The Life of a Song: ‘I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself’

Characteristic Bacharach-David, the song has shifting tempo and keys and lyric packed with immaculate rhymes
Dusty Springfield © Getty

Listen to this article

00:00
00:00

This is an experimental feature. Give us your feedback. Thank you for your feedback.

What do you think?

At the age of 86, Burt Bacharach is currently touring the US and will be arriving in the UK and Ireland for dates in June and July. On stage, he contributes vocals to a handful of songs but anyone who has seen the great man perform will testify that he is a pretty terrible singer; notwithstanding his advanced age, his voice is dry, husky. He leaves most of the vocal work to the singers in his ensemble.

Bacharach’s gifts, of course, lie elsewhere: he has composed some of the most sublime melodies in the history of popular music and his 15-year partnership with lyricist Hal David yielded a string of classics, beginning in 1958 with Perry Como’s “Magic Moments” and lasting until the pair’s acrimonious split in 1973. Bacharach and David’s chief muses were Dusty Springfield and Dionne Warwick, both of whom released versions of “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” in 1964 and 1966, respectively.

The song’s life began in 1962, when Bacharach and David were songwriters at New York songwriting factory the Brill Building. It was first recorded by the American singer Chuck Jackson but his version went unreleased and remained shelved until 1984. Using the same lush, orchestral backing track, it was recorded again in 1962 by Tommy Hunt — and failed to chart.

Despite this inauspicious start, the song’s dramatic ebb and flow had lent itself to Jackson’s and Hunt’s soulful voices (there’s a streak of soul running through many Bacharach/David compositions) and so, when English blue-eyed soul singer Dusty Springfield met Bacharach in New York in 1964, she returned to London with the song, recording it at Olympic Studios.

The song itself is characteristic Bacharach-David, with its shifting tempo and keys (as a young music student Bacharach had immersed himself in the music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Dizzy Gillespie), while the lyric is packed with immaculate rhymes. Also, enjoy Hal David’s clever transposition of the word “just”: “I just don’t know what to do . . . ”, followed by “Don’t know just what to do . . .”

Springfield’s version was a triumph, reaching number three in the UK charts, and Warwick recorded her own a couple of years later; it follows the same template — big, emotion-drenched vocals, grandiose string-laden arrangement — but it perhaps lacks Springfield’s sense of desperation.

Another soulful treatment of the song came in 1970 from Isaac Hayes, though this is very different: the protagonist seems to be pacing his apartment in the small hours, brooding rather than boiling (the song lasts a simmering seven minutes). Also in 1970, Cissy Houston — mother of Whitney, aunt of Warwick — released a stomping, up-tempo, brassy soul version.

Bacharach went out of fashion in the 1970s but he had a couple of unlikely new-wave champions: the Stranglers, who covered “Walk On By”, and Elvis Costello, who took to incorporating “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” in his live set — stripped down but typically histrionic. A version appears on the 1978 Stiff Records compilation album Stiff Live and Costello, a crooner at heart, went on to record an album co-written with Bacharach, 1998’s Painted from Memory.

From left: Tommy Hunt; the White Stripes; Elvis Costello © Getty

And then the White Stripes took the song by the scruff of the neck, giving it the full raw-rock treatment: a wall of guitar noise, walloping drums and a vocal from Jack White that teeters on the brink of hysteria. The duo recorded it in 2001 during a BBC Radio 1 Evening Session and put it on the B-side of their 2002 single “Fell In Love With a Girl”; it struck a chord and was subsequently released as a single in its own right, with Sofia Coppola’s famous video of Kate Moss pole-dancing. If Bacharach performs the song on his current tour, it’s likely to be in a more sedate arrangement than this sonic tornado, which is perhaps one of the most startling cover versions of all time.

Photographs: Getty Images

Listen to a podcast of this story with clips of the songs (if you are reading on the FT web app, this link will take you to FT.com)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.