489. ‘Under Pressure’, by Queen & David Bowie

It’s time to sound the ‘iconic intro’ klaxon. That bass line, those two piano notes, the handclaps and the finger-clicks… They’re impossible to mistake. Unless you mistake them for, you know, the song that sampled them…

(It is near-impossible to get a picture of Queen and Bowie together at the time this record came out…)

Under Pressure, by Queen (their 2nd of six #1s) & David Bowie (his 3rd of five #1s)

2 weeks, 15th – 29th November 1981

But we’re not there yet, thankfully. We’ve got the original to enjoy first. It’s one of those #1s that come along now and then, one that I could sing along to pretty much in its entirety – even Freddie Mercury’s ad-libs – and yet haven’t actually listened to in years.

One of the first things that stands out is that we have two of the most iconic singers in rock ‘n’ roll history, trying to out-frontman each other. Mercury in particular seems to be asserting himself as the alpha rock star: scatting, soaring into falsetto, taking the Why can’t we give love, give love, give love… line into the stratosphere.

For me, though, it’s Bowie who gets the best bits. From the opening Pressure!, to the driving It’s the terror of knowing… line, to the closing ‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word… I have never sang this at karaoke, but I can imagine it would be great fun. It’s a song full of little moments, and it would be nigh on impossible to camp it up more than Freddie and David do.

The ‘little moments’ idea is actually worth expanding on here. Although ‘Under Pressure’ sounds nothing like the song that marked Queen’s only previous appearance on this blog, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, it is far from being a verse-bridge-chorus kind of pop song. Like ‘Bo Rap’, it’s lots of little segments stitched together, apparently because the two singers recorded most of their parts in separate studios. According to Brian May: “you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” It could have been a hot mess, but it somehow works wonderfully.

Until today, I had never quite realised what this song was about. It’s quite clear though: it’s about pressure, pressure that puts people on streets. It’s about being a good person, about not sitting on the fence, about giving love one more chance… The video doesn’t feature either act, instead it shows crowds of people spliced with shots from old horror movies, buildings collapsing and, most tellingly, scenes from the Great Depression: ‘2 million unemployed’ one sign reads. I’ve never thought of this as a political song, but it is. The Specials have a rival…

Like ‘Ghost Town’, the message here doesn’t detract from the brilliance of the song (clearly, as I’d missed the message for the past twenty years). And in a just world this would be each act’s eighth or ninth chart-topper, given the hits that both had churned out since the early seventies. But it was just Bowie’s third, and Queen’s second. And amazingly, for a band so synonymous with this decade… ‘I Want to Break Free’, ‘Radio Gaga’, Live Aid… ‘Under Pressure’ is their only #1 of the 1980s. In fact, the bass riff from this song will be back at #1 before they are…

16 thoughts on “489. ‘Under Pressure’, by Queen & David Bowie

  1. Much like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Under Pressure” is a song where you don’t really need to think about the lyrics. It’s all about the power of hearing these two rock singer icons competing with each other in their deliveries with Bowie being all cool sounding and grounded while Mercury does his typical soaring theatrics that makes it fun to listen to. Despite its popularity now, “Under Pressure” was not that big a hit Stateside peaking at #29 exactly 40 years ago this week even though Queen just had their big US chart success moment in 1980 with their two #1s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” But by all accounts, Queen quickly fell out in America just as they conquered it with their 1982 album Hot Space alienating US fans with its funk and disco leanings and after that, the band with Freddie never toured in America again while remaining a big live act in the rest of the world. As for Bowie, he hadn’t had much chart success in the US six years on from his first #1 ‘Fame” with his only other Top 10 hit to that point being the follow-up “Golden Years,” a #10 hit. The relative failure of “Under Pressure” on Billboard might also have to do with being out of place with what was popular at the moment as Tom Breihan points out in his review, “This was an early-’80s moment where breezy adult-contempo smoothness ruled. Olivia Newton-John and Daryl Hall and John Oates were the chart titans of the moment. Maybe the too-muchness of “Under Pressure” hurt the song’s commercial chances.” Despite that failure, “Under Pressure” like “Tainted Love” before it would get to #1 in America thanks to being prominently sampled on another song which winds up being the first rap #1 song in America that you’ll get to.

    • I have to admit that I hadn’t ever listened to, or really heard of, ‘Hot Space’ before writing this post. It’s not a classic Queen album, by all accounts, and to be honest they were more of a singles band in the 1980s. From ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, to this record, to ‘Radio Gaga’, ‘I Want to Break Free’, ‘A Kind of Magic’ and ‘I Want It All’ they could still have huge hits throughout the decade (in Europe at least…)

  2. Yep. Tenth grade. I went and bought the 45 of this. I can sing it by heart…every “bada da bop bop”…”OK”… “chippin’ around, kick my brains ’round the floor…” I am partial to the original, not the Queen version. Makes me crazy because all of the “skat” singing is missing.

  3. When it came out it was a moment, 2 superstar acts together. I duly bought it and it topped my charts – but it didnt end up as being as great in my ears as ashes to ashes or another one bites the dust from 1980. I came back to it thanks to vanilla ice reminding me how great that rhythm was, and its a very good record in its own right is ice ice baby, albeit viewed as cheesy these days. But under pressure wouldnt feature in my top 10 bowie or queen tracks, despite being excellent…

    • I know what you mean. It’s impressive for what it is, and who it involves, but in some ways I admire more than enjoy it. It’s ‘better’, technically, than many of the Queen songs I love (‘Fat Bottomed Girls’, anyone…?) but I’d rank it lower.

  4. It was a jam session…yes And, there were egos involved. The first version is the one you have posted. As best as I can tell, there was a bit of a push/pull thing going on between David & Freddie…stuff I didn’t find out about until years later. When the second version was released, it made me nuts because sections of it were different…most notably “That’s OK!” was missing. Then, there are Bowie repeats added towards the end. After the first version, Queen went back & re-mixed it to their liking. It is the same song but, rearranged in a way that annoys me after years of the original…much in the same way Vanilla Ice annoyed me with his sampling. I’ve since grown to like Ice’s song. Queen’s re-mix leaves me feeling disjointed in a way…messing with my teenage memories and leaving my adult self thinking “that’s not right!” LOL!

    • Yes, your reply came through fine… I had no idea about the remix, and it’s almost so subtle that you might not notice. The original is still the best, though.

      I can imagine that Freddie Mercury and David Bowie wouldn’t be the easiest people to collaborate with, especially if you throw certain chemical stimulants into the mix. It would be fascinating to see this song being created…

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