What In the World

February 7, 2011

What In the World.
What In the World (Musikladen, 1978).
What In the World (live, 1978).
What In the World (rehearsal with Stevie Ray Vaughan, 1983).
What In the World (live, 1983).
What In the World (live, 1995).
What In the World (live, 2002).

“What In the World” was originally intended for The Idiot: it seems crafted for Iggy Pop’s voice (Pop’s audible on the track, especially on the second verse’s hollered “wait until the crowd goes!”), while its first line, “you’re just a little girl with grey eyes,” hints that the song is another in the Idiot‘s gallery of vulnerable, destructive women (“China Girl,” “Baby,” “Tiny Girls”).

But suddenly we’re in stranger territory. Bowie breaks off the seduction, veering into harsh, bizarre commands (“never mind—say something! wait until the crowd cries!”); there’s a shift in perspective, so the singer could just as easily be shouting down the mirror (the song originally was titled “Isolation”). A chorus appears, or more like a string of half-assembled choruses looped together. Bowie’s tone lurches from sympathy to numbness, sometimes in the course of single line—he seems to be revising thoughts as he speaks them. So the rising melody in the chorus (“something deep inside of me”) runs aground against the title phrase, which Bowie sings flatly, drawing the blood out of the song. When he changes “you” to “I,” in the second chorus, it’s even more disruptive: the long, biting vowel sound hobbles the melody.

“What in the World” is a series of rapid concussions: the first verse is over and done in 15 seconds, the first chorus in 20, and if not for its lengthy (by Low Side A standards) outro the song would run its course in a minute and a half. Yet “World” doesn’t feel brief, but seems to deepen and expand as it proceeds, disclosing new surfaces each time it’s played. Tony Visconti’s mix is as wearying to listen to as it’s invigorating—nothing is foregrounded, nothing is central, everyone seems to be fighting for space. (There’s a taste of Sparks in all this—Visconti had produced their Indiscretion the year before). As with most of the Low tracks, there’s the sense Bowie’s vocal just as easily could have been wiped.

The players zoom in and out of focus. There’s Ricky Gardiner’s jittery lead guitar, its brittle sound in part owed to Gardiner playing through a small, tinny Fender amp—he hadn’t wanted to bring his expensive amp on the plane. He gets a four-bar guitar solo, but then continues on in the left channel, as if unaware that another verse has started. Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar, dryly recorded and mixed low in the right channel, offers the song’s constantly-changing building blocks (each bar of the verse shifts from F to E-flat, while the chorus is a series of shifts, stabilizing on eight bars of stepwise back-and-forths from D to C.) Dennis Davis’ crashing, Harmonized drums are as much a lead presence as Bowie’s vocal (“World” is the second of three sequenced tracks on Low that a Davis drum fill kicks off) while George Murray’s steady bass playing makes him seem like the only sane man in the room. Roy Young’s Farfisa organ shows up in the second chorus, like a late party guest, while Brian Eno plays the joker in the pack, his regular role on Low—here Eno’s EMS Synthi One suitcase synthesizer churns out bubbling noises that saturate the first verse and seem intended to throw off any sense of rhythmic stability.

Low is also, as we’ll see, a record of Bowie grappling with writer’s block, to the point where getting a single line down was painful, and in “World” Bowie’s typically short and uncluttered lyric seems pieced together out of older songs: “I’m In the Mood For Love,” the Doors’ “You’re Lost Little Girl,” Syd Barrett’s (covering James Joyce)”Golden Hair” (possibly the inspiration for “talking through the gloom”), the Who’s “The Real Me,” the Yardbirds’ “For Your Love.” In the latter song, Keith Relf sang the title phrase with an emphasis on the last word, the previous two used as propulsion to launch the last into the air (“foryour LOVE!”). In “World,” Bowie places equal weight on each word, as if he’s singing phonetically and has no idea, or no care, what relevance each word has: “FOR–YOUR–LOVE”.

“World” is love song as interrogation, an isolate’s attempt to connect with another isolate (the girl’s “deep in your room” here, Bowie’s stuck in his room in the following song, “Sound and Vision”): it gives the listener as little concession as its singer gives the girl with grey eyes, who very well may not exist at all.

Recorded September 1976, primarily at Château d’Hérouville. The song must have wronged Bowie in some way, as he gave it a reggae arrangement on stage in 1978 and 1983. Revived in later tours.

Top: Patti Smith at the Boarding House, San Francisco, 1976.