Story Of A Song: Queen/David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ (1981)

In the immediate aftermath of Bowie’s fabled appearance in the Broadway production of ‘The Elephant Man’, and despite the commercial success of the Scary Monsters album, at least in the UK, his thoughts were far from music in early 1981.

The sorts of modern nightmares he had sung about on ‘It’s No Game’ were becoming all too real. He was particularly shaken by the death of his friend John Lennon in December 1980.

It was time for a reassessment and reboot. First to go was a proposed world tour, originally pencilled in for summer 1981. Instead, Switzerland seemed as good a place as any to hide out, at least initially.

In July, Bowie was at Montreux’s Mountain Studios, recording his vocals for the ‘Cat People’ movie theme song with co-producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder.

Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to their drummer Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was on the cards (Bowie was also keen to bend Freddie Mercury’s ear about Queen’s label EMI, as he was pretty desperate to get off RCA).

It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: guitarist Brian May recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’.

But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, booze-fuelled few hours, described by engineer/co-producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, something started happening.

With Bowie running between piano and 12-string guitar (his D-based chordal concept is not dissimilar to David Gilmour’s work on Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous ‘Run Like Hell’), a groove, melody and basic song structure emerged.

Bowie encouraged Mercury to improvise on the microphone – apparently the latter’s wordless ad-libs were only meant as placeholders, to be replaced with real lyrics, but they were left in when no-one could think of anything better.

Bowie reportedly then ‘comped’ both vocal improvisations to give them something to build upon, and then lyrics were considered. The nascent song was initially titled ‘People On Streets’, but Bowie’s push to call it ‘Under Pressure’ led to the emergence of a more focused composition.

It’s a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Bowie struggles with Queen’s natural tendency to break out the pomp-rock but he reins it back in with the moving, double-tracked ‘This is our last dance’ section.

It’s also instructive to hear his vocal mastery during the section; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance.

It’s also impressive that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘Pressure’ – no mean feat.

Still, it’s quite a bold song lyrically. There aren’t many #1 singles with lines like ‘It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/Watching some good friends scream let me out’.

It’s not surprising Bowie’s mind was on the healing nature of love in 1981. It’s possible the song was a reaction to the street uprisings going on throughout the UK during spring and summer. The result is a kind of ‘Heroes’ for the early 1980s. Also it’s possibly a prelude to his involvement with Band Aid/Live Aid later in the decade.

It’s also worth noting that Bowie’s infamous Lord’s Prayer at the 1992 Freddie tribute concert at Wembley Stadium took place soon after his performance of ‘Under Pressure’ in duet with Annie Lennox.

The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’ It’s certainly far from a hi-fidelity recording.

EMI were understandably convinced ‘Under Pressure’ was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so. But it entered the UK charts at #8 40 years ago this week, and then summarily knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot on 15 November, staying at #1 for two weeks.

In the US,  it reached #29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ almost six years before.

David Mallet’s clever video used stock/public domain footage to interesting effect, though it was banned by the BBC (though I definitely remember seeing it on telly at the time) for including a few seconds of footage from an IRA bomb in Belfast.

As for Bowie, he quickly moved on to the filming of Alan Clarke’s excellent TV play ‘Baal’ in August 1981, rounding off an interesting year for him.

On a personal level, I recall that November 1981 was exactly the time when the pop music bug really got me. I can remember where I was when I first heard ‘Under Pressure’, and many tracks from that month’s chart hold a special place in my heart to this day.

Further reading: ‘Ashes To Ashes’ by Chris O’Leary

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg

Book Review: Ashes To Ashes (The Songs Of David Bowie 1976-2016) by Chris O’Leary

Another song-by-song study of Bowie’s output is certainly an ambitious undertaking; we already have Nicholas Pegg’s excellent ‘The Complete David Bowie’ and David Buckley’s brief but arresting ‘The Complete Guide To The Songs Of David Bowie’.

But O’Leary is more qualified than most, having run the popular Pushing Ahead Of The Dame website for over 10 years now.

And, by and large, ‘Ashes To Ashes’ pulls it off, offering a far more personal, florid take on Bowie’s songs than the aformentioned books.

He makes the decision to discuss the songs not in alphabetical order but, roughly, in the order in which they were ‘conceived’ and/or recorded.

While this doesn’t allow for easy reference, an alphabetical title index is included at the back of the book.

The section on Low/”Heroes”/Lodger is excellent, with up-to-date interview material from Tony Visconti and Adrian Belew, and a focus on the city’s geography/history mostly missing from previous Bowie books. And it’s great to see the ‘Baal’ sessions getting the detailed analysis they deserve.

Fascinating items also emerge around Bowie’s late-’80s/early ’90s work, from Never Let Me Down through ‘Pretty Pink Rose’ to The Buddha Of Suburbia, with more detail than usual about the formation of Tin Machine.

And it would be hard to find a better study of Bowie’s final two albums, even if they are this writer’s least favourite works of the era.

There are predictable put-downs of Tonight (but an excellent analysis of ‘Loving The Alien’, complete with reading list!), Black Tie White Noise and Tin Machine II.

And there are also oft-repeated errors about the Let’s Dance era, like the listing of Tony Thompson’s drum appearances (he didn’t play on ‘Ricochet’ or ‘Shake It’), but a fascinating section on the fact that Bowie was actually more of an actor than a singer when he made that album.

Musical appreciation doesn’t seem the author’s strong point – for example, ‘Always Crashing In The Same Car’ is described as ‘being ‘mostly in E minor, the harmonic murkiness finally resolved with a closing Em chord’. This ignores the fact that the verse’s home key is clearly G major.

And he denegrates Hakim’s ‘gated tom fills’ in ‘I Keep Forgettin’,  but they’re actually the dreaded Simmons electric drums. But elsewhere there are interesting, original observations, like the comparisons between ‘Modern Love’ and ‘Lust For Life’.

One thing’s for sure – ‘Ashes To Ashes’ takes one back to the music. Revisiting Scary Monsters in particular was very illuminating in light of the book. So even if one can’t avoid O’Leary’s natural aversion to much of this material, it’s a valuable addition to the Bowie bibliography.

The question is, will one reach for ‘Ashes To Ashes’ for quick reference ahead of the Pegg and Buckley works? Only time will tell… (NB – one has definitely reached for the book on many occasions since this first reading, so it’s doing its job…)

‘Ashes To Ashes’ is published by Repeater Books.

David Bowie in Alan Clarke’s ‘Baal’ (1982)

Alan Clarke’s films generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file.

Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shone a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.

Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work made between 1978 and 1989 – including David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play.

For some reason, ‘Baal’ was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances, a serious oversight.

Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (cosy Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), ‘Baal’ was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen.

According to producer Louis Marks, Bowie jumped at the chance to portray the ultimate street punk, and was already a fan of Clarke’s work.

He was also reportedly completely undemanding, modest and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.

Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’ in ‘Baal’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour.

Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic alienating Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence.

He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent Baal EP, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.

‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing about Bowie’s performance but their comments make for fairly amusing reading these days.

It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after ‘Baal’ was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would dare take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.

Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly