Feb 09

QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE – “Under Pressure”

FT + Popular91 comments • 9,118 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. 1
    Kat but logged out innit on 4 Feb 2009 #

    Blimey that sleeve is appropriately depressing innit?

  2. 2
    Brian on 4 Feb 2009 #

    This is one of those songs where if I hear it on the radio at the beginning, I’ll change the station, but if I hear more than about 15 or 20 seconds of it, I’ll always let it finish. I think that first sentence captures it perfectly – I have no emotional attachment to it, but I enjoy hearing it every time.

  3. 3
    Pete Baran on 4 Feb 2009 #

    I was a little surprised by the mark on this when I tortured Tom out of his mark last week, but I think he justifies much of it with his write up. Because yes, its an impressive and enjoyable song but unlike most (most?) songs on Popular, I can’t imagine it being anyone favourite song. Obviously the awesome bassline and interplay between Bowie and Mercury works but there is just something plain odd about Queen doing a duet with David Bowie that has made this seem a curio to me. Why, I used to wonder as a kid, would a band with four songwriters (and for that matter at least two creditable singers) need to rope in Bowie at all.

    I would give it a six, merely because it has never sat well as a concept in my bonce. That and this dragging in of stadium rock plus the fact that I can’t remember if Queen ever used to do it live and how they did it if they did. (I am pretty certain Bowie never does it live). An oddity.

  4. 4
    Tom on 4 Feb 2009 #

    According to Wikipedia, Queen used to do it live all the time (with Roger “Nazis” Taylor taking the Dazza parts). Bowie never touched it until Freddie died, whereupon it became a fixture in his live set with Gail Ann Dorsey doing the Fred parts.

  5. 5
    mike on 4 Feb 2009 #

    “Under Pressure” is both behind its times and ahead of them.

    That’s a great observation, Tom. Back in the day, it most certainly felt behind its times, my overriding reaction being “Why is GREAT ARTIST David Bowie SULLYING HIMSELF by association with these POMPOUS OLD FARTS?” And it’s a prejudice which I’ve never quite conquered – although DB certainly did a terrific live version with Gail Ann Dorsey at the Birmingham NEC about 5 or 6 years ago.

  6. 6
    Erithian on 4 Feb 2009 #

    As I recall, the NME end-of-year poll was quite telling on this subject: in the Biggest Disappointment of the Year category, the absence of a Queen/Bowie video on TOTP (the video you might have seen since was a rushed afterthought, which is maybe why it’s badly synched) rated second, the Queen/Bowie single itself rated third. I’m sure those members of the comments crew who never threw out their copies can tell us what rated first!

    The record apparently emerged from Bowie happening to drop in on a recording session in Montreux for what was to become the fairly poorly received album “Hot Space”. Bowie and Mercury each wrote (or maybe improvised) their own lines. It never really worked for me, being a sprawling kind of thing that never gets any real meaning or direction – the component parts sound impressive, but it feels like much ado about nothing by the end. There are a lot of Queen (and quite a few Bowie) songs I’m emotionally attached to, but this certainly isn’t one of them.

    And yet in that Radio 1 “25 Years of Pop” montage I mentioned in the Ghost Town thread, it worked spectacularly well. Behind the words of Darcus Howe talking about the New Cross fire where 13 black teenagers were killed in what was believed to be an arson attack – “and everywhere I go black people are saying to me that it could happen to them tomorrow” – the “people on streets” section of the song builds and explodes. Probably some way from what the writers had in mind, but certainly applicable.

  7. 7
    pink champale on 4 Feb 2009 #

    yes! tom has it spot on. you forget it’s just a bunch of tax exiles pissing about in switzerland. david giving it his best campy seriousness and freddie scatting away because he can’t be bothered to write any lyrics*. nothing is at stake, yet it’s somehow incredibly exciting. that bit where freddie goes off like an air raid siren while david starts shouting no no no (or is it love love love?) is among the most thrilling moments in all pop. a glorious plastic apocalypse

    you do wonder what was in it for bowie though. he was surely about the coolest he had ever been and was suddenly a big commercial star again too. whereas queen were, well, *queen*. to eight year old me it was all perfectly simple of course. queen were the greatest band in the history of the world and david bowie was the greatest singer in the history of the world and it was therefore only natural that they would get together and make the best record in the history of the world.

    *though it’s a testament to the effectiveness of it all that this had never occured to me until today.

  8. 8
    Tom on 4 Feb 2009 #

    This is also the start of Bowie going on that weird brand-extension rampage between Scary Monsters and an album the bunny prevents me naming: this, Christiane F, Baal – and the release of the Bing Crosby thing.

  9. 9
    Billy Smart on 4 Feb 2009 #

    I can’t say that I care for this at all – its like a comic book team-up between superheoes that only dilutes the specialness of either party – an exercise in expanding pop franchises. The only emotion that I hear is showboating bragging, and I can’t detect any sort of song at all. There’s a fine line between visionary pop silliness and the sort of thing that makes you think “Oh SHUT UP, you overindulged fools” and I’m afraid that this stupid thing crosses it for me.

    And I didn’t like it when I was nine either.

  10. 10
    Billy Smart on 4 Feb 2009 #

    Re #8. The original version of ‘Cat People’ was about this time, and would have made a much more worthy chartbusting hit.

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    pink champale on 4 Feb 2009 #

    #8 didn’t the bing thing date from the seventies though? i’d always assumed its release in the early eighties wasn’t officially sanctioned as thhe great new bowie single. though perhaps it was – it was never altogether clear why the thin white duke got out of his nazi staff car, pulled on a nice jumper and started trading stilted festive banter with the doddery crooner in the first place. except that, for all his rep as a champion of the cutting edge (all hail the screaming blue messiahs!) he’s manged to slip in a fair few a-list duets – bing, lennon, the one we won’t mention yet. but yes, he was popping up all over the place at this time – the snowman!

  12. 12
    Billy Smart on 4 Feb 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: Obviously Queen & Bowie were never going to come to the studio, “The official video for ‘Under Pressure’ was banned” (it says here), but as the #1 single they had to show something. So what did they do?

    This created an excellent opportunity to showcase the talents of Zoo, the short-lived unisex replacements for Legs & Co. So a special sequence was devised for the 19th od November 1981, recorded in the catalogue as ‘Top Of The Pops Ballet’ and shown in black and white for added classiness and sophistication.

    Also in the studio that week were; Modern Romance, The Pretenders, Trevor Walters and The Fun Boy 3. Steve Wright was the host.

  13. 13
    Tom on 4 Feb 2009 #

    It wasn’t officially sanctioned by Bowie as a release, and dates from several years before, but it’s emergence at the end of 82 kind of caps the WTF trajectory of the man’s career at this point.

  14. 14
    SteveM on 4 Feb 2009 #

    I have a good memory of this being played (possibly as the last track of the night) at one of the Popular club nights a couple of years back and it did go down well. It’s feelgood anthemic qualities carry it through basically.

    How worried were these two acts at the time about becoming irrelevant? Not sure this song offers any clues there and with hindsight obviously neither should’ve worried anyway but at the time I wonder if many haters were predicting, before Live Aid and before Bowie stole Byrne’s baggy suit, they wouldn’t survive the 80s. How disappointed they must’ve felt ten years later..!

  15. 15
    Erithian on 4 Feb 2009 #

    As odd duets go, the Bowie and Bing collaboration is excellent, the greatly differing voices complementing each other rather than battling. Recorded for Bing’s Christmas show in 1977, and of course the other half of that scary coincidence when he appeared on both Bolan and Bing’s last TV shows in the space of a few weeks.

    Right with you on “Cat People” Billy – up there with his best. Bowie meets Moroder!

    And a further brand extension was “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence”, which he filmed during the interim period Tom mentions but which wasn’t released until after the bunny-embargoed album.

  16. 16
    johnny on 4 Feb 2009 #

    too bad it wasn’t freddie dropping in on david and the ‘scary monsters’ band. a fripp/mercury collaboration could’ve been mind-blowing…

  17. 17
    lonepilgrim on 4 Feb 2009 #

    it sounds like a studio jam to me with dummy lyrics polished into pious cliches which offer no insight or substance – U2 may have taken note – still, if I don’t think too much it can still suck me in – and it’s a groovy bassline.

    as for DB live performances I recalled a version with him and Annie Lennox which after googling I discivered was at the Freddie tribute in 92. She was a perfect match for those lyrics…

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    Tom on 4 Feb 2009 #

    I think U2 are a good comparison point in some ways – nobody could sing pious cliches as archly and entertainingly as Bowie and Freddie: unlike with Bono, you never get the feeling disagreeing is a dealbreaker.

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    henry s on 4 Feb 2009 #

    why couldn’t Bowie have just included the original version of “Cat People” on the “Let’s Dance” LP?…legal issues?

  20. 20
    lonepilgrim on 4 Feb 2009 #

    re # 17 & 18 – thinking about this some more – what’s missing from this new model for ‘stadium rock’ is the sense of licentiousness and/or aggression that you get with the Stones and the Who (although Pete Townshend has his pious moments). UP sounds so neutered and ‘sincere’ which seems ironic in the case of dave & freddie, who were neither – not so with U2, whose current single is excruciatingly embarrassing – bono crowing about ‘sexy boots’ makes my stomach turn

  21. 21
    Doctor Casino on 4 Feb 2009 #

    I’m of an age where I was introduced to this quite late as “this is the song that Vanilla Ice sampled on ‘Ice Ice Baby.'” Perhaps because of this, I’m always annoyed when the canonized, beloved “Under Pressure” comes on the radio and it doesn’t turn out to the maligned rap-pop hit. I’ll take the Iceman’s version, which is not as ridiculous as his image and behavior might lead one to believe. He shares my sense that the only thing really great about “Under Pressure” is the bassline, and what it desperately lacks is any kind of structure. Just give me some verses and choruses, guys – I’m a simple man.

    (I like both Bowie and Queen, the former a little more, but something about “Under Pressure” just sounds incredibly fake and phony. Like, if you’d told me it was cut in 1995 as a big coming-out-of-retirement song or something, I’d totally believe you.)

  22. 22
    wichita lineman on 4 Feb 2009 #

    The week this hit no.1 I remember playing football in my lunch hour, tuning in to the chart rundown, and thinking “Pffft. People have only put it at number one because of who it’s by.” It had no structure, no chorus (“it’s the terror…” gets repeated, but it’s hardly a chorus), and it was by one group I despised and an artist I was ambivalent about.

    Two things. Queen had only scored one number one before this, and Bowie was at the start of his wilderness years (this, Wild Is The Wind, Baal’s Hymn, Cat People, Little Drummer Boy, what a weird run of 45s) between Scary Monsters and his ’83 Thatcherite makeover album. So it was hardly a guaranteed mega hit. Especially with such a bleak lyric and no chorus.

    Secondly, I now love it and was fairly convinced it would be a 10. The dueling is exhilarating, the lyric (surely not about “people on the streets” but some Bowie-as-philosopher, post-Berlin existentialist dread) apt for ’81, the “love love love” vs “waaaahhhh!!!” climax one of the most untamed since River Deep Mountain High: Pink C nails it as “among the most thrilling moments in all pop, a glorious plastic apocalypse”.

    And the bassline, as noted, is beautiful.

    Yes – what was Bowie thinking? “Brand extension” is too harsh, I think he was directionless, and this was putting out the fire with Sun City gasoline. Queen, mean time, had just put out their urban-friendly/rock-unfriendly album Hot Space, their own McCartney II. I don’t think the two acts working together at any other point in their careers would have produced something as unwieldy, strange, and totally unpredictable.

    Re 10: Cat People fans – it was a no.1 in Norway!

  23. 23
    Doctor Casino on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Oh! How’d I fail to mention? I was born while this was #1! So if Vanilla Ice appreciation doesn’t date me, that surely will.

  24. 24
    peter goodlaws on 5 Feb 2009 #

    I never really regarded this as a cod bitch fight between Bowie and Freddie but rather a concerted mercenary raid by two of Rock’s giants which worked in spades. After reading Tom’s piece, however, I can see that I might after all these years have been wrong. One of the recent tributes to Mowtown’s 50th saw a clip showing a “contest” between The Four Tops and The Temptations, which saw first one then the other perform whilst their “opponents” stood to one side nodding sagely. Inevitably it ended with the two groups setting aside their “differences” and doing a number together. “Under Pressure” isn’t quite like that but to say that it is anything other than contrived does not have an adequate defence. Having said that, it is an impressive piece of work and was not likely to have been something that either of them were likely to regret in the future. A good record, this.

    # 6 – The New Cross fire was indeed arson but despite Darcus Howe (and the usual plague of white Guardianista) trying their hardest to lay the blame for this vile crime on the equally vile National Front and whoever else, it ultimately transpired that the fire probably begun inside the house and was started when one of the guests set fire to a couch during an arguement. Many survivors have substantiated this. Naturally this theory could never suit the shit-stirring political opportunists and it is still insisted by them that a firebomb thrown by a dememnted racist into the house from the street was to blame, despite the absence of any firm evidence. It is, however, certainly true that the police reaction at the time to this appalling crime showed a lack of concern to say the least.

  25. 25
    wichita lineman on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Re 24: Gawd, haven’t we had enough threads go down this path? How about another anniversary? Altrincham thrashed Sheffield United 3-0 in the first round of the FA Cup the day this hit number one. A few months later Ricky Villa danced around the Man City penalty area and became a legend.

    Bowie trying to outdo Fred – I don’t buy it, even though Tom’s case is persuasive. There was no precedent, no matter how grim that 1985 duet was, and it didn’t suit his image/style in ’81. His performance makes sense after the primal scream Berlin stuff to me, so I don’t hear it as any having less emotional grip than, say, Lodger.

  26. 26
    Tom on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Don’t you think that in trying to outdo Fred he might be also *setting* the precedent, discovering his 80s style (for good or ill)? It certainly doesn’t sound/feel anything like Lodger!

    I think it’s fascinating how polarising this record’s been – even the hataz seem to hate it for different reasons: phony on the one hand, ham-fisted sincerity on the other.

  27. 27
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 5 Feb 2009 #

    (possible contentious) way to read the title: bowie in fact feeling ‘under pressure’ primarily from those of his followers who were now entering the pop fray: his sense that they were not only encoraching on his (semi-experimental) territory, but doin it better than he felt able to… in contrast to queen, who — never having been music-press darlings (they were relentlessly teated even in the metal and prog press) — remained serenely unbothered by punk and post-punk, and shifted gear accordingly

    the other point worth making, i think, is that bowie remained a 60s sentimentalist re pop — which is to say, despite his various forays into blue-eye soul, motorik krautpunk and blah, he really did believe in (lennonist) trans-audience chart-utopianism, where the challenge was fuse massive sales and “non-chart” ideas; indie-ism (to give it a slightly anbachronistic label) would be seen by this kind of 60s pan-audience utopianism as a mark of the avant-garde’s failure, to gets its innovations and values across to the world, rather than a mark of its integrity or rigour

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    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 5 Feb 2009 #

    relentlessly teated?

  29. 29
    thevisitor on 5 Feb 2009 #

    “Terrifically likeable despite having little or no emotional grip” absolutely nails it for me. The way Freddie and David sing, “People on streets” evokes two people straining every compassion muscle in their bodies just to empathise with, um, those people on streets (and, ultimately, failing).

    It’s as though, having viewed the real world for several years only from smoked, chauffeur-driven windows, the mere fact that some of us have to get from A to B using our own bodies, on streets, strikes Freddie and David a some sort of emergency in itself.

    Consequently, as a person who frequently finds himself on a street, every time I hear Under Pressure, I feel compelled to say, “Actually, it’s not that bad here. On streets.”

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    lonepilgrim on 5 Feb 2009 #

    i like the sound of being relentlessly teated – would it involve wendy o williams?

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