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…