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

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

MTV @ 40: The First Five Years

Like most good ideas, it was a deceptively simple one: music radio, but on TV.

When the Warner Bros./American Express-bankrolled MTV (Music Television) launched 40 years ago this month, kicking off with The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, the music business was in a post-Saturday Night Fever slump.

But global record sales doubled between 1981 and 1990. Like it or hate it, MTV had a huge role to play. Its story also has fascinating echoes of the music business in the 2020s. But how did it revolutionise the industry so quickly?

In the early ’80s, video-making was a veritable Wild West, an almost-anything-goes environment. There were undoubtedly some shenanigans which wouldn’t win any #woke awards these days but, interestingly, it was predominantly women who ran video shoots, as producers and production designers.

Though their offices were based in New York, MTV was only initially available in the Midwest and suburban areas, as these were the places that had cable laid (leading to a veritable industrial revolution after the iconic ‘I Want My MTV!’ promo spots). Sonically, it was also important that MTV insisted on stereo audio from day one.

The localisation of MTV led to a big grassroots following for bands, particularly British ones, almost overnight. It also led to record companies getting very granular with sales; they paid closer attention, watching with interest if a band took off in one area. Labels started to take MTV very seriously indeed.

Then there was the Second British Invasion: a whole legion of young British acts (ABC, Flock Of Seagulls, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Cure, Billy Idol, Bananarama etc.) emerged in the early 1980s who took to videos like a duck to water.

They wowed Middle America, helped enormously by gifted Brit directors such as David Mallet (whose groundbreaking work on ‘The Kenny Everett Video Show’ from 1978 to 1980 ushered in many music-video tropes), Julien Temple, Steve Barron, Godley & Creme, Nigel Dick, Don Letts and Tim Pope.

But, in a curious echo of the current streaming craze, it seems the major labels were not prepared for the video revolution. They didn’t understand it and were suspicious of giving their content away for free.

So they did what they usually do: shafted the artists. Video budgets became recoupable fees that came straight out of the artists’ profits. Artists were to all intents and purposes paying for their own videos.

The rise of MTV also meant that now the emphasis was on killer tracks rather than albums. It was a big problem for some acts, and the 1980s became synonomous with one-hit wonders.

Rolling Stone and the trade magazines regularly trashed MTV in its first few years, and David Bowie questioned the lack of Black artists amidst frequent charges of racism.

But, by 1984, everything had changed. In the bumper year for Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Tina Turner and Madonna, it was clear that MTV was the tail wagging the dog. The naïve, experimental era was over.

Post-‘Thriller’, more and more money was being thrown at videos and every director wanted to put their stamp on the material.

Also, by 1984, thanks to advertising revenue, MTV’s margins were huge. They were dictating to record companies, not the other way round. MTV didn’t have to pay royalties to artists or labels for showing videos. There was no ‘playlist’ per se, so they could pick and choose what they played.

It couldn’t last. The big major labels demanded a royalty to play their videos in 1984, threatening withdrawal of their products, and they eventually got it.

The first few hours of MTV’s launch day is a fascinating watch, showing how rooted in the 1970s it was when it started out, featuring REO Speedwagon, Stevie Nicks, Carly Simon, Gerry Rafferty, Todd Rundgren, The Buggles, Lynyrd Skynyrd (and TWO videos each of Pat Benatar, Split Enz and Rod Stewart!) and showing the dearth of decent contemporary videos.

The gauntlet had been laid down and it didn’t take long for some very creative people to pick it up.

Next time: the videos that made MTV during its first five years on the air.

Further reading: ‘The Speed Of Sound’ by Thomas Dolby

‘I Want My MTV’ by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum

 

Story Of A Song: David Bowie’s ‘Loving The Alien’

The lead-off track and third single (UK #19 in May 1985, not released in the US) from 1984’s Tonight album, ‘Loving The Alien’ was arguably Bowie’s most committed piece of writing since Scary Monsters‘ ‘Teenage Wildlife’ four years earlier.

Recorded at Quebec’s Le Studio in May 1984, the song was musically rich with a striking set of lyrics and a superb, soaring vocal performance.

Like a good Kubrick movie, it distills down weeks of research to just the crucial components.

Bowie was apparently doing a lot of reading about Christianity and the Catholic Church, influenced particularly by Donovan Joyce’s notorious book ‘The Jesus Scroll’ which posited that Jesus died in Masada at the age of 80 and wrote a scroll currently in Russian hands.

The wider implications of this led Bowie into further thoughts on organised religion in general and Christianity in particular. He told writer Charles Shaar Murray:

‘It was always more of a power tool than anything else, which was not very apparent to the majority of us. My father encouraged me to become interested in other religions. It’s extraordinary considering all the mistranslations in the Bible that our lives are being navigated by this misinformation, and that so many people have died because of it. That’s how the song started out: for some reason, I was very angry…’

Using the bloodshed of The Crusades as its central image, the lyric uses various effective ploys, one of which is an almost Pinteresque juxtaposition of the banal and portentous. While Bowie blithely stated ‘It’s just a song of images’ in the above interview, each line is ripe for analysis.

Watching them come and go
The Templars and the Saracens
They’re travelling the holy land
Opening telegrams

Torture comes and torture goes
Knights who’d give you anything
They bear the cross of Coeur de Leon
Salvation for the mirror-blind

But if you pray
All your sins are hooked upon the sky
Pray and the heathen lie will disappear

Prayers, they hide the saddest view
(Believing the strangest things, loving the alien)

And your prayers they break the sky in two

You pray til the break of dawn

And you’ll believe you’re loving the alien

Thinking of a different time
Palestine a modern problem
Bounty and your wealth in land
Terror in a best-laid plan

Watching them come and go
Tomorrows and the yesterdays
Christians and the unbelievers
Hanging by the cross and nail

Bananarama it ain’t. Both lyrically and musically, the song stands out a mile on Tonight.

But unfortunately these days it’s a difficult listen – despite Bowie’s fantastic vocal, it’s let down by an immense production with huge, gated drums (Omar Hakim’s entrée into rock drumming that arguably got him the gigs with Dire Straits and Sting), muddy bass, overwrought Arif Mardin string arrangement and a ponderous Carlos Alomar guitar solo.

More successful are Guy St Onge’s marimba and the sampled Bowie vocals at the top (apparently more influenced by Philip Glass’s ‘Einstein On The Beach’ than Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman’ – the kind of detail that was very important to Bowie!).

Regular collaborator David Mallet directed the video, storyboarded – as usual – by Bowie. Though seemingly a fairly disparate series of arresting images, the clip was fairly successful as a surreal assault on religion’s materialistic symbols and commodification of women.

It also makes a fascinating companion piece to his ‘Blackstar’ video. Bowie’s cheery grin that accompanies the ‘Opening telegrams/Whoa-oh’ line is a thrillingly weird moment.

Bowie performed ‘Loving The Alien’ throughout the ‘Glass Spider’ tour. Then, in 2002, DJ Scumfrog remixed the track to create a single called ‘The Scumfrog vs Bowie’, a top 10 hit in the UK Dance Chart.

A year later Bowie himself resurrected the song, cooking up a stripped-down version in duet with guitarist Gerry Leonard. They dropped the key from E-minor down to C-minor and dispensed with many of the original’s passing chords, arguably dissolving some of its power, but it’s certainly a unique reading.

According to Bowie, the best version of ‘Loving The Alien’ is his original home demo of the song, yet to see the light of day. Let’s hope we get to hear it sometime.