Feb 09

QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE – “Under Pressure”

FT + Popular91 comments • 9,121 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. 31
    peter goodlaws on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Tom # 26 – Indeed yes. Such an eclectic sweep of comments is unlikely to be replicated with the next numere uno…

  2. 32
    Conrad on 5 Feb 2009 #

    I’m confused about this one. At the time, it rather washed over me.

    Now – I dunno. I can’t really get into it but admire some of its elements, particularly the bass-line, the finger clicking fade and Bowie’s trademark detached vocal delivery (he’s the man on the moon/he plays golf at Troon, oh yeah – oh yeah).

    #27, I do think “Hot Space” indicates a momentary confusion in Queen’s ranks as to which direction to go in. It almost completely abandons rock/bombast in favour of a more pared-down dance-oriented approach, would proved unpopular with their legions of fans.

    I also read somewhere (Mojo?) that at least two members of Queen (May and Taylor most likely) hated the new minimal dance direction and couldn’t care less for “Under Pressure” either.

    A sitting squarely on the fence 6 for me.

  3. 33
    lonepilgrim on 5 Feb 2009 #

    re 27 I wonder whether Bowie got tired of the weight of expectation from his fans for him to provide startling insights and opted to duck out of the responsibility – a bit like Dylan going Country or the Stones singing ‘It’s only rock and roll’ – and recognised in Freddie a singer who was happy to be ‘just’ an entertainer.

  4. 34
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 5 Feb 2009 #

    33 = yes, i agree, except i think subliminal artistic nervousness was as much the spur as boredness: fans can doubtless always get tiresome, even artistically ambitious ones, but the dylan comparison’s misleading, in the BD was never NOT happy f*ckin with his audience’s expectation, and i honestly don’t think this is exactly DB’s relationship to his audience

  5. 35
    Erithian on 5 Feb 2009 #

    #25 – I was going to say that was an unusually confrontational post from you Wichita, complaining about people talking about anniversaries, then re-read it and realised you were talking about the racism/PC debate, which I can understand a bit more. Although in this case I’d referred to the New Cross fire in the context of a radio documentary which used “Under Pressure” as an effective part of a montage, so Peter, who evidently knew more about the case than I did, made a useful and relevant addition. Radio 1 were using a song which goes on about “people on streets” to accompany a news story which was one factor in that summer’s riots, so it’s meaningful if we’re going to talk about the context of the year’s number ones.

    Incidentally – and we all do this at times – you’re a year out with Ricky Villa, it was ’81 not ’82. I know ‘cos I Was There!

  6. 36
    Martin Skidmore on 5 Feb 2009 #

    I not only felt no emotional connection to this, I can barely remember anything beyond the bassline, one of the greatest ever.

  7. 37
    peter goodlaws on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Erithian #35 – As a United fan, were you supporting City at that ’81 Final or your fellow Londoners, Spurs?

  8. 38
    H. on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Wasn’t the three year gap between Scary Monsters and Let’s D***e more to do with contractual problems? He didn’t want to re-sign with RCA, and on top of that his former manager had a percentage of his earnings until 1983. I think that’s the story. RCA wanted the Baal material to be stretched out into an album, but he wouldn’t do it.

  9. 39
    Conrad on 5 Feb 2009 #

    #35 Erithian, an easy mistake to make, due in no small part to Spurs reaching the final in 81 and 82 and Chas & blimmin Dave rolling out commemorative singles each year….

  10. 40
    wichita lineman on 5 Feb 2009 #

    I’m surprised how often I’m miles away from the consensus on some of these entries. Tom, you’re right, this does set a precedent, but it doesn’t have the coked-up gloss of L**’* D**** or Tonight, which definitely don’t make emotional connection with me (whereas Under Pressure and the Berlin trilogy do – I didn’t mean to suggest UP sounds like Lodger).

    Like Bowie’s wilderness years (contractual wranglings or not, Baal was a weird single), Queen were in the middle of their (kinda) experimental phase too (Another One Bites The Dust/Flash/Hot Space*). Was there anything between this era and Radio Gaga/I Want To Break Free stadium consolidation?

    *which was ’82, I should’ve checked. ’81 was the year of their all-consuming Greatest Hits.

    Re 35/39: Yes of course. I’m betraying my weak pub quiz credentials! ’81 being a better C&D song and a better final, too. Lucky you, Erithian, presuming you were at the replay!

    Didn’t want to make the New Cross fire seem insignificant, obviously, but I thought the PC debate was a bit played out – maybe we can start it again on a certain ’92 number one.

  11. 41
    Erithian on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Peter #37 – none of this “fellow Londoners” stuff. At the time I was at London University although my college was out near Windsor – I never lived in London itself until ’86.

    Wichita – yes it was the replay, with Steve Mackenzie’s goal overshadowed by Villa’s. I was with my dad, a lifelong Blue, and rooting for City for his sake – I was never so much an ABC (Anyone But City) as an ABL… and more recently an ABA. It was the last match I ever went to with my dad – remember fondly how he in his City scarf chatted amiably with an entire tubeload of Spurs fans on the way back into town.

    I see your point re the PC debate – bet you it’ll resurface before ’92 though!

  12. 42
    Erithian on 5 Feb 2009 #

    And of course Chas and Dave were back for a third Spurs Cup Final song in 1987. I was in the company of a bunch of Coventry fans a few weeks later and enjoyed their version:
    “Seven times you won the Cup/and number eight you f—ed it up/you’re Hot Shot Tottenham”.
    And not forgetting the Coventry blokes’ other favourite song:
    “When Gough, went up, to lift the FA Cup, it was gone, it was gone…”

    Sorry, we’ve moved a long way from Bowie and Queen. Maybe I could move on to dissing Beckenham Town instead.

  13. 43
    lonepilgrim on 5 Feb 2009 #

    re 34 I couldn’t agree more re Dylan f*ckin with his audience. The Dylan site I frequent is abuzz with controversy at the moment over his decision to make an ad for pepsi with some crying judas and others tying themselves in knots to justify him.

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Re #42: And, of course, who could forget the fourth Chas ‘n’ Dave Cup final single, 1991’s peerless ‘Spurs Always Win When The Year Ends In One’? (unless you’re talking about 2001)

  15. 45
    Crimson Cheeked King on 5 Feb 2009 #

    Isn’t it amazing how little we know about this record?

    Nowadays it’d come accompanied with a mini-documentary all of its own, after weeks of rumour and build-up. But back in 1981, this just popped out. Whether they recorded this at the same time, in the same studio, or piecemeal, never meeting, who wrote what, who wore what – who even knows? Bowie came in with the bass riff for all we know.

    [EDIT. Oops respect to post #6 – but I still think we knew nothing of this at the time]

    There’s not even a video! Not really, just a OGWT type collection of old stock clips.

  16. 46
    LondonLee on 6 Feb 2009 #

    I figure this as being Bowie’s first step toward 80s stadium rock royalty after he’d spent the 70s being all weird. Live Aid was to come as was the album that must not be mentioned. I think yer average male rock fan was a little leery of our David because he was, you know, a bit arty and queer, but hooking up with monster rockers Queen gave him a bit of rockist respectability.

    I’d tried to bunk into see him at Earl’s Court in 1977 and outside was a swarm of the most incredible and colorful punk/glam peacocks imaginable. I finally saw him live on the Serious Moonlight Tour and was shocked at how ordinary the audience for the latter was in comparison, they might as well have been a Dire Straits audience there was so much denim and white trainers.

    All said though, a cracking record. As someone said at the time only Bowie was hip enough to make a record with both Queen and Bing Crosby and keep his credibility.

  17. 47
    wichita lineman on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Re 45: never seen the OGWT style vid, but I’m guessing that’s why there are posts relating to this being about “people on streets”. It isn’t, surely, any more than Trampled Under Foot is about Krazy Kat.

    Re 27: Yr dead right. There was a Rebellious Jukebox in Melody Maker circa 1990 where Gary Numan picked his dozen favourite songs, almost all of which had some unintentionally sad story attached. He recalled how, when he was on the same tv show as Bowie around 79/80, he’d sneaked in to the studio to watch his hero rehearse. Bowie saw Numan, stopped his band, and said “we don’t play on until that man leaves the room.”

    And in the 15 months or so after Under Pressure, having thought long and hard on how to outwit his imitators, DB changed his chameleon exterior by borrowing Mike Smith’s jacket with the rolled-up sleeves. Baal the album… if only! I think if Bowie had been killed by someone who “kicked his brains around the floor” at this point, his catalogue would be almost entirely unblemished (Popular passim).

  18. 48
    peter goodlaws on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Erithian # 41 – My jokey comment about Londoners was not so much aimed at you personally as United fans per ce. Naturally I would expect you to refute this, so I shall gracefully withdraw. You would, I am sure, be similarly vexed at the well known terms ABU (Anyone But United) and particularly with the one referring to the catchment area of Man Utd’s support: ABM (Anywhere But Manchester).

    Yes, I know. MEOW!

  19. 49
    wichita lineman on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Good year for ABC to return, isn’t it?

  20. 50
    Erithian on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Peter #48 – very well aware of the ABM business, and of course it’s mostly Bitter Blue propaganda. I didn’t know whether you realised I’m Manchester born and bred and haven’t changed allegiance since moving to London (except for close involvement with a Kent League club and a soft spot for Charlton Athletic). We can discuss this more fully in another place if you wish – ask Waldo.

    Billy #44 – of course in 2001 Spurs found that the year had to start with a 1 as well, which is bad news for them. In 2004 a hopeful Spurs fan put forward the theory that Spurs did well when the first figure of the year was the square root of the last figure, and that didn’t work either.

    CCK #45 – good point about the lack of pre-publicity for “Under Pressure” – what it needed was MTV really, wasn’t it?

  21. 51
    Mark G on 6 Feb 2009 #

    I think, even then, there was that sort of preamble and build-up that would have been applied to this. But they didn’t.

  22. 52
    peter goodlaws on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Erithian #48 – Thanks, I will. Btw, Waldo has been unable to access his e-mail recently for various reasons. So if (any of) you have sent him texts, he’s not being rude, he just hasn’t been able to pick up. He hopes to soon.

  23. 53
    Matt C. on 6 Feb 2009 #

    Actually, while I know you are much smarter than I about tropes and positioning and labelry, I have always gotten an emotional charge from this song, kind of a feeling-sorry-for-myself o-yess-too-much-pressure-in-this-modern-world feeling; always been happy to be manipulated by the quiet/loud/quiet/loud/repeat pattern, and always been happy to have mi vida loca condemned by two of the musical icons that made me the way I am. IF I AM UNDER PRESSURE THEN WASN’T IT ‘BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’ AND ‘PANIC IN DETROIT’ WHAT DID IT etc.

  24. 54
    Billy Smart on 14 May 2009 #

    NMEWatch: 31st October 1981, Chris Bohn;

    “From this ill-conceived collaboration it’s difficult to work out which side is prostituting itself and for what. Does Bowie really need or want a piece of Queen’s camp macho rock action and how will Queen take to Bowie’s frail, frivolous night people?

    ‘Under Pressure’ doesn’t really make you care either way. The initially intriguing premise wears off once you suss it has the hallmarks of true co-operation and consequently the promises that go with give and take. Apparently a relocation of West Side Story’s street strut choreography in a contemporary apocalyptic London disco, ‘Under Pressure’ smacks of self-willed exiles meeting by the swimming pool and discussing the horror from afar, hoping to syphon off its tension and energy to invogorate the combined product of jaded minds.

    Queen’s performance is surprisingly good, down to their between riffs finger clicks – it’s Bowie and Mercury’s vocals and words that let the whole thing down. A wasted opportunity, as both factions appear too tentative to assert themselves fully and why Bowie has allowed Queen equal billing when they too would’ve been better off letting him work their trash flash into one of his musical fantasies is ultimately the only point worth discussing about the record.”

    Bohn awarded a joint single of the week to ‘Wahre Arbeit Wahrer Lohn’ by Die Krupps and ‘Sweat In Bullet’ by Simple Minds. Also reviewed that week;

    Soft Cell – Bedsitter
    The Comsat Angels – Do The Empty House
    Genesis – Keep It Dark
    Tears For Fears – Suffer The Children
    Aswad – Ways Of The Lord
    Dexy’s Midnight Runners – Liars A To E
    Yello – Bostic

  25. 55
    intothefireuk on 14 May 2009 #

    As mentioned earlier this was essentially a Queen song which was being rehearsed in a studio in Montreux which Bowie also happened to be rehearsing in. Largely improvised (I have heard a demo version which coroborates this) with Mercury scatting through it and off the cuff lyrics which don’t actually add up to anything. To me it sounds a mess (the demo actually sounds better with May’s guitar more prominent) and I have never taken to it despite my being a huge Bowie fan. Alabama Song, Baal, Cat People were fine – this wasn’t (apart from the ok bassline). Of course Bauhaus were doing Bowie far better than Bowie could at this stage of the game. It did seem with this effort Bowie was beginning an expansion of his commercial viability which would see a huge decline in quality during the 80s.

  26. 56
    Billy Smart on 15 May 2009 #

    Bohn’s review seems quite acute to me – I’d never thought of this single in relation to either West Side Story or the 1981 riots before, but you can see how both could form part of the thinking behind it, even if not consciously.

  27. 57
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 15 May 2009 #

    bohn (disclaimer: i’ve known him for years and he’s a genuinely lovely person who i am enormously fond of) is and was a very acute critic indeed, even if his tastes (and stance)* have often pushed him off into slightly cartoony anti-pop territory: he wrote a big thinkpiece in NME somewhere round now on bauhaus and ziggy and “ideas of bowie”

    *cf die krupps as joint single of the week above (haha this may of course have been the most brilliant single of the decade but i doubt anyone tracked it down then, and i haven’t the slightest idea what it sounds like now)

  28. 58
    MikeMCSG on 16 Jul 2009 #

    Erithian – yes I remember the lack of a video featured highly in Record Mirror’s year end poll too. I remember thinking , with unemployment at 3 million and the world seemingly on the brink of nuclear holocaust who would vote the absence of a video the worst thing about 1981 ? But I suppose at 17 I had developed a dreaded sense of perspective by then !

  29. 59
    thefatgit on 12 Feb 2010 #

    Hoping against hope that this isn’t double bunnied. God, the hair’s the same and everything!

  30. 60
    Tom on 12 Feb 2010 #

    No worries I suspect, but only because the worst recording of the 10s is going to beat it.

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