Under Pressure

Under Pressure

by Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, John Deacon, and Brian May

Pressure: pushing down on me,
Pressing down on you, no man ask for.
Under pressure that burns a building down,
Splits a family in two,
Puts people on streets.

That’s OK.

That’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about.
Watching some good friends screaming,
“Let me out!”

Tomorrow gets me higher.
Pressure on people, people on streets.

OK.

Chippin’ around, kick my brains ’round the floor.
These are the days: it never rains but it pours.

People on streets.
People on streets.

It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about.
Watching some good friends screaming,
“Let me out!”

Tomorrow gets me higher, higher, high!
Pressure on people, people on streets.

Turned away from it all like a blind man.
Sat on a fence, but it don’t work.
Keep coming up with love, but it’s so slashed and torn.

Why, why, why!?

Love, love, love, love, love.

Insanity laughs under pressure.
We’re breaking.

Can’t we give ourselves one more chance?
Why can’t we give love that one more chance?
Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love, give love?

‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word,
And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night,
And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.
This is our last dance.
This is our last dance.
This is ourselves.

Under pressure.
Under pressure.
Pressure.

___________________________

For me at least, I never really focus how strange the lyrical syntax of this song is until I read the lyrics without the musical accompaniment. Once the lyrics are laid a bit more bare, then the song’s insanity theme really shines through.

Side note: This song is why I – in a totally sane manner – sometimes blurt out “people on streets” at random and without any context.

Jim Beviglia, at AmericanSongWriter.com does a really great breakdown of the lyrics and their meaning so I’ll include an excerpt from the article below.

You can hear the song as a kind of battle of wills between the two men, or at least the characters that they were playing in the song. Bowie is the voice of doom, using strange syntax (“Pressure pushing down on me/ Pushing down on you/ No man ask for”) to get his points across. Mercury plays the pained victim, his hopes for release (“Pray tomorrow/ Gets me higher”) doused by Bowie’s ice-water proclamations (“It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/ Watching some good friends scream ‘Let me out.’”)

In the quiet bridge, Bowie sneers at optimistic outlooks: “Keep coming up with love/ But it’s so slashed and torn.” At that point, Mercury uncorks a heart-rending cry of “Why?” while Bowie delivers the answer amidst the musical crescendo: “Insanity laughs under pressure we’re breaking.”

Mercury then begins pleading for love’s triumph, which Bowie seems to suggest requires a kind of empathy and self-sacrifice that humanity fears: “Because love’s such an old-fashioned word/ And love dares you to care for/ The people on the edge of the night.” As Roger Taylor’s drums crash all around him, Bowie puts the mirror up to our behavior and its consequences: “This is our last dance/ This is ourselves/ Under pressure.”

The song’s background is also quite interesting. From Wiki:

“Under Pressure” was recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1981.[6] Queen, working on their 1982 album Hot Space, had been working on a song called “Feel Like”, but were not satisfied with the result.[7][8] While they were there, David Bowie was also at Mountain recording his vocals for “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)“, the title song for the 1982 horror film of the same name.[9] The artists ran into each other during the session.[10] Bowie sang backing vocals for Queen’s song “Cool Cat”,[11] but his vocals were removed from the final song because he was not satisfied with his performance. Afterward, they worked together for a while and wrote the song.[9][12] The final version, which became “Under Pressure”, evolved from a chance encounter[13] jam session that Bowie had with the band at Mountain. It was credited as being co-written by the five musicians. The scat singing that dominates much of the song is evidence of the jam-beginnings as improvisation. However, according to Queen bassist John Deacon (as quoted in a French magazine in 1984),[14] the song’s primary musical songwriter was Freddie Mercury – though all contributed to the arrangement. As Brian May recalled to Mojo magazine in October 2008, “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. Looking back, it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that. It’s a significant song because of David and its lyrical content.”[15] The earlier, embryonic version of the song without Bowie, “Feel Like”, is widely available in bootleg form, and was written by Queen drummer Roger Taylor.[16]

There has also been some confusion about who had created the song’s bassline. John Deacon said (in Japanese magazine Music life in 1982) that David Bowie created it. In more recent interviews, Brian May and Roger Taylor credited the bass riff to Deacon. Bowie, on his website, said the bassline was already written before he became involved.[17] Roger Taylor, in an interview for the BBC documentary Queen: the Days of Our Lives, stated that Deacon did indeed create the bassline, stating that all through the sessions in the studio he had been playing the riff over and over. He also claims that when the band returned from dinner, Deacon misremembered the riff, but Taylor was still able to remember it.[18] Brian May clarified matters in a 2016 article for Mirror Online, writing that it was actually Bowie, not Taylor, who had inadvertently changed the riff. The riff began as “Deacy began playing, 6 notes the same, then one note a fourth down”. After the dinner break, Bowie changed Deacon’s memory of the riff to “Ding-Ding-Ding Diddle Ing-Ding”.[19]

Notwithstanding Brian May’s belief (stated above) that the song should have been mixed differently, it is widely considered to be one of the best songs of all time.

“Under Pressure” has received critical acclaim since its release, with multiple publications ranking it among Queen and Bowie’s best songs and among the greatest songs of all time. On release, Sandy Robertson of Sounds magazine called “Under Pressure” the “cornerstone” of its parent album.[20] Reviewing Hot Space decades later, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic called “Under Pressure” as the album’s “undeniable saving grace” and “the only reason most listeners remember this album”.[21] He described the song as “an utterly majestic, otherworldly duet … that recaptures the effortless grace of Queen’s mid-’70s peak, but is underscored with a truly affecting melancholy heart that gives it a genuine human warmth unheard in much of their music.”[21] Similarly, Ned Raggett of AllMusic described the song as “anthemic, showy and warm-hearted, [and] a clear standout for both acts”.[22]

Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Jack Hamilton of Slate called “Under Pressure” a “masterpiece” and is a reminder to the public that Bowie could be “wonderfully, powerfully human.”[23] Jack Whatley wrote for Far Out Magazine “with all the animosity, wine, cocaine and vocal battles which helped come together to birth the song, what remains is an incredibly powerful and poignant pop song that we will likely not see matched in our lifetimes. The two juggernauts of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie collide here with perfect and enriching precision.”[2]

The September 2005 edition of online music magazine Stylus singled out the bassline as the best in popular music history.[24] In November 2004, Stylus music critic Anthony Miccio commented that “Under Pressure” “is the best song of all time” and described it as Queen’s “opus“.[25] In 2012, Slant Magazine listed “Under Pressure” as the 21st best single of the 1980s.[26] It was listed at number 31 on VH1‘s 100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s[27] and voted the second best collaboration of all time in a poll by Rolling Stone magazine.[28] It is ranked number 429 on Rolling Stone‘s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[29]

If you’re interested in hearing the song… here is its official music video from 1981.

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4 thoughts on “Under Pressure

  1. I don’t listen to the radio anymore but in the olden times whenever I heard the “dun-dun-dun-dun-da-dun-dun” there was always a moment of terror wondering if it was going to be this great song or Vanilla Ice

    1. Ah… you experienced the terror of knowing what this world is about.

      I remember watching Vanilla Ice in some celeb reality show several years ago and my opinion of him did not improve.

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