Released: 14 January 1977
David Bowie: vocals
Brian Eno: Report ARP synthesizer, Rimmer EMI
Carlos Alomar, Ricky Gardiner: guitar
George Murray: bass guitar
Roy Young: piano, Farfisa organ
Dennis Davis: drums, percussion
Iggy Pop: vocals
The only song on David Bowie’s Low album to feature Iggy Pop on vocals, ‘What In The World’ was originally recorded for Pop’s album The Idiot.
Iggy Pop was a constant presence during this month. He sat in on most recordings and he also sang on ‘What In The World’. David and Iggy were by now good friends since working on Iggy’s album The Idiot. All of us had our meals together in the communal dining room. Conversation flowed like wine. Iggy had great stories, Brian had great stories. Iggy’s stories were so astounding and hilarious that David and I used some studio time in the third or fourth week to interview Iggy. David, Iggy and I sat facing each other in the darkened studio and we let the tape roll. Iggy spoke lucidly for hours. I never knew what became of that tape.
A New Career In A New Town (1977–1982) book
At the end of the Isolar Tour in 1976, Bowie and his wife Angela were invited to stay at Château d’Hérouville by its manager Pierre Calamel.
Château d’Hérouville was a residential recording studio a short distance from Paris, where Bowie had recorded Pin Ups in 1973. During his short stay, Bowie decided to book the studio and engineer Laurent Thibault in June and July 1976, to record what became Iggy Pop’s album The Idiot.
Bowie produced Pop’s album, with the pair collaborating on much of the songwriting. Various musicians were brought in for the sessions, including Bowie’s bandmates George Murray and Dennis Davis.
We were all in the right place at the right time and it just worked out well for everybody concerned. I think it was collaborative, definitely, with Iggy. I spent a lot of time writing for him as well as producing. For me, Iggy’s strength was as a lyricist – I thought he was the funniest, darkest lyricist of the time. I really wanted to give him some musical support that would get him a wider audience. It just seemed so unfair that he was virtually neglected, as was Lou Reed when I first started working with him … I was going through a very experimental stage when I first started working with Iggy on The Idiot. I had some ideas on that which reached their fruition when I started working with Brian on Low. The Idiot, for me, was a kind of format for devising a new kind of musical scenario.
Seconds magazine, August/September 1995
The Idiot and Low were almost recorded back-to-back, with some musicians and studio staff working on both. Intriguingly, according to Thibault, ‘What In The World’ was recorded for The Idiot under a different title.
Low was recorded after The Idiot, but Low came out first. David didn’t want anyone to say he was inspired by Iggy’s record when, in fact, it’s the same. Some of the songs we recorded for Iggy are found in Low, like ‘What In The World’ which was originally called ‘Isolation’.
The lyrics of ‘What In The World’ deal with alienation and insecurity. Although addressed to a “little girl with grey eyes,” Bowie could equally have been referring to his own months of isolation and depression in Los Angeles during the peak of his cocaine addiction:
So deep in your room
You never leave your room
Something deep inside of me
Yearning deep inside of me
Talking through the gloom
What in the world can I do?
What in the world can I do?
Indeed, in the next song on Low, the hit single ‘Sound And Vision’, he continues the theme, although this time singing in the first person:
Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say…
‘What In The World’ was performed throughout the Isolar II Tour, which kicked off in San Diego on 29 March 1978.
The live arrangement was split in two halves: beginning with a lilting reggae beat, it was restarted after the second chorus at almost double speed. Recordings can be heard on the live albums Stage and Welcome To The Blackout (Live London ’78).
It was retained for the Serious Moonlight Tour, albeit with both parts played at faster tempos. A performance from Vancouver on 12 September 1983 is available on Serious Moonlight (Live ’83).
‘What In The World’ was also performed for some of the Outside and Heathen Tour dates in 1995 and 2002. Bowie’s final performance of the song was on 22 September 2002 at the Max-Schmeling-Halle in Berlin.