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

Iggy Pop: Blah-Blah-Blah 30 Years Old Today

iggy

A&M Records, released 1st October 1986

Produced and mixed by David Bowie and David Richards

8/10

While David Bowie was turning in one of his finest live performances of the 1980s at Live Aid, his good friend Jim Osterberg AKA Iggy Pop was ensconced in LA, writing songs with ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones.

Bowie’s use of six Iggy lyrics on the Let’s Dance and Tonight albums had given Osterberg enough royalties to buy some much-needed thinking time after a disastrous run of early ’80s solo albums and the termination of his Arista record contract.

Iggy and Jones came up with nine new songs, three of which – ‘Fire Girl’, ‘Winners And Losers’ and ‘Cry For Love’ – would make it onto Blah-Blah-Blah (though they were clearly inferior to the Bowie/Iggy material).

The latter lyric especially had opened up a new vulnerability in Iggy’s writing. He later said: ‘Just expressing that openness frightened me. I didn’t want to admit I was in need of basic affection.’ Yes, Iggy was now singing boy/girl songs – love songs.

Bowie hooked up with Iggy in late 1985 to hear some of the new stuff. He was impressed. He suggested they co-write some more uptempo material and also offered to produce, apparently telling Iggy: ‘I can make this as commercial as hell.’

They disappeared off to David’s holiday home in Mustique with their respective girlfriends, then undertook a lengthy skiing holiday in Gstaad, taking a four-track tape machine with them. Mountain Studios, owned by Queen and scene of the ‘Under Pressure’ recording, was booked for April 1986, and co-producer/tech guru David Richards came onboard for the sessions too.

iggy-and-bowie-1986

Bowie recruited a crack band for Blah-Blah-Blah – Kevin Armstrong played guitar (joined by Steve Jones on one track), fresh from being David’s musical director at Live Aid and doing sessions for Prefab Sprout, Propaganda and Alien Sex Fiend!

Gifted Swiss multi-instrumentalist Erdil Kizilcay, who had worked on the Let’s Dance demos and also epic soundtrack single ‘When The Wind Blows’, played (excellent) bass and shared live drums with the Linn machine borrowed from Queen’s Roger Taylor. Bowie played most of the keyboards.

David was apparently workmanlike and professional in the studio, ticking off daily tasks on a notepad with lots of nervous energy. He was focused on helping his friend to the very best of his ability. ‘He’d be chucking down the coffee and fags, and it would be pretty neurotic and manic around him’, said Armstrong.

But Bowie was also a typically shrewd people-watcher – he apparently wrote the first verse of ‘Shades’ after watching Iggy give his girlfriend Suchi a gift, turning it around to make the guy the grateful, humble recipient.

Blah-Blah-Blah features Iggy’s best singing on record. He has developed a gloriously dark croon and finally has the right material to showcase it. ‘Winners And Losers’ particularly shows off his improved vocal range.

It’s also a very funny album. Bowie and Iggy clearly had a great laugh writing these songs, with some preposterous couplets thrown in, especially on ‘Isolation’ (‘I need some lovin’ like a body needs a soul/I need some lovin’ like a fastball needs control, here I am!‘).

‘Baby It Can’t Fail’ features some of the best opening lines in 1980s rock: ‘You have loved me with energy/Backed up hard work and guts!‘ Iggy’s committed delivery always prompts a smile.

There’s some excellent, genuinely uplifting material in the shape of ‘Shades’, ‘Isolation’ (with gorgeous Bowie backing vocals) and ‘Hideaway’.

The title track is a sample-heavy curio in the style of Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s ‘Love Missile F1-11’ (which Bowie later covered) with amusing ‘geeky’ vocal stylings by Iggy and some wilfully-gormless lyrics (‘Shimon Peres, whatcha gonna do?/I’m from Detroit’ etc etc).

‘Little Miss Emperor’ tellingly quotes Allen Ginsberg and features a classic Bowie piano flourish in the ‘Absolute Beginners’/’Life On Mars’ style. Blah-Blah-Blah even spawned Iggy’s first UK singles chart showing (#10) with ‘Real Wild Child’, a cover of Australian rock’n’roller Johnny O’Keefe’s only hit.

Promotional duties led to a very memorable appearance on the regional British kids’ TV show ‘Number 73’ wherein Iggy decided to simulate sexual relations with an oversized teddy bear:

Apparently Richard Branson heard an early pressing of Blah-Blah-Blah and phoned Iggy personally to invite him to Virgin Records. But he eventually went with A&M and delivered a reasonable hit for the company; the album went gold in Canada and made a decent dent in both the UK and US charts.

So is Blah-Blah-Blah the best Bowie-related album of the ’80s? It’s certainly up there. Older Iggy fans may have been shocked by the ‘poppy’ nature of some of the material, but there’s always an edge.

The album was also arguably an influence on bands like The Mission, Sisters Of Mercy and Miss World with its monolithic drum programming, deep vocals and anthemic songcraft.

To a certain extent, Bowie tried to repeat the formula on his own decidedly patchy Never Let Me Down album, but the news was better for Iggy; he embarked on a ten-month world tour, laying off the booze and drugs for the entirety.

For the band, however, it was a different story – apparently Kevin Armstrong and drummer Gavin Harrison were in a pretty terrible state by the time they got home to London in summer 1987.

But Bowie had done it again – he’d helped kickstart Iggy’s career for the fourth time and delivered probably the commercial apex of his solo work; Blah-Blah-Blah is definitely due a critical reappraisal.

Further reading: ‘Open Up And Bleed’ by Paul Trynka

‘The Complete David Bowie’ by Nicholas Pegg