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

by on Sunday, December 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm EDT 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.


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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
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

MUSIC Video: The Specials – ‘Ghost Town’ Reflects A Period Of Economic Unrest, That Has Come Full Circle

by on Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 4:53 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

In 1981, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal policies — marked by austerity, deregulation, union-busting, and privatization — pummeled the economy with an 11.3% unemployment rate, and riots erupted literally everywhere in the UK, spreading from city to city, town to town.

This was the political climate in which The Specials released their amazing 3-song EP, with ‘Ghost Town’ as its single. With two albums under their belt — an absolutely incredible self-titled debut LP, and a remarkable follow up, More Specials; both infusing upbeat Jamaican Ska with the raw energy of punk — the band allowed its sound to evolve with ‘Ghost Town‘.

The song injects a subdued, haunting, almost middle-eastern melody with sparse, dark, post-apocalyptic lyrics, evoking the surreal imagery of a downtrodden urban wasteland. 

Jerry Dammers reveals his inspiration for writing the song:

There was a riot in Brixton about a year before the record came out. I was writing the song partly about that. Also, Britain was falling apart. The car industry was closing down in Coventry. We were touring, so we saw a lot of it. Liverpool and Glasgow were particularly bad. The overall sense I wanted to convey was impending doom.

It remained #1 in the charts for three weeks, having charted the very day after riots began to spread, making the song something of an anthem for that era. But, listening to the lyrics, you might think they were singing about 2012.

Ghost Town:

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This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won’t play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?
We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown

This town, is coming like a ghost town
Why must the youth fight against themselves?
Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry 

This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town
This town, is coming like a ghost town

by Jerry Dammers/2 Tone Records

Music Video: Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers Perform Their Hit ‘Look Who’s Dancing’ Live

by on Tuesday, July 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

I’d long forgotten about this amazing upbeat reggae tune from Bob Marley’s eldest son’s 1989 album, One Bright Day. 

A wake amidst a torrential downpour couldn’t bring you down with this song playing in the background.

What a melody! What a performance! 

Recorded live on “Sessions At West 54th” in 1999, here is Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers:


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Music VIDEO: Throwing Muses Perform ‘Not Too Soon’ Live In Dusseldorf

by on Friday, May 18, 2012 at 12:40 am EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

From the 1991 album The Real Ramona, the song ‘Not Too Soon’ was penned by singer/songwriter Tanya Donelly. She left Throwing Muses shortly thereafter, taking bass player Fred Abong with her, to form the 2-time Grammy-nominated band, Belly. Belly’s debut album, Star, featured the huge radio/Mtv hit ‘Feed the Tree‘. After Tanya’s departure, Kristin Hersh, the other half of the Throwing Muses […]

R.I.P. Adam Yauch (1964 – 2012) Of The Beastie Boys

by on Friday, May 4, 2012 at 3:37 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

From the website of Beastie Boys’ publicist, Nasty Little Man: It is with great sadness that we confirm that musician, rapper, activist and director Adam “MCA” Yauch, founding member of Beastie Boys and also of the Milarepa Foundation that produced the Tibetan Freedom Concert benefits, and film production and distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, passed away in […]

Music Video: The Clash Perform “Charlie Don’t Surf”

by on Friday, April 27, 2012 at 10:51 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

Here’s a video of an amazing Clash song, “Charlie Don’t Surf,” from the Sandinista album. The footage of the video was apparently pulled from a 1982 live performance in Tokyo, Japan, laced w/ scenes from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which had been the inspiration for the song.  In the movie, Robert Duvall’s character, Lieutenant […]

Music VIDEO: General Public Performs ‘Rainy Days’

by on Sunday, April 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

When The English Beat disbanded in 1983, the group’s singer/songwriter Dave Wakeling and toaster Ranking Roger continued to work together, but as a new entity: General Public. Their first album, …All The Rage (which featured The Clash’s Mick Jones, The Specials’ Horace Panter, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners members Mickey Billingham and Stoker) enjoyed critical acclaim, climbing the charts in […]

WATCH: The Go-Betweens Perform “Streets of Your Town”

by on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 at 3:17 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

In 1977, in Brisbane, Australia, songwriters Robert Forster and Grant McLennan — two Queensland University students enamored with the U.S. punk scene — met and formed The Go-Betweens. Over the course of ten years, the band released a succession of memorable albums, culminating in their final LP for the 80’s era, 16 Lover’s Lane (released in 1988 by Beggars Banquet Records). […]

WATCH: Big Country Performs ‘Inwards’ Live @ The Pier in New York City – 1986

by on Sunday, August 14, 2011 at 10:06 am EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

Hailing from Dunfermline, Scotland, Big Country literally roared onto the world stage in 1983 with their debut album, The Crossing. The album sold over one million copies in the UK alone, and due to the success of its single ‘In a Big Country‘ the album quickly climbed into the US Billboard Top 20 and achieved Gold […]

R.I.P. Mick Karn – Bass Player of Japan (July 24, 1958 – Jan. 4, 2011)

by on Wednesday, January 5, 2011 at 12:07 pm EDT in Arts & Entertainment, Music

I was sad to hear that Mick Karn, artist and bass player of the band, Japan, lost his battle with cancer yesterday. Fronted by lead singer David Sylvian, Japan formed in 1974 in South London, and had a distinctive sound vaguely reminiscent of Bowie or Roxy Music.  Karn played a fretless bass guitar, and his […]