Under Pressure

September 27, 2011

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.