Feb 09

QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE – “Under Pressure”

FT + Popular91 comments • 9,600 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. 61
    Andrew Goulding on 7 Dec 2010 #

    What a fabulous – if a little soccer orientated – review of Under Pressure! When I read it, I was so excited at the imagery e.g.

    “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.”

    that I raced through reading it.

    After reading the comments, I re-read the review and was struck by how like the song it was. Grand, sweeping, epic – and I mean this in a good way – ultimately inconsequential, as pop music so often is.

    I’ll be back, for sure.

  2. 62
    punctum on 7 Dec 2010 #

    Here’s another way to look at “Under Pressure”; as the “Hey Jude” equivalent for the Bolan generation, a belated farewell to the seventies and to the glam promise, offered by the movement’s two least scathed survivors. The marketing of the record was deliberately very low-key – no picture sleeve, no video – but this does seem to have been a genuine collaboration between Bowie and Queen rather than a ‘phoned-in cut-and-paste job. Indeed, its genuine quality may be evinced from the fact that for much of the record they appear to be making it up as they go along – lots of absent-minded scat singing from Mercury and sudden exclamations of “People on the streets!” from Bowie to cover the huge gaps where really the lyric should have gone.

    Yet, bizarrely, it does work. They wave goodbye to the assumed warmth of the seventies and dread the forthcoming cold rationalism of the eighties – or is this necessarily renewed with every decade as a result of rosy retrospection? The singers spit out disjointed memes – “Burns a building down,” “Splits a family in two,” “Watching some good friends screaming let me out!,” all as indelibly 1981 as “Ghost Town” in its slightly reserved penthouse way – but the group work hard to maintain musical tension and release, and thereby provoke by far the most passionate of Bowie’s four number one vocal performances. He is straight, Freddie the foil, though really they are two barely differing degrees of camp; but Queen’s inherent monolithic tendencies fit Bowie nearly perfectly, and in turn he uses their tricks to his advantage, builds them up and makes them seem even bigger, and perhaps slightly meaningful.

    Thus in the hushed, hymn-like bridge, Bowie conspires with Freddie in the corner to stammer out: “Turn away from it all like a blind man” before Bowie forces Mercury’s face to face the camera, their listeners, ourselves, with his agonised “Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn.” Mercury immediately responds with his tripartite “WHY?” wail, and as Roger Taylor’s drums thunder behind both of him, Bowie screams “Insanity laughs, under pressure we’re BREAKING!”

    Then the major key sun bursts in to flood the room as Freddie regally rides the rainbow with his “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?” and retreats in an echoing “give love” before both Bowie and Mercury, in low key, take the song to its final climax, building up gradually to the catharsis of “This is our last chance! This is our last dance! This is ourselves…under pressure.”

    The last line turns into the original whisper and the piano fades out to repeated finger snaps; perhaps a warning of a ticking bomb hidden in the drawer of indifference. With “Under Pressure” both Queen and Bowie resolve each other (because what they individually don’t possess, the other has in spades), lay down their warning to their generation not to let everything go…and then vanish into the corporate eighties of “Let’s Dance” and “Radio Ga Ga,” their important work largely done, their ghosts already being ground into the machine.

  3. 63
    swanstep on 7 Dec 2010 #

    Some cracking comments on this one. The only thing I have to add is how much to me this record feels of its time. The fingers snaps and tasteful/naive piano intro and outro stuff had been done early in 1981 by Dire Straits in Romeo and Juliet, only there it’s a tasteful/naive guitar and the rim-shot on the drum providing the snap. At any rate, as UP ends I’ve always found myself mentally cross-fading to the Romeo and Juliet guitars and rim-shot finger-snaps fade out. I’m not sure how closely the body of the songs match up but there’s definitely some soft-loud-soft dynamics going on in both cases.

    More generally, there was definitely a kind of a run on baroque but very major-key/diatonic pop anthems after the Buggles album, and both UP and R&J seem to me to me to be part of that.

    There was also a bit of run in 1980-1981, perhaps especially down under, of songs about people in the streets, people laughing. A band called Mi-Sex had a song in 1980 called People (you can track it down on youtube) that has this as its theme. Rupert Hine had a song that was a decent hit down under early in 1981 called Misplaced Love (also trackdownable on youtube) whose somewhat haunting chorus is something like ‘I wonder if some joker laughs when he sees us, when he sees all our misplaced love’. I don’t want to accuse Bowie and Queen of theft in any of these cases, but there was a musical climate in common that UP bears the traces of.

    Anyhow, UP is a pretty jolly nifty record – 8/10 easy from me, more on the right day. It was brilliantly used by Spike Jonze in his trailer for his movie Adaptation (possibly the best movie trailer ever made – the film itself could never live up to it. If you don’t know the trailer, go ASAP to youtube and check it out, you won’t regret it!)

  4. 64
    swanstep on 7 Dec 2010 #

    OK, that Adaptation trailer.

  5. 65
    Lazarus on 27 Mar 2011 #

    This is a song that’s lost a line over the years – the penultimate line “this is our last chance” present on the 45, no longer heard on radio which presumably opts for the album version. A pointless edit which only saves a few seconds of airtime. ‘Rat Trap’ and ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ on the other hand, have been extended – the “pus and grime ooze” line never used to get played, while the “silicon chip” lines are repeated when they weren’t on the original single.

  6. 66
    hardtogethits on 28 Mar 2011 #

    # 65; That’s an incredible spot, about this record…. and more striking for the fact that the “album version” wasn’t something that existed in the UK at the time. I wonder if the 7inch 45 version has ever made it to cd? I could be on my own here (of course) but I am now intrigued to know whether any other chart toppers have been replaced in the public consciousness with later edits, or marginally different versions. Though it wasn’t a number one, my mind turns to “The Man With The Child In His Eyes” … you never, ever hear the 7″ version of that on the radio.

    Rat Trap is similar – maybe even the same. Again it’s an incredible memory you’ve got about the “pus and grime ooze” lines, and you’re correct they were never played. But was the butchering done at radio or was the 7″ itself so much shorter? I’ve got the 7 inch, but not to hand. I’m fascinated.

    Unfortunately, I’m less sure about “I Don’t Like Mondays” – though it’s true about the competing versions, the radio version we got to know is on enough various artists compilations for the radio stations to pick up the original edit.

  7. 67
    wichita lineman on 28 Mar 2011 #

    Yes, great spot – checking Spotify, the original is on Absolute Greatest but not on the 2011 remaster of Greatest Hits II.

    One hit that springs to mind, though not a no.1, is the Four Tops’ Walk Away Renee. Radio always plays a version which I first heard on the Super Hits comp in the early 80s – it drove me nuts because there’s an intrusive piano pounding all the way through it that isn’t on the original single. Still drives me nuts! Lose that freakin piano!!

  8. 68
    swanstep on 29 Mar 2011 #

    The vid. has an extra line but it just repeats ‘This is our last dance’. Might this mean that when prepping the vid. the band had second thoughts about the ‘chance’ line, which then would have paved the way for saving a few seconds at that point for Greatest Hits purposes, etc.?

  9. 69
    Erithian on 29 Mar 2011 #

    #65-66 – strange to be talking about “Rat Trap” on this thread, but relevant in the context of cut lines! The “pus and grime” line wasn’t deleted for the single version but replaced with something more anodyne and, sadly, less intelligible, because I can’t decipher it in my mind and you’d struggle to find it on lyric sites. Something like “seven years gone down the neighbourhood sewers” but that doesn’t rhyme with “closed doors” so that can’t be it. Presumably Ensign Records thought that a lyrical reference to pus and grime was a bit too nauseating to be released into the smiling world of John and Livvy. Clearly radio isn’t as squeamish now.

    As for “Mondays”, presumably the repeat of the first verse was cut from the album version to make the single more radio-friendly in length, and these days the album version is easier for radio to get hold of.

    I had a peculiar dream last night in which I was at a Rats gig and they had a power cut just as they were about to do “Mondays” and “Rat Trap” as the encore, so everyone was slinking off grumbling just as my alarm clock went off. No doubt the strange effect of reading this site!

  10. 70
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2011 #

    I saw an old schoolfriend of mine just before Christmas for the first time in 30-odd years. He was just about to put on a Boomtown Rats show in the clubhouse at Whyteleafe FC. That sounds like a dream (football and pop mingling bizarrely is a recurring theme) but it’s true.

    Come on you ‘Leafe!

  11. 71
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2011 #

    My buddy Erithian and I are in your corner here, Wichita, both also being non-league footy and pop minglers.

    Alas my heroes, poor old Eastbourne Borough, are about to fall off the coupon. No more will James Alexander Gordon concern himself with our results after the playing of the historical “Sports Report” military march. It will be a terrible day when relegation is finalised. “CAB TO BEACHY HEAD FOR THE SWEDE!”

  12. 72
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Sorry to hear that, Swede. Of course it were all Langney Sports in my day. Did you swap you affiliation from Town or United, I wonder? Borough will still be one league above my local club Hendon, mind you – almost 50 years in the Isthmian Premier without going up or down.

    I did once have a dream that Linus, the UK riot grrl act, was actually a new Man Utd winger who looked a bit like Gary Bailey.

  13. 73
    Jimmy the Swede on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Lino, I shall have to admit that I jumped unapologetically onto the glory trail when Langney Sports became Eastbourne Borough and things started happening for them. Having moved to the town in 1989, I was still a regular at Stamford Bridge back then and only popped over to the Saffrons to watch Town on the odd occasion simply because it was the closest ground. Both United and particularly Sports required transport. I ceased to be a season ticket holder at the Bridge in about 2002 although remain to this day a club member and saw them win the championship in 2005 for the first time in exactly fifty years in what was also their centenary. The last three seasons at Borough have seen them take on some top opponents, many of them late of the Football League. It’s a blow that they’re dropping out but they will always have geography against them as long they remain part time.

  14. 74
    enitharmon on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Whereas my local team seems to thrive on travel, the further the better, but seem unable to be anything but a bunch of numpties at home. (I’ve only been to see them once and that was when the Swede came to visit a couple of years ago)

  15. 75
    Cumbrian on 29 Mar 2011 #

    Difficult to talk about this without seeming patronising but…

    When Carlisle finally got relegated into the Conference (after years of trying/near misses), I think most of us quite enjoyed it. Of course, we wanted to get promoted and get back into the Football League, but it was fun going to places that we’d never been before (due to the old one up, one down system between the League and the Conference more than anything else) and the fans of the opposing teams, with one or two odd exceptions, were generally all really great – there was no real sense of animosity like you get with some in the League. To an extent, I think we all wished that the atmosphere from those away games could be replicated in the League.

    Shame for Eastbourne Borough – I’d agree that geographical location is a real inhibiting factor; even being fully pro, Carlisle can’t get some people to go up there and it’s a real bitch. Here’s hoping you bounce back in short order.

  16. 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!

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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)!!!


  20. 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 :(

  21. 81
    lonepilgrim on 27 Sep 2011 #

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

  22. 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.

  23. 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.)

  24. 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!

  25. 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.

  26. 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)

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 91
    Gareth Parker on 25 May 2021 #

    I agree with Tom’s 8/10 . A glorious, delightful mess of a single in my opinion.

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