MUSIC: David Bowie And Members Of Queen Describe Writing Their Hit Song, ‘Under Pressure’

by on Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm in Arts & Entertainment, Music

David Bowie and Freddie MercuryThere has been much speculation over the years about who contributed what to the fabulous song, ‘Under Pressure’. Was it a Queen song — to which David Bowie merely lent his vocals, or was it a piece he and Queen wrote together, both musically and lyrically?

Being one of my all-time favorite songs, I set out to investigate. In order to avoid misinterpreting their quotes, and thus mistakenly discrediting anyone for their contributions to the song, I decided to just use their own words in recalling that 24-hour recording session:

David Bowie tells BBC Radio 1 how they came to meet up in Switzerland on that fateful day in 1981:

That was through Dave Richards, the engineer at the studio. I was in town, in Montreux, doing some other work there, and because I believe that Queen have something to do with the studio on a business level, I think it’s their studio or something like that and they were recording there, and David knew that I was in town and phoned me up and asked me to come down, if I’d like to come down to see what was happening, so I went down, and these things happen you know. Suddenly you’re writing something together, and it was totally spontaneous, it certainly wasn’t planned. It was, er, peculiar [laughs]

Queen’s Roger Taylor describes the evening:

Well, I think the process was we were all drunk and in the studio and we were, just for fun, we were playing all sorts of old songs, and then a couple Cream songs, and whatever came into our heads.

And ah … I think David [Bowie] said, “Look, hang on a minute, why don’t we write our own? We don’t have to play other peoples stuff.” And I think he started on the piano.

And then they made a pact that each one … We got this backing track down, and we got the riff, and we got the bass thing together. So we had this pretty good backing track. And Freddy and David would go in and have a go, and just sing what came into their heads. But one wasn’t allowed to listen to the other. It was quite amusing. And this sort of went through the night, and then we had this sort of strange track at the end of it. 

Queen’s Brian May reflects on the recording in a Guitar World Magazine interview:

“David was living in Switzerland, where we were recording in a studio we owned at the time [Mountain Studios] in Montreux. He basically just popped in to see us. Freddie had met him before. We all had a little chart and then went straight in the studio and started playing around. We played a few old songs and then something new started to happen and we said, “Okay, let’s try and record this.” It was a truly spontaneous thing. We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble. And then David brought up an unusual idea for creating the vocal. He was kind of famous for writing lyrics by collecting different bits of paper with quotes on them. And we did a corresponding thing as regards writing the top line for the song. When the backing track was done, David said, “Okay, let’s each of us go in the vocal booth and sing how we think the melody should go – just off the tops of our heads – and we’ll compile a vocal out of that.” And that’s what we did. Some of the original bits even made it onto the record. Freddie going “b-b-b-boom-ba,” that scat singing stuff, was part of the initial track he went in and did off the top of his head. Odd isnt it? That’s why the words are so curious, some of them, anyway. There was a point where somebody had to take control, and I think it’s fair to say that David took the reins and decided that he wanted to rationalize the lyrics and then say what he felt they should say.”

David Bowie fields a question about the song from a fan on his website in 2004:

The song was written from the ground up on the night I visited their studio. I believe the riff had already been written by Freddie and the others so then we jointly put together the different chord sections to make it a cohesive piece of music. Then Freddie and I came up with our individual top line melodies. So when you hear Freddie sing, that’s what he wrote and when you hear me sing, that was mine. Then we worked on the lyrics together. I still cannot believe that we had the whole thing written and recorded in one evening flat. Quite a feat for what is actually a fairly complicated song.

When Bowie says, “the riff had already been written by Freddie and the others,” I’m assuming he is crediting Freddie and the band with that famed bass line.

But Queen’s bass player, John Deacon, was quoted on two separate occasions after the song’s release crediting Bowie for the bass line:

“Freddie and David had been friends for a long time, and he just came in to the studio we were in and we did a jam session. The song itself is mainly David’s and Freddie’s idea, but we were all included in the credits. It was an interesting experience, because David wrote the bass-line, he’s responsible for it. He’s a talented man, and that song is one of those that I really like.” ~1982

“On the album, the track was credited to Bowie and Queen, but in fact it was essentially Freddie, although all contributed. The bass line came from David, it took me a certain time to learn it. But there was also a strong influence from Brian for the middle part. It was an interesting experience which we might do repeat if we have a chance with David and other people.” ~1984

Bowie’s and Deacon’s conflicting memories — crediting the other rather than themselves — probably gives some degree of insight into just how collaborative this effort really was.

One of the most brilliant aspects of ‘Under Pressure’ — which incidentally became an instant #1 hit — was the sheer diversity in the top line vocal melodies. Because Bowie and Mercury agreed not to listen to each other sing their respective visions of the verses and chorus, each of these gifted melody-men enjoyed full freedom to pursue his own unique ideas, unencumbered by the direction the other was taking. And when they finally brought together Bowie’s and Mercury’s visions the song achieved a rare degree of melodic complexity. Each one’s unique vision was not only as strong as the other’s, they were ingeniously complimentary.

Due to their respective touring schedules, neither Bowie nor Queen were available to appear in the song’s video. Instead the video was a composite of stock footage of packs of people hurrying to and from their jobs (interlaced with silent film clips depicting zombies and mental madness). It then cuts to footage of building demolitions, explosions, then to Wall Street, unemployment, food lines, riots … And just when things seem extremely bleak, it cuts to youthful festival and concert goers — to smiles and kisses and hope. The video has been said to celebrate “the pressure-cooker mentality of a culture willing to wage war against political machines.”

Roger Taylor insists it is about love: “Everybody laughed when they asked what ‘Under Pressure’ was all about. It’s quite simply about love, which is the most un-cool, un-hip thing.”

I have always interpreted the song as a call to recalibrate our society’s moral compass — a plea for compassion.

ENJOY!

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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

Bah bah bah bah bah bah
Bah bah bah bah bah bah

That’s OK!
It’s the terror of knowing
What this world is about
Watching some good friends
Screaming let me out!
Pray tomorrow takes me higher
Pressure on people
People on streets

Do do do bah bah bah bah
OK
Chipping 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!
Pray tomorrow takes me higher higher higher
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

Insanity laughs under pressure we’re cracking
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?
Because love’s such an old fashioned word
And love dares you to care
For 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

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