Pre-Brexit Optimism in Basia’s London Warsaw New York

Sophisti-pop singer Basia's 1990 album, London Warsaw New York, speaks to a friendly pop-globalism and the spirit of internationalism that would lead to the forming of the European Union in 1993.

London Warsaw New York
19 February 1990

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after months of campaigning. The vote – coined Brexit (a portmanteau of Britain and Exit) – was predicted to end in Remain’s favour. Much of the polls saw the evening as being close, a nail biter – even Brexit’s main champion, Nigel Farage, predicted a loss. But as the evening wore on, it was clear that the results weren’t what was expected.

By the end, there was a shocking upset, giving Leave a slim but decisive victory of 52%: over 17 million people voted to leave the EU. The following day, a chastened and grim Prime Minister David Cameron, the man who, despite being a Remainder, announced the referendum to appease his party’s conservative factions, resigned.

In the ensuing years, the UK was plunged into divisive politics that mirrored much of what was happening in the West. As the United States saw Donald Trump best frontrunner Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential elections, the UK saw two snap elections, two more prime ministers, a government mired in division, before a quiet departure from the EU amidst a global pandemic that threw the country into a period of economic disquiet.


Image by Ilya Deryabin from Pixabay

A quarter of a century before the referendum, Polish-born pop star Basia released her sophomore solo album, London Warsaw New York, a record that aptly scored so much of what the idealism behind the EU stood for. After WWII, a war-scarred Europe emerged, bruised and traumatized. One of the objectives was to create a coalition to avoid another devastating conflict. Winston Churchill, who led Great Britain during WWII, called for a “United States of Europe”.

London Warsaw New York was the singer’s second effort. Her debut, Time and Tide (1987) was a solid success in the US. Like London Warsaw New York, Time and Tide looks to the sophisti-pop that emerged from Great Britain. The genre takes on notes of jazz, soul, dance-pop, and even bossa nova. It creates an effete, elegant if oft-pretentious sound that becomes a major force on the pop charts (heralding a second major British invasion on the American pop charts). Time and Tide was Basia’s first record with collaborator Danny White, though the two musicians found early success in the musical outfit, Matt Bianco. She was the vocalist in the trio’s first LP, Whose Side Are You On? (1984), scoring several hits, including the UK top 20 “Get Out of Your Lazy Bed”, which reached number 15.

Basia (along with White), left the band soon after to start her solo career, as Matt Bianco continued without them. Time and Tide is a natural spin-off from Whose Side Are You On? as the two albums sound very similar: both explore jazz-inflected cocktail pop. Basia’s musical influences spanned the globe: Black America, Latin America, England, Poland. She came of age musically during the 1980s pop British Invasion, whilst working in a London that was flourishing as a global hub, drawing expats from all corners of the world, including Eastern Europe, like the Jaworzno native Basia Trzetrzelewska herself.

London Warsaw New York is Basia’s masterpiece and magnum opus. Though somewhat stung by the muted response to Time and Tide in their adopted homeland, the UK, White and Basia would find mainstream and unequivocal success with their second album. The record’s title perfectly encapsulates Basia’s stardom as well as the thesis of the record itself. It speaks to a friendly, pop-globalism and a reach to an internationalism that would eventually lead to the forming of the EU.

Indeed, Basia’s eclectic – if mainstream – sound would predict the UK’s Cool Britannia. The record was helped immensely by MTV, then at its height of influence and importance. The extremely videogenic Basia was able to take advantage of the art from of the music video to promote the record. The higher profile she built lead to invitations to late-night talk shows like The Tonight Show and The Arsenio Hall Show, performing her songs, expanding her audiences, and becoming one of the few Polish-born pop stars to find crossover success in the US and the UK.

When listening to London Warsaw New York, it’s helpful to glance quickly at the state of pop music in 1990. Pop music, particularly British and American pop, was dominated by dance, New Jack Swing, and rap. Acts like Madonna, Janet Jackson, MC Hammer, and Roxette were responsible for some of the year’s biggest hits. Jackson’s Rhythm Nation album was the best-selling record of 1989.

Within this musical landscape, Basia’s sound fit perfectly. Her sophisti-pop colleagues like Swing Out Sister, Everything But the GirlBut the Girl, and Shakespeares Sister were still scoring hits. Basia’s affection for smooth jazz, Quiet Storm, and Latin rhythms made her a natural fit alongside successful artists like Sade, Anita Baker, and Gloria Estefan. Outfitted in form-fitting bustiers, boxy blazers, and sporting a thick sheet of luscious raven hair, she looked the part of a circa 1990 pop star.

London Warsaw New York is a big, expansive, romantic album of jazzy love songs. Basia’s voice is a honeyed, deep instrument that imbues even the brisk, dancier moments on the record with a bluesy moodiness. The album’s first track may fool some listeners into thinking they’re listening to Sade’s “Smooth Operator”. The song, “Cruising for Bruising” (which was the album’s first single), starts off with percussion before the rest of the orchestration comes in, an amalgam of ’80s pop and samba, with a shuffling jazzy beat.

The song’s production sets the mood for the rest of the album. The tune is classy and elegant, conjuring up images of a Soho jazz bar, like Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, with Basia holding court in front of an audience of young, hip Londoners – a diverse group, many of whom like the singer, found the capital to be a hospitable new home.

Like much of Western Europe, London in the late ’80s found its culture influenced by internationalism and globalisation. Though Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government seemed antithetical to the New Europe that found its art and music scene bursting with influences from around the world, London was a liberal bubble of excitement and vibrancy. The city was entering a new phase in its life and people like Basia were contributing to its growth, opening restaurants, establishing cultural institutions, and changing the landscape of London culture.

Basia’s sound was very much influenced by this new London, taking in cues from Latin American bossa nova and jazz as well as looking to Black American pop (she even flirted with club culture with popular remixes to her songs, thereby cementing her connection with queer audiences as well). White and Basia took on an interesting project of attempting a harmonious blend of synthetic ’80s pop with the feel of a live performances. Basia’s vocals – like the female-fronted sophisti-pop acts competing with her – were heavily influenced by Black American soul music as well as the mannered, stylized way of contemporary jazz singers were performing.

Given Basia’s affection and admiration for Black American pop music, it’s no surprise that the sole cover on the album is the Stevie Wonder-penned Aretha Franklin classic “Until You Come Back to Me (that’s What I’m Gonna Do)”. Basia’s version combines a stately orchestra with funk, New Jack Swing beats that sound time-stamped in the late ’80s. The song opens with an orchestra slowly tuning its instruments, before being silenced by that tapping of a conductor’s baton. We then get a lone piano, pounding out the familiar, catchy melody, before a thick, soupy bass rumbles in. Basia’s performance is soulful and she sings the lyrics, her accent adding a charm.

Later in 1990, Basia would release a remix EP, Brave New Hope, which would include a remix of the cover, remixed by Phil Harding, a ubiquitous presence in late ’80s dance-pop. The song’s new iteration stretches the song like taffy, adding twinkling keyboards, extra percussion crowding the music, whilst splicing the background voices, rendering them instruments as artificial and glossy as the synthesizers cluttering the busy production. Though Basia’s greatest dance triumph was the number one club hit “Drunk on Love” from her third album, Harding gave audiences a peek into a burgeoning dance diva. And the remix gives the song a Euro-pop sheen.

London Warsaw New York doesn’t have a title track, but the closest thing is “Copernicus” the most significant track on the album because it essentially encapsulates the agenda of the record. The autobiographical lyrics talk about Basia’s native Poland, but also about the hope and potential of moving away but taking one’s culture along. The jazz song is sung at a breakneck speed with a swift beat and a racing piano. Though the song introduces Basia’s homeland, it also incorporates other important parts of her adopted and artistic identity, including the Brazilian sounds of a hooting cuíca that accompanies her as she name checks Polish heroes like Chopin, Curie, and the titular Copernicus. Because so much of immigration is centered on language, Basia’s lyrics embrace the notion of a linguistic gap, singing

Though it’s true / That I only know very few simple words of your language /
I’ve cracked it I’ve decided / Because the only words we need to communicate/
are the ones that can help me say / ‘I do love you’ /
And that makes me understand you love me too

It’s clear with the context of the song as a whole, that although it can be interpreted as a love song, she means a global love, one that embraces diversity and differences. It’s why the record is titled London Warsaw New York – she cites those important cities of her life and they act as a reminder that music and love are great unifiers. There’s also something wonderfully subversive, yet optimistic, about a Polish-born expat, living in the UK, singing a Black American and Brazilian-influenced jazz-pop song about Poland with a band of British jazz musicians. What could have been a crass example of musical and cultural appropriation is instead an homage and a celebration to the internationalism and globalism which enriches pop culture, pop art, and friendship.

Basia isn’t a political artist, nor is London Warsaw New York an explicitly political record, though by merely existing, the album becomes political because it works to normalize the artistic contributions of immigrants as well as to celebrate the exchange of ideas, work, and art. Her supple voice and her inscrutable accent make her music hard to pin down, which is the point. Is she British? Is she Polish? Is she American? The answer to all three questions can be yes because her music would not have evolved to the excellence of the album without the influences of British pop, Black American soul, Latin and Brazilian jazz, or Euro-pop and dance music. In much the same way Paul Simon’s Graceland introduced a mass audience in the West to the Afro-pop of South Africa, Basia was able to make radio – particularly jazz and pop radio – more international and cosmopolitan.

When London Warsaw New York was released, it climbed to the top 20 of the Billboard album charts and would go on to sell over two million copies. Its tracks, including “Brave New Hope” and “Cruising for Bruising”, would go on to become staples of smooth-jazz radio. Basia would release on final LP on a major label, 1994’s Sweetest Illusion, which enjoyed similar success, before she would fade away into the first of a series of hiatuses. Periodically, she would turn up in jazz festivals, pop up as a guest artist on other artists’ albums, and sporadically record albums for indie labels. Still her work from Time and Tide to Sweetest Illusion prevails on smooth jazz stations.

Some 30 years after London Warsaw New York was released, on 22 January 2020, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill put forward by Prime Minister Boris Johnson (the UK’s third PM in just four years) passed the UK parliament and the next day the European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020 received its royal ascent. On 31 January 2020, the UK official withdrew from the EU after years of contentious debate in parliament and in newspaper columns, on picket lines and marches in the streets, and in homes.

For much of the debate, British and European identity has become a hot topic – what does it mean to be British? What does it mean to be European? Does one have to choose? People in the EU and the UK started to look at national identity and the changes and shifts in identity. The three-and-a-half years of limbo that EU and UK expats found themselves in exposed a shrinking of the optimism that the UK had enjoyed throughout the ’90s, particularly during its Cool Britannia period. The pessimism is global, as countries embraced nationalism and right-wing politics, right-wing politicians, and right-wing policies, seemingly rejecting internationalism’s positive values. London Warsaw New York is an artefact of that optimism. Listening to it now, it sounds, sadly, naïve.