day, a song by U2, Under The Hands of Jaruzelski by Muslimgauze, and Jaruzelski by Laibach. The history of the two latter pieces can be found in the article How Laibach and Muslimgauze Made the Last Communist Leader a Music Icon.

To sum up, here’s one last example of musical reactions to martial law. Jeszcze Polska is a reinterpretation of the Polish national anthem, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego, recorded in 1982 by Sabina Bredy (her parents were Polish). The artist, appearing under the stage name of Mona Mur, collaborated with the well-known group Einstürzende Neubauten. In 1990, she recorded an album entitled Warsaw together with Grzegorz Ciechowski, the beloved leader of the band Republika, in which one can also hear the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Krzesimir Dębski. Dieter Meier, frontman of the popular 1980s band Yello, was the producer. While discussing ‘Polishisms’ it is worth mentioning that Meier was also a film director. In his movie, Lightmaker, an experimental fairytale about music, Polish actor Zbigniew Zamachowski plays one of the main characters. 

Some more 'Polishisms':

  • Gudrun Gut – Monika in Polen (Thomas Fehlmann Deer mix)
  • Bobby Vinton – She Will Survive (Poland)
  • Nico – All Saints Night From A Polish Motorway
  • Juxta Position – Mazury
  • Doubt – Noc
  • René Audiard – Cywilizacja Pt. 1

Even Frank Sinatra and Placido Domingo sang in Polish – the latter sang the Polish carol Lulajże Jezuniu at the Concert of The Three Tenors in 1999, while Old Blue Eyes famously sang in Polish on TV in the 1980s.

Originally written in Polish, 16 Jan 2016; translated by WF, edited by NR, 6 Feb 2017.