Feb 09

QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE – “Under Pressure”

FT + Popular90 comments • 6,894 views

#489, 21st November 1981

Here’s a type of record which really came into its own in the 80s: rock or pop songs which were terrifically likeable despite having little or no emotional grip. “Under Pressure” is a good example of this because there’s a colossal gap between what the song is notionally about – “People on streets”, as the working title had it – and the actual sensation of listening to it. The video – a badly-synched montage of collapse, depression and hardship – adds to the disconnect. “Under Pressure” simply has nothing whatsoever to do with its purported subject: all you really need to know is in the artist credit, not the title. This is a tag-team bout between two of Britain’s stagiest acts, who go for broke in an attempt to outdo one another. Who wins? (Aside from us.)

Actually, the wrestling metaphor doesn’t quite cut it – this is more like a two-legged home-and-away football tie. The first half of the song – nervy, slick white funk built on that remarkable bassline – is on Bowie territory and it’s the Dame who steals the show and gets the best line (“It’s the terror of knowing…”): Freddie Mercury’s contributions here are a bit niminy-piminy, sketches around the edge of the song.

In the second half though, when “Under Pressure” rocks out, Queen are playing with home advantage, and the handover from Bowie’s “under pressure we’re cracking” to 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. But wait! Bowie responds, matching Queen’s style of play with the kind of hollow, high-flown declamatory singing that would become a feature of his 80s work: “Love’s such an old-fashioned thing….” Here it works, because for the first time the song feels like a duet rather than a collection of entertaining parts: two icons vibing off one another in a way that big-name collaborators rarely do. A Bowie victory, then, but this is an exhibition match, and the crowd go home satisfied whoever they supported.

“Under Pressure” is both behind its times and ahead of them – it’s two giants of the theatrical 70s making a record full of chest-thumping pomp that ought by rights to seem sluggish next to New Pop and downright insulting next to “Ghost Town”. But it’s also the first (and possibly best) stadium rock number one – a sign that the decade would be one in which bombast and the grand gesture would play significant roles. So would terrific basslines, which is probably why “Under Pressure” gets away with it, even while it ends up being a record about nothing more than the stylistic licks its makers trade.



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  1. 76
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Kind words, Cumbrian. Thanks.

    I agree completely that the non-league scene is far more pleasant. Eastbourne Borough, as has been pointed out, is really just a sports club house with a wee footy ground next to it. The club house, of course, contains a bar whereas the ground does not. Lewes FC, our Sussex rivals, on the other hand, does have a fully-functioning drinker on site as do many other clubs. And there is not the slightest hint of trouble.

    Rosie hints on Barrow’s travelling support and it is indeed magnificent. I once saw them at Lewes for a midweek game and there were about forty of them bouncing around cheering their guys on. These bloody Bluebirds, alas, definitely have the Indian sign over Borough. But for me, the latest twatting we got from them saw the Swede and a buddy viewing this from the “Legends Bar”, a result of a Swedish win of a raffle at a previous game. Since I had provided the ticket, my mucker provided the transport and it was thus glug-glug-glug for a thirsty Swede in a delightful little box, which contained about ten patrons, SKY sports on the wall and a smily old girl behind the bar. We lost two nil but by the time I was tipped back into my bungalow, I was well on the way to not carry a flying foxtrot.

    I’ve been to Brunton Park three times with Chelsea, btw. Two draws and a defeat. On one occasion, I stayed in Dumfries overnight and I had a bit of drama persuading the local plod that I was travelling north and did not want to get bundled on the London train with all the rest of the herberts.

    Happy Days!

  2. 77
    wichita lineman on 30 Mar 2011 #

    Re 71: the magic of James Alexander Gordon reading out your club’s name – very much akin to Tom Brown/Tony Blackburn/Bruno Brooks reading out a new entry by your favourite group.

  3. 78
    Cumbrian on 30 Mar 2011 #

    #76 No worries Jimmy. Your tales of non-league football chimed with my experience of going to some places with Carlisle. Brunton Park will have changed a bit since we played Chelsea on anything like a regular basis mind. Now I live in London I don’t get to go back as much as before, but we’ve now got a nice shiny all seater stand where the away support are located (a leagacy from the Knighton years).

    Also, in local news, a quick FUCKING HELL!!! Lady Gaga is headlining the Radio One 1 Big Weekend, from Carlisle! Foo Fighters, Tinie Tempah, Plan B and Nicole Scherzinger also performing. Unfuckingbelievable. Hands down the biggest gig in the locality that I can think of, probably ever – though my memory doesn’t go back much beyond 1990.

  4. 79
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Amazing pop/football interaction on the Black Cat Bones blog – The Canon Championship! Qualifying rounds!! Go, Nilsson (the Uruguay of Group A)!!!


  5. 80
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #79 a quick glance at the voting suggests there will be no Beefheart/Zappa derby in the next round :(

  6. 81
    lonepilgrim on 27 Sep 2011 #

    the writer of the Bowie blog casts his discerning ear over this one here:

  7. 82
    Ed on 29 Sep 2011 #

    @81 That’s a great post…. Some good links to cracking performances with Gail Ann Dorsey, too.

    The (rather wonderful) Uncut Bowie special has a 1983 NME interview where he says “some of it makes me cringe a bit, but he obviously came round to it.

  8. 83
    Lena on 4 Jun 2013 #

    Then Play Long has returned!: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/06/queen-greatest-hits.html (“Under Pressure” in Greatest Hits II however.)

  9. 84
    swanstep on 4 Jun 2013 #

    @Lena. I’ve bought this album both on cassette and on cd and it contained Under Pressure both times. Checking wiki, it sounds like tracks varied widely between territories, but UK fans got a bit of a raw deal!

  10. 85
    Colin on 22 Jun 2013 #

    IIRC, the lyrics on the sleeve show the words “This is our last dance” twice. When I first heard the song with the words only sung once, I wondered if I missed one of them. Then I heard it on one of the Channel Four Music Of the Millennium collections, and sure enough you only hear it once. I find this very jarring.

    There are many examples of original singles never being played. Blondie’s Sunday Girl never had any French words, but the Anglo-French version put together for the 1981 hits collection The Best of Blondie is what radio stations play. The original single of Oh Pretty Woman has Roy Orbison singing “come to me baby”, but now you hear “come with me, baby”. Most of the Beatles’ singles were in mono, but you only get the stereo mixes, and some of them have different or even missing vocals (eg Paul shouting “A life of ease” on Yellow Submarine). The Abba compilation The Singles – The First Ten Years had a version of Name Of The Game without the second verse, and that was subsequently on radio playlists. Try to find Barry White’s original single edit of You’re The First The Last My Everything, as the one you now hear has no spoken intro, rerecorded vocals and a remix to the link between verses.

  11. 86
    hectorthebat on 14 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1-1001
    Beats Per Minute (USA) – The Top 100 Tracks of the 1980s (2011) 64
    Blender (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Songs to Download Right Now! (2003)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    OUT (USA) – The 25 Gayest Songs of the 1980s (2011)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Popdose (USA) – 100 (+21) Favorite Singles of the Last 50 Years (2008) 55
    Slant (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the 1980s (2012) 21
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 24
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 46
    Dave Thompson (UK) – 1000 Songs that Rock Your World (2011) 457
    NME (UK) – The 100 Best Songs of the 1980s (2012) 71
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 184
    Q (UK) – The 1010 Songs You Must Own (2004)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Wanadoo (UK) – The 20 Best Songs of the 80s
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 13
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 32
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Cameron Adams (Australia) -The Best Songs from the 100 Must Have Albums (2013)

  12. 87
    Mostro on 1 Apr 2016 #

    Just to confirm, the second “this is our last dance” definitely appeared on the original 7″ release. I can say this for sure because that’s the version I grew up with as a kid- having borrowed and taped someone’s copy of the single circa 1984!- and when I started hearing that edited version years later it always grated.

    According to the queenvault.com website, the edit was made by producer David Richards for Queen’s 1991 Greatest Hits II album. Possibly for timing… nice work, saved a whole four seconds there!

    What makes it worse isn’t just that this edit spread beyond that album (for example, it’s on a Bowie compilation I own). (#) It’s that even when I got a copy of the unedited original from Amazon my brain was so used to hearing the edit that it was mentally primed to get annoyed at that point and ruined it in advance anyway even when I knew it wasn’t coming. If anything, the dissonance and uncertainty made it worse.

    I think I’m starting to get over it.

    (#) It’s not as bad as the promo-only US radio edit of ABBA’s The Name of the Game (which hacked out the entire second verse and ended up on several compilations and even- mistakenly- the 1997 reissue of its original parent album!) One tiny line… still annoying.

  13. 88
    Paulito on 1 Apr 2016 #

    @88: Oddly enough, one of my most disliked edits is that of another Bowie #1 – “Ashes to Ashes”. The single version substantially cuts the instrumental break between the first and second verses, including those echoey ‘scary monster’ noises. Minor, I know, but it has always irked me because it’s so unnecessary and so damaging – it only saves a few seconds and yet those few seconds contribute greatly to the overall atmosphere of the song.

    However, the worst case of track-butchery I’ve ever encountered is the US single edit of Duran Duran’s “Save a Prayer”. Halfway through the first verse it cuts – and I shit you not – straight to the second half of the next verse. Needless to say this utterly destroys the original’s delicate build-up of mood, tension and dynamics. It then goes on to chop about 45 seconds off the gorgeous extended coda. In sum, it cuts about 40% off the UK single (and album) version and effectively tears the band’s finest song to shreds. Even more galling is that this travesty of an edit was the version included on their Europe-released “Greatest” compilation in the late ’90s and, hence, the version usually heard on radio thereafter.

  14. 89
    Tommy Mack on 2 Apr 2016 #

    Conversely, I really like the single edit of Heroes which throws us directly from the first verse to, I think, the third, making the shift up in vocal register and volume all the more startling. Sometimes I think I like it better than the ‘proper’ version.

  15. 90
    Phil on 2 Apr 2016 #

    Haven’t checked, but I think the album version begins with “I, I will be king” – the ‘dolphins’ verse is the third. Chris O’Leary’s PAOTD entry suggests where the dolphins came from, incidentally; he’s very interesting on ‘Heroes’, and indeed on this one.

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