Listen to this track by operatic rock band with an R&B slant Queen, alongside musical firestarter and conceptual rock template setter David Bowie. It’s “Under Pressure”, a huge number one single from late 1981, eventually to appear Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space.
The song was the result of a loose studio-bound jam session, working up ideas for a completely different song called “Feel Like”. David Bowie was at the sessions to lay down a backing vocal track for another song that would appear on the album, “Cool Cat”. That backing vocal part wouldn’t appear on the completed album. Instead, this one would; a duet between Bowie and lead singer Freddie Mercury, marked by a bassline that would be something of a third lead voice in the song as conceived and laid down by bassist John Deacon.
This song represents something of the zeitgeist from the early ’80s, which was a time of great fear, political pendulum swings, and a slowly thawing Cold War. It certainly performed well on the charts, with a number one showing in Britain and with significant impact in Canada, and the United States. But, on paper, I wouldn’t have bet on it being so successful, personally. And there are several reasons why I think that. Here they are.
Let’s talk about the arrangement first, which was done between all five musicians involved, including guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor. As it was made up in the studio, there are holes in it, complete with scatted vocals from Mercury that sound like he was making it up as he went along, which he was. Those lines scream: “I’ll come up with something for that bit, but I’ll just scat those lines for now”.
Deacon’s ingeniously simple and compelling bass riff, May’s jangly understated guitar, that two-note piano quotation, and the stark handclaps and high-hat before Taylor’s drums come in are all instantly recognizable now. But, for a band who was working within a dance feel in a rock milieu at the time (and being criticized for it when the album came out …), not going full bore right away seems like a pretty cavalier and unexpected move where standard radio-friendly pop immediacy is concerned.
And what about those lyrics? When you read them as lines on a page, they’re pretty disjointed and even threadbare in terms of a narrative. Part of this is because the two lead singers wrote their own parts independently. This is pretty cavalier too in terms of conveying lyrics in the traditional songwriting sense; “these are the days/it never rains but it pours/people on the streets/people on the streets…”. What? Do these lyrics actually connect with anything coherent?
Then, we come to the egos that were involved. David Bowie and Freddie Mercury on the same single? Surely this would have led to all kinds of vocal scenery-chewing, especially when you think of the scale of theatricality that each of those men brought to their performances prior to this one. You can’t have two lead singers of this caliber and style on one record, can you? And five guys at this level of talent and experience writing and arranging one song, made up in the studio on the fly; shouldn’t that equal a cluttered, over-egged mess? Too many cooks, right?
Well, yes it should be a mess. And apparently, there were arguments over the mix. Yet despite the odds being against it working at all, it is magnificent instead.
This song is perhaps one of the greatest examples of a piece of music being greater than the sum of its parts, and perhaps greater than any individual contribution on any level. This song with restrained arrangement, fragmented lyrics, and subtle tone manages to sound like the end of the world, as if it’s being sung atop Mount Olympus, and yet without remotely sounding over the top.
How did they do that?
Well, I think what’s happened somewhere in the creation of the song is that those flaws have turned into strengths. The minimalist arrangement, particularly with the prominent bassline, made people stop and listen and to wait, rather than be numbed by a traditional arrangement that gives an immediate payoff. This is a song about pressure after all! That bassline sounds like a ticking clock getting closer to midnight, accentuated by the on-beat finger snaps in the outro that mirror the same kind of effect.
And the lyrics, that really are disjointed when read on the page as a linear narrative, communicate an ineffable feeling of foreboding, confusion, and sadness in a way that a more linear approach never could, and ultimately tells a story of a doomed world that has been undone by a lack of compassion and understanding. “Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance?”, “This is our last dance”, and “why can’t we give love?” certainly became statements of desperation and ominous portent in an era of arch-political sabre-rattling between super powers. It’s these individual lines nested in with the whole that make that whole so effective. Those lyrics aren’t meant to be read, anyway. They’re meant to be sung, and to be heard.
Also, the two lead singers’ talents go beyond an ability for vocal acrobatics and high dramatic effect here. Both Bowie and Mercury had always excelled at understanding the importance of maintaining tension in a vocal line, even if some of their performances revealed their impressive ranges when it comes to pure release. Here, we get to hear how well each singer understands how to deliver a song in three dimensions, perfectly balancing tension and release not only in their own singing, but also in balance with the singing of the other.
This song showcases what they’re able to do in a song as technicians, without taking the listener out of how the song unfolds in terms of its emotional undercurrents. That is what made them among the best at what they did at the time, and certainly a big part of what makes this song almost universally recognized as a high artistic watermark for ’80s pop music.
Not bad for a song cobbled together in the studio, with all kinds of theoretical factors working against it.
For many years and on every tour, Queen performed the song, with Roger Taylor singing in unison with Freddie Mercury on the Bowie parts. Bowie himself would add the song to his sets from the mid-90s, dedicating it to Freddie Mercury who passed away in 1991. He also performed it with Annie Lennox at Mercury’s Wembley stadium memorial in 1992.
For more information about the making of this track, take a read of this article that outlines some of the details on how Bowie met Queen, and came to collaborate with them. In addition, it also features an isolated vocal track that makes it pretty easy to hear the full range of vocal prowess each singer was able to bring to the song.