Under Pressure

Feel Like (Queen studio demo, 1981).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Queen).
Under Pressure (Queen, live, 1986).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox, rehearsal, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Annie Lennox w/Queen, live, 1992).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, broadcast, 1995).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1996).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
Under Pressure (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 2003).

The comic book Marvel Team-Up (above is the first issue I ever bought, at age 9) had a simple narrative formula: in each issue Spider Man met another hero, usually fought him/her by mistake, then the two combined forces to defeat whatever villain turned up in the third act. MTU often felt like a make-work program for Marvel characters, as Spider Man’s co-stars were generally third-tier superheroes (or even TV actors), but once in a while there was an above-the-marquee pairing, a real event.

“Under Pressure” is the Marvel Team-Up of Bowie songs,* with Bowie sharing the mike with Freddie Mercury, a duet seemingly financed by Rolling Stone for a “Seventies legends” retrospective issue. “Under Pressure” easily lends itself to metaphor: Tom Ewing, in his review of the track, aptly compared it to an exhibition football match (“Sir Fred’s mighty “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” is the song’s most ridiculous, glorious moment: a stunning strike from the Queen frontman whose over-the-top goal celebration (“why can’t we give love, give love, give love”) just prolongs the joy.“)

A vague protest song about modern life, “Pressure” was recorded by an aging rock star and a fading rock group who met one summer in a Swiss studio. Bowie was there working with Giorgio Moroder on “Cat People,” while Queen was recording a follow-up to The Game. After chatting about record advances, Bowie recorded backing vocals for a dreadful Queen track called “Cool Cat” (his contribution was erased before the final mix). This led to a jam session on another unassuming song, provisionally titled “Feel Like,” that Queen was working up in the studio. With contributions by Bowie (who likely wrote the bridge melodies), the song developed into “Under Pressure,” which remains at heart a studio jam: Brian May’s guitar is little more than the arpeggiated pattern he was toying with on “Feel Like,” while Mercury’s peacock scatting in his verse sections disguises the fact that he didn’t bother to write a lyric for them.

And for all its world-encompassing lyrical pretensions and its bravura vocals, “Pressure” is a fairly minimal record, in line with Queen’s new taste for simpler, dance-oriented sounds. Keeping within the confines of D major (until the second bridge, “Pressure” is just tonic (D), subdominant (G) and dominant (A)), “Pressure” is only two verses and two bridges, the second of the latter extended to become the grand climax to the song—after the final Bowie blowout, there’s nowhere to go but offstage.

A few motifs are cycled throughout—the two-note synth line that sounds like a French horn (in the intro, verses and outro) and a two-note piano quote—and the rhythms build steadily, with the piano moving from brief interjections to a steady vamping in the verses, or Roger Taylor going from hi-hat in the intro to pounding his snare in the verses to the drum crescendo for Mercury’s bird of prey howls in the bridge (with Bowie yelling “no! no! no!” as though an air raid’s about to begin).

Neither Bowie nor Queen were enthusiastic at first about “Pressure,” most of which was completed in a day (then given some overdubs a few weeks later in New York). But “Pressure” had quite a few things in its favor, like its superstar co-billing and John Deacon’s minimalist bassline (six D notes, then an A; repeat, with minor variations, ad infinitum) which, especially when set against the bare-bones rhythm base in the intro (claps, fingersnaps, hi-hat), was a natural hook.** And once EMI learned it had a Bowie and Queen duet, the label pushed for it to be a single.

The once-David Jones and the once-Farrokh Bulsara first met in the late Sixties, when Bowie was an obscure would-be folkie and Mercury was selling second-hand clothes in a Kensington Market stall. Little more than a decade later, after having become pop demigods and having lived on a galactic scale, Bowie and Mercury were the last glam superstars left standing. Meeting by chance at the turn of a decade, the two seemed compelled deliver a pronouncement, some kind of state of the union address.

A problem with many rock star “social commentaries” is that the star, long isolated by money and sycophants, speaks in generalities, with human life reduced to a series of abstractions, as though the star’s fearful of alienating constituencies with an inappropriate detail. So we get things like: Feed the world. We are the world. People need to be free. The children are our future.

“Under Pressure” seems a case in point. People on streets, Mercury and Bowie sing, over and over again; it’s a phrase so abstracted that it lacks a definite article. “Pressure”*** is so ill-defined a concept that it’s both a physical force—burning buildings down—and a spiritual blight, causing divorce and homelessness. The brutal syntax of Bowie’s insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking doesn’t help things, while the song builds to the climactic flattery of Mercury’s why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?, offering unearned forgiveness for indeterminate sins. So it’s easy to ridicule the lyric as the gassings-on of two pantomime actors playing at being statesmen.

That judgement would miss something essential, I think. Nick Lowe, in 1974, wrote a parody of the Last Hippie called “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding?,” which Lowe’s protege Elvis Costello covered five years later. Lowe’s song is the lament of a hippie sad sack, lost in a cruel world and wondering where the good times have gone—there’s a touch of cruelty in it. Costello instead took the lyric utterly seriously, and the song, warming to its interpreter, became heartbreaking. “Where are the strong? and who are the trusted?” became hard indictments, questions more relevant than ever today.

Something similar happens in “Under Pressure,” which is a sad hippie song beneath its arias and cannonades, and it’s owed entirely to its singers.

Bowie and Mercury simply will “Under Pressure” into being far better than the material deserves. Take how Mercury sings the cliche “it never rains but it pours,” in an impossibly light falsetto, making it sound like a lament for the world, or how he soars to the diva high note that even Annie Lennox would struggle to hit. It’s a man carving his own monument.

But (given our biases here, this should be no surprise) it’s Bowie who really salvages the song. The sudden ferocity of his appearance on the first bridge (“it’s the terror of knowing what this world is about“) dispels some of the vagaries of the verse. Then there’s Bowie’s crescendo performance in the second bridge. It’s a melody that Bowie’s held back until now like an ace of trumps, the magnificent staircase-climb of “love’s..such an..old fashioned…WORD/and love..DARES YOU to CARE FOR…” It’s a beautiful moment: in the middle of what has been a superstar jam session, there suddenly appears Bowie’s new hymn for all the young dudes, buried away in plain sight. Watch George Michael start singing along in awe during Bowie’s rehearsal performance at the Mercury tribute—he can’t help himself.

“Under Pressure” is a day’s indulgence by two men past their prime, who were entering a decade that would reward and diminish them; Mercury had only a decade more to live. So there’s a sadness along with the bravado, a sense of loss to go with the heroics. Something is going away, going away for good, and Bowie and Mercury see it, if only in shadows. Anthony Miccio once called “Under Pressure” “the best song of all time,” and there are a few days when I think he was right. It’s the last song of the titans, one that needs grandiose claims made on its behalf.

“Under Pressure” slipped out in late 1981: a collective anonymous act. The single sleeve had no photographs, its video was cobbled together by David Mallet from stock footage, Queen and Bowie never performed it live together and never gave a single interview about “Under Pressure.” And it hit #1.

Recorded July 1981 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs a few weeks later at the Power Station, NYC. Released 26 October 1981 as EMI 5250 (#1 UK, #29 US); later on Queen’s 1982 Hot Space, as well as being collected in a few Bowie anthologies. Bowie never played it live until the tribute to Mercury in April 1992, with his grand duet with Annie Lennox. Bowie then fashioned “Pressure” into a duet that he would perform with Gail Ann Dorsey throughout his last decade of touring.

* Of course, there’s another edition of Bowie Team-Up coming in 1985, one that’s far less sublime. Brace yourselves.

** Deacon was supplanting Brian May as Queen’s dominant instrumental voice: his Chic-inspired bassline had owned “Another One Bites the Dust.” Who wrote the mighty “Pressure” bassline? Various authors have been proposed (or proposed themselves) over the years, but according to May and Taylor, Deacon came up with it. However Deacon once said that Bowie wrote it. And yes, there’s Vanilla Ice—let’s not get into it. [Supplementary note: I failed to mention that in the recent Paul Trynka DB bio, Trynka bolsters the Bowie-as-author case, claiming that a) the bassline was actually recorded late in the game, in New York during overdubs and B) Bowie "sang" the entire bassline to Deacon. No direct attribution as to where this info came from, though.]

*** See also Billy Joel’s even more incoherent “Pressure,” from 1982.

Top: MTU #110, Oct. 1981; Kim Aldis, Brixton riots, UK, April 1981.

49 Responses to Under Pressure

  1. fantailfan says:

    I am not moved. Maybe its that Queen was never my thing. Maybe it’s because in 1981, I was 20, and my mother was dying. This silly song had no meaning to me. I had no patience for it.
    1981 is a year out of time for me, and the music I listened to then is strangely isolated, like it belongs there and cannot be pulled from its time – October, U2’s stumble before becoming the Biggest Rock Band of All Time (sorry, Rolling Stones) makes me cry. Still.
    What makes it worse is that, in retrospect, is how sad it turned out. it really was the last new thing for Freddie Mercury (correct me if I’m wrong). He was a gay man, and everybody knew it, yet he went through the same bullshit Elton John did – marry a straight woman and deny being gay. , , and he died of AIDS anyway. WTF? FTW.
    Still, it is the #2 download for Bowie and #6 Queen, so it must mean more to other people than how it sounds to me.

    • fantailfan says:

      Apologia – I didn’t mean to let it all spill over. Sorry. Being 20 happens only once in a lifetime.

      • David L says:

        No apology necessary. I’m sure I’m not alone in hearing all the personal stories about when and how Bowie’s music affected our lives. And I can understand how this song would have fallen short when you were losing your mother at such a young age. Your openness was appreciated.

    • klhoughton says:

      “the last new thing for Freddie Mercury”

      I’m certainly willing to define “The Show Must Go On” (from Innuendo) as Freddie’s last great work: literally a requiem for himself by that point.

      _Hot Space_, iirc, also has a decent tribute to John Lennon. Few enough of those that can still be played without cringing.

  2. MC says:

    Never crazy about this song as a whole, but I do love Bowie on the second bridge – definitely the highlight. I have wondered if the words reflect some Lennon influence – the earnest celebration of capital L love is not typical of Bowie’s songwriting prior to this.

    • Maj says:

      I also keep wondering about this. I think it must have something to do w/ Lennon, if only the concept.
      Who wrote the lyrics anyway? Freddie?

    • David L says:

      Interesting point, yeah, some sort of nod to Lennon there, perhaps, though the write-up seems to indicate that Mercury wrote the lyrics?

      • col1234 says:

        there’s an interview with May (sometime in the ’00s) where he admits DB wrote a great deal of the lyric…meant to mention this will try to dig it up…

      • Remco says:

        According to May and Taylor in 2009 they finished the backing track together, then Bowie suggested everyone go into the vocal booth and sing the first thing that came into their heads.
        That stuff was then compiled to see if it suggested where the song could go. Some of those takes were kept for the finished song (a lot of the scatting I’d imagine).Bowie then came in a couple of days later and suggested what the song should be about.

        Another interesting thing was that Bowie (who was in a very Eno-esque mood apparently) decided that he and Freddie shouldn’t be able to hear what the other was singing. So they were actually singing blind, as Taylor puts it. That material was then later cut and pasted into the song we now know and, in some cases, love.

      • Maj says:

        Thanks for this info Remco!
        Very interesting, esp the singing blind bit.

  3. Maj says:

    Well *I* am moved. Back when I started listening to Bowie I was just in the middle of my hating Queen & so I rolled my eyes when I read he did a duet with them. But then I heard it and I could not help myself but like it. And the song’s even grown on me since. Yeah, it might be a bit too grand lyrically as well as musically but man, whenever I listen to it I get shivers down my spine (no Queen pun intended). Today as I played it while reading this write-up it actually almost made me cry. I regret nothing.
    It was great to finally get to know how it came about. I always assumed Deacon wrote the bass hook but if it were Bowie, only better. ;o)
    And yeah, it’s Bowie who really makes this record. He’s the old woman from Donnie Darko to Freddie’s (any) melancholic teenager learning about the nature of life.
    The second bridge is marvelous. You can’t help but sing along, indeed.
    Back when I finally got broadband internet & discovered the joys of YouTube, I kept searching for a live version of Under Pressure and was shocked to learn Bowie & Queen never performed it. Would have loved to see that. It’s only a testament what a strong pop song this is that it got to no. 1 w/o any promotion from the artists. It’s shocking neither of them thought much of it but these things happen. The Beatles sometimes dismissed songs that are classics today…

  4. giospurs says:

    As a big Bowie and Queen fan, Under Pressure is quite special for me. It’s almost a guilty pleasure in that the hooks are so basic and displayed so brazenly and, as has been said, the clichéd phrases in the lyrics, but really it’s far too good for one to feel guilty about loving it.

  5. Remco says:

    While some of you probably had David Bowie on their wall the first thing I’d see in the morning when I was a kid was Mr. Mercury, dressed in black and white tights that left nothing to the imagination. I grew up on Queen, and Marvel comics by the way, so their entire oeuvre is a guilty pleasure for me. Some of it is pretty bad, Cool Cat is quite terrible I agree, but I can’t NOT like Queen, it’s just ingrained into my psyche.
    Ridiculous and glorious is a wonderful description since it is bit silly, a lot of Queen’s best songs are quite silly. But it soars gorgeously towards an beautiful finale and their voices work wonderfully together, Mercury’s falsetto countering Bowie’s bass. Really great stuff, I was very much looking forward to this post and you haven’t disappointed me (you even managed to sneak in a reference Elvis Costello, the other god in my personal rock pantheon)
    If John Deacon says Bowie wrote the bass riff then Bowie wrote the bass riff. To my ears it doesn’t sound like something that was written on a bass, piano more likely, and while Deacy (yes I can call him Deacy) is a great bass player he’s not a minimalist.

  6. W.Kasper says:

    Considering I’ve always hated Queen, and on paper the single has every reason to be rubbish, I agree it’s far, far better than the sum of its parts. Even the corny lyrics retain their impact – especially when you consider how our way of life has changed since 1981. It works in that mysterious way that so many pop classics do.

    Excellent stuff, as usual.

  7. diamond dog says:

    I used to love queens early material but tired of it as I got older. I never really liked it at the time but I just love Bowies vocal it is spinetingling and makes the song. Mercury fine as he is is pretty tiresome on it it irks me that Bowie really gives so much whilst Mercury seems to prance about on it. The y all fell out did,nt they now I wonder what that was about……

  8. philT says:

    well, you’re continuing to make me listen to and enjoy tracks i’ve hated for a long time. ;-)

  9. David L says:

    Brilliant point about the “rock star “social commentaries” speaking in generalities … that helps explain why I always liked the song but never really loved it. It always seemed so imprecise about its intent. There was something deeply emotional going on, but I could never really fully connect, and I think you articulated the reason. That said, it is a good song and that second bridge is transcendent. Mercury puts up a great run and then Bowie comes along and absolutely crushes it. It almost sounds like his voice is double-tracked at that point.

  10. Marion Brent says:

    “Ageing rock star and fading rock group” is a touch cruel! Bowie was only 34, and Queen would arguably have a better eighties than Bowie. The Works is a lot more fun than Tonight, that’s for sure!

    I can’t remember how I felt about this song at the time – now it does seem a curious mix of emotional and vacuous, but it is clearly saved by that fantastic bassline. In that respect it’s a bit like “Stay”, which is more of a great riff than a great song.

    • Remco says:

      No, I think ‘fading rock group’ is spot on. I’d say The Works is Queen’s Let’s Dance. A Kind Of Magic is their Tonight and The Miracle is their NLDM. They managed to reclaim a bit of what was lost on their final album though.

  11. spanghew says:

    Yes. Thing is, the scatteredness of “pressure” is real – there’s just all kinds of shit going on, and if it were easier to isolate, hey, here’s what the problem is, there’d be less pressure. And Mercury’s wordless, nervous scatting embodies that.

    But his vocal performance overall in this track? Just astonishing: when you effortlessly top out at a high “A” that not even Annie Lennox can sing properly, well, you’ve done something pretty damned astonishing.

    And I agree about the way Bowie’s vocal melody transforms the whole song – in fact, despite the sometimes vague, sometimes cliched nature of the lyrics as a whole, the phrase “love dares you” is immensely powerful and subtly complex: between the performances (Bowie’s is also a marvel) and the impact of that line, well yeah: you’ve got a brilliant song, pulled together from unpromising and unlikely materials.

    That’s one definition of genius.

  12. timspeaker says:

    I have often been quoted by friends (and heckled by many) for claiming that Under Pressure is my favorite stand alone single ever (yes, it was later on a Queen album but not originally released as such).

    Bowie’s vocal on the second bridge is one of the finest melodies ever written, transporting the entire song to a level few reach. In fact, much of the song seems like it is waiting, building to that moment. It truly is powerful, in a song that is mostly superfluous.

    You accurately asserted that, “Anthony Miccio once called “Under Pressure” “the best song of all time,” and there are a few days when I think he was right” is a perfect distillation of how I feel about it.

    Thanks again for writing exactly how a song makes me feel.

  13. Brendan O'Lear says:

    I could never work out if this was a good song let down by uncommitted performances, or a ropey song brought to life by excellent performers. However, at the time of its release Queen were still too far beyond the pale for me so this largely passed me by. Probably the first Bowie release after Aladdin Sane that I didn’t buy.
    Of Bowie’s big three duet singles, I’d put this in the middle.

  14. Gnomemansland says:

    Under Pressure is a lot better than we have a right to expect given how it was assembled and whilst not a song one tends to seek out every time it comes on the radio its worth listening to. After all is could have been as throwaway as the raincoat prancing – Dancing in the Street.

  15. diamond dog says:

    I think its a very ropey lyric almost like a politicians, non commital and vague full of sweeping open ended headlines. It reveals the essence of Bowie in the 80,s that he was now able to turn a superb vocal performance with even the worst of lyrics. I bet he could sing a shopping list and stop you in your tracks by turning on that incredible instrument. He did this continually during the decade , I don,t think let’s dance or tonight have anything at all to ‘say’ but the voice is now so good it can polish a turd.

  16. algeriatouchshriek says:

    UP is a magical confection of disparate parts, a thrilling collision of metaphors and aphorisms that work because of the authority of the two singers. Sense and reason submit the glamour of the duet; thats why it was such a smash. Its a theatrical bout LG glove slapping with each protagonist attempting to out pout one another. I love the empty spectacle, the disparity between the blank verse and the operatic clamour tells us more about the hoplesness of the pop music project and in that sense its the most honest single ever. A masquerade of pantomimic artifice… how Bowiesque is that?

  17. algeriatouchshriek says:

    … nurse, can I have my pulls now?

  18. snoball says:

    I was never convinced by ‘Under Pressure’ – a song about social responsibility written by five tax exiles. There are a lot of parallels between Bowie and Queen in the 80’s. It’s the decade where both acts released their absolute worst material, lost their way artistically, and finished the period with bombastic corporate rock totally lacking in humour and intelligence.
    FTR I really like the 1985 Bowie team-up. But more on that when the time comes.

  19. Jeremy Earl says:

    Brilliant song really – very inspired. How many other performers would have loved to come up with it? Screw whether the lyrics mean anything or not – they are open to interpretation. It’s a pop song after all and deserved to go to number one. It has some really spine tingling moments and if Bowie did indeed write the bass-line then it’s a another confirmation of his genius. And if anyone is going to sing in campy and ridiculous way then Mercury and Bowie are the ones to do it.

    Love the rehearsal footage – had seen that before and notice GM singing along. He looked like a total fan-boy and Lennox must have been in heaven.

    Great write-up, by the way – love the marvel metaphor, very post modern of you… ;)

  20. jopasso says:

    There are two Bowie songs that I love, and I don’t know exactly why, Somebody up there likes me, and Under pressure

    I really love UP, and never get tired of it. Perhaps it’s Bowie’s voice, perhaps the bridge, I don’t know what captivates me.
    And I don’t find it a simple song at all.
    It’s sophisticated, epic and cheesy at the same time.
    In my DB top 25 without a doubt.

  21. Jeremy Earl says:

    Yeah I love Somebody up there likes me too, for the same reason. Bowie does that kind of thing beautifully – that’s why i love his melodrama.

  22. Jeremy Earl says:

    Read right down the bottom, after the blurb about the watch. It’s in really small font for some reason.

    http://www.davidbowie.com/news/index.php?id=20110929

  23. Jeremy Earl says:

    Sorry, the link to that site reverts to the most recent item. try the news item for the 24th – same info as about it though…

    Damn it!

  24. mike says:

    I agree that this Frankenstein’s monster of a song somehow works, despite the awkward gait and that unsightly bolt through its neck….

    “It lives! It lives!”

  25. MrBelm says:

    I have always heard the finger snaps and handclaps as a repurposing of the intro to “Golden Years.”

  26. diamond dog says:

    Has anyone any info on the two dames falling out? Queen cut out Bowies contribution to cool cat.
    Its amazing the feeling folks have for this tune which was really made a classic by vanilla ice and later jedward. I always thought of it as queen the demo clearly shows it was they’re tune. Mercury must have been irked by Bowie’s superb performance ker ….ching.

  27. Tim says:

    Great write-up. This song is miraculous. There may be better written songs out there with stronger melodies, but I can’t think of another with as many great moments. Let’s see, we have: the opening bass riff; the moment halfway through the first verse where the bass drops an octave and the song really finds its footing; the drama of the first chorus; Mercury’s verse and jaw-dropping falsetto upping the ante; Bowie taking charge again with the stately second chorus and on and on. Then Mercury hits us with “give love one more chance”, and it’s game, set, match – until Bowie somehow finds a gear that you didn’t know existed with the gorgous “love dares you” melody . In each section the given singer raises the bar, but not by outdoing the the other – rather by spurring the other one to do what he does best. I suppose that’s the definition of a great collaboration. I have to take a minute to compose myself everytime I finish listening to it.

  28. “Bowie and Mercury simply will Under Pressure into being far better than the material deserves.” — and here’s the acapella to nail that point: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMQb9LCNGxs

  29. rob thomas says:

    …this is quietly one of your best bits of writing so far (been reading this damn thing over eighteen months, and still only at ‘Late RCA’!)
    Thanks as always
    Rob

  30. Ididtheziggy says:

    This article perfectly sums up this song. It is absolutely chock full of flaws, it’s indulgent, clearly pieced together by people who’s glory is behind them. It can be general and saccharine and over the top.
    And then Bowie sings “love is an old fashioned word” and brings it all the way till the end of the song and I think that, yes, this might be my favourite song in the whole world.

  31. Ezekiel Benedict says:

    This is a great piece of writing, well done. A personal favourite for me this song, I was 11 when this came out and was already big on Mr Bowie after being captivated by the odd video and song Ashes to Ashes. I can remember going to the swimming pool in my hometown with some of my friends and having bits of it playing in my head all day. Summer days, long gone.

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