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

Great Guitar Solos Of The 1980s (Take Two)

We continue our rundown of classic solos from the 1980s. You can check out the first part here.

38. Shakespears Sister: ‘You’re History’ (Guitarist: Stevie Salas)

37. Bireli Lagrene: ‘Rue De Pierre Part 3’

A triumph of solo guitar, and the only acoustic solo in this list, Bireli stunned the cognoscenti with this track from his 1988 Steve Khan-produced album Foreign Affairs.

36. Bros: ‘Chocolate Box’ (Guitarist: Paul Gendler)

Yes, Bros… Gendler had been a fully-paid-up member of New Romantic nearly-men Modern Romance before becoming an in-demand player on the UK scene, and he enlivened this hit with a raunchy, nimble classic.

35. REO Speedwagon: ‘Keep On Loving You’ (Guitarist: Garry Richrath)

Unreconstructed, huge-toned, weirdly double-tracked solo which revels in being almost out-of-tune throughout. Its sheer in-your-faceness always comes as somewhat of a shock.

34. George Benson: ‘Off Broadway’

Slick, tasty solo from a truly great player, exploding out of the speakers from about 3:13 below. The tune is of course a Rod Temperton-penned, post-disco beauty from Give Me The Night.

33. Killing Joke: ‘Love Like Blood’ (Guitarist: Geordie)

This is ‘just’ a melody, but it’s a great melody, escalating in volume and intensity.

32. Phil Upchurch: ‘Song For Lenny’ (Guitarists: Phil Upchurch/Lenny Breau)

A couple of superb solos from a great, totally forgotten 1984 Upchurch solo album Companions. Breau stuns with his array of false harmonics and jazzy runs, while Upchurch brings the blues feeling.

31. Frank Zappa: ‘Alien Orifice’

It’s nice to hear Frank blowing over a few changes rather than his usual one or two-chord vamps. And he really gets a nice ‘flowing’ thing going here, right in the middle of one of his densest compositions. Starts at around 1:32:

30. Cameo: ‘A Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Fred Wells)

From the classic album Single Life, this solo goes way over and beyond the call of duty for an ’80s soul ballad. But it’s mainly included for its brilliant final flourish, spitting notes out like John McLaughlin. Who is Fred Wells and where is he now?

29. Rush: ‘YYZ’ (Guitarist: Alex Lifeson)

Hard to do without this flowing, creamy, Strat-toned classic on one of the great rock instrumentals of all time (though inexplicably it lost out to The Police’s ‘Behind My Camel’ at the Grammies…).

28. Kevin Eubanks: ‘That’s What Friends Are For’

A real hidden gem from the almost impossible-to-find Face To Face album, Eubanks lays down a short but beautifully-structured solo on a cool cover version, from about 2:45 below.

27. Steve Miller Band: ‘Abracadabra’

Good fun and totally unpredictable. Also notable for its lovely Spanish-style flurry of triplets in its last two bars.

26. Starship: ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ (Guitarist: Corrado Rustici)

Cheesy? Maybe a bit, but who cares when it’s this well-structured and performed. Add a great tone, nice string-bending and a lovely phrase at the end and you’ve got a classic. Starts at 2:58:

25. Queen: The Invisible Man (Brian May)

May played a lot of great solos in the late 1980s, mostly on other people’s records (Holly Johnson, Fuzzbox, Living In A Box etc) but this one was just a kind of ‘play as many notes as possible in eight bars’ solo, and it’s a killer. From about 2:30 below:

24. Lee Ritenour: ‘Mr Briefcase’

Rit found the sweet spot on his Ibanez many times in the early ’80s, no more so than on this single that kicked off the classic Rit album. The solo also sounds double-tracked too, no mean feat considering the crazy bunch of 32nd notes at the end of bar 10.

23. Michael Jackson: ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’ (Guitarist: David Williams)

Not so much a solo as a suddenly-foregrounded riff, Williams became one of the most in-demand US session players after laying down this classic.

22. Pat Metheny: ‘Yolanda You Learn’

A marvellous, ‘singing’ guitar-synth solo from the First Circle album, rhythmically interesting and reflecting a strong Sonny Rollins influence, also closing with a cool quote from the standard ‘My One And Only Love’.

21. Frank Zappa: ‘Sharleena’ (Guitarist: Dweezil Zappa)

Frank’s son was apparently just 14 years old when he laid down this absurdly fluid cameo, at 2:05 below:

20. Eric Clapton: ‘Bad Love’

Nice to hear Eric pushing himself for once, delivering a striking solo played right at the top of the neck, demonstrating a mastery of string-bending and precise fingering.

19. Sadao Watanabe: ‘Road Song’ (Guitarist: Carlos Rios)

A classic rock/fusion solo, all the more impressive because it’s apparently double-tracked, from the album Maisha. Rios is still one of the most in-demand session players in Los Angeles (and one of the few leftie fusion players…), probably best known for his work with Gino Vannelli, Chick Corea and Lionel Richie.

18. Prince: ‘Batdance’

It’s the unapologetic volume and raucous tone, almost distorting it’s so hot in the mix.

17. David Sanborn: ‘Let’s Just Say Goodbye’ (Guitarist: Buzz Feiten)

Feiten seems a weirdly unrecognised figure in the guitar fraternity, but he contributed some great stuff to Sanborn’s seminal Voyeur album including this tasty break over a killer Marcus Miller/Steve Gadd groove. There are some lovely moments when Sanborn’s sax cuts in to augment his solo.

16. Paul Simon: ‘Allergies’ (Guitarist: Al Di Meola)

I love hearing ‘jazz’ musicians turning up on ‘pop’ records, and this is a classic of its kind featuring all of Al’s trademark licks in one short, tasty burst. It’s a lot more fun than listening to his solo albums, anyway… Starts at around 2:46.

15. Manhattan Transfer: ‘Twilight Zone’ (Guitarist: Jay Graydon)

At a time when he was getting much more into the production game, Graydon still found time to toss off a double-tracked showstopper on this hit single. All in a day’s work for the session genius who of course unleashed the famous solo on Steely Dan’s ‘Peg’. Speaking of which…

14. Steely Dan: ‘Glamour Profession’ (Guitarist: Steve Khan)

A mini masterpiece of precision and invention. Khan is given his head and takes the classic tune OUT in the last three minutes. When the chord changes, he changes. Stay right through the fade too – he plays some of his best stuff towards the end. Kicks off at 5:30.

13. King Crimson: ‘Elephant Talk’ (Guitarists: Adrian Belew/Robert Fripp)

Two great solos for the price of one on this Discipline opener. Fripp supplies the opening horn-like curio, then Belew adds some fire and a bit of famous elephantosity for good measure.

12. Living Colour: ‘Funny Vibe’ (Guitarist: Vernon Reid)

A classic modern blues solo from a modern master, adding excitement and elan to an already burning piece, helped along by Will Calhoun’s cajoling kit work.

11. Steely Dan: ‘Third World Man’ (Guitarist: Larry Carlton)

Another day, another classic Steely guitar solo, this one recorded in 1977 during the Aja sessions but not unleashed for another three years. Again, double-tracked for lasting power, featuring a superb mastery of tone and melody.

10. Wendy & Lisa: ‘Waterfall’ (Guitarist: Wendy Melvoin)

Sadly this is my only female entry in the list (more suggestions please), but it’s a fuzz-toned, anthemic treat, with shades of Santana and McLaughlin. From around 3:04 below:

9. The Police: ‘Driven To Tears’ (Guitarist: Andy Summers)

It’s the random, off-the-cuffness that appeals on this one. Summers sounds a lot more p*ssed off than usual, possibly reeling from yet another Sting jibe.

8. Steve Vai: ‘Call It Sleep’

Just a superb guitar composition from top to tail, but the moment at 1:22 when he stomps on the distortion pedal and rips it up is a great moment of ’80s music.

7. Propaganda: ‘Dream Within A Dream’ (Guitarist: Stephen Lipson)

Lipson modestly provided three or four extremely memorable guitar features during his golden ZTT period (not least Frankie’s ‘Two Tribes’), but this one gets extra points for the beauty of its infinite reverb and a dynamite fuzz tone.

6. Orange Juice: ‘Rip It Up’ (Guitarist: Edwyn Collins)

Just a funny two-fingers-up to the well-made solo, and also a fond homage to Pete Shelley’s famous break on Buzzcock’s ‘Boredom’.

5. Frank Gambale: ‘Credit Reference Blues’

Just wind him and watch him go. It starts slowly, almost wistfully, but then becomes a fire-breathing classic. Still scary after all these years.

4. Dire Straits: ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (Guitarist: Mark Knopfler)

The closing solo is just an oasis of choice phrases and unique tones.

3. Van Halen: ‘One Foot Out The Door’ (Guitarist: Eddie Van Halen)

Of course ‘Beat It’ is the industry standard, and possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time, but I’m going for this curio which closes out the oft-forgotten Fair Warning album. He just blows brilliantly over the changes with a gorgeous tone.

2. Jeff Beck: People Get Ready

The second and last solo is the one, a feast of Jeff-isms. A rare good bit from the rather poor Flash album.

1. Stanley Clarke: ‘Stories To Tell’ (Guitarist: Allan Holdsworth)

No chucking out any old solo for our Allan – this is a brief but fully-formed, perfectly structured, wide-interval classic that is easily the best thing about the tune. He seems to get a bit ‘lost’ in the middle, but then regroups for a stunning closing section over the rapid chord changes. Starts at 2:04: