The Great Songs: Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

by Eric Melin on May 5, 2010

in Columns,The Great Songs

Sometimes the best tunes come from the spark of an outside collaborator. David Bowie entered the studio to sing backing tracks for a new Queen song, but ended up working with the group on another song called “Still Life.” Eventually that morphed into “Under Pressure,” which was credited to Bowie and all four members of Queen, and released as a single in 1981.

under pressure bowie queenThere is still some discussion over the famous bass line and whether it was Queen bassist John Deacon or Bowie who wrote it, but there is no question that when appropriately named rapper Vanilla Ice sampled it in 1989′s “Ice Ice Baby,” he stole a vital part of the song’s soul. It is a testament to the endurance of “Under Pressure” that it has won the long haul and continues to be played on the radio and elsewhere, while Ice is nothing but annoying footnote in pop culture history. (Ever seen the Iceman talk about how his bass line is different from the one in “Under Pressure”? Hilarious!)

The intertwining vocal lines and starkly different delivery styles of Freddy Mercury and Bowie are a huge part of this song’s appeal. Mercury is scatting all over the place, providing color commentary as Bowie sings a lower register melody about life’s modern-day troubles: “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/
Watching some good friends screaming, ‘Let me out.’”

Along with Mercury’s vocal acrobatics, there’s a short, jazzy bridge that starts simply and quietly with fingers snapping and a piano interlude like the song’s intro. Up until then, the song has been a tightly wound ball of nerves, but when Roger Taylor’s drums drop out, it takes the song down as Mercury reflects: “Turned away from it all like a blind man/
Sat on a fence but it don’t work.” Bowie offers a possible solution: “Keep coming up with love but it’s so slashed and torn.” And then it all explodes …

Cue the huge buildup and Mercury’s pleading cries: “Can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love that one more chance?” The end of the song just keeps building and building until Mercury’s vocal trails off, offering a brief respite before it all comes together with Bowie and that familiar bass line: “This is our last chance/This is ourselves under pressure.”

Never underestimate the power of drama and dynamics in a pop song. While it may not quite reach the theatricality of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I’ve always found “Under Pressure” to be more relatable and, in a way, more timeless. The song hit number one in the U.K., but only reached #29 in America. it’s now considered a classic, though, and placed number 31 on VH1′s 100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s. I’d argue that it should be number one.

The Great Songs: The Kinks – Waterloo Sunset

The Great Songs: Big Star – Thirteen

The Great Songs: The Jayhawks – Blue

The Great Songs: Pavement – Summer Babe

The Great Songs: The Zombies – Care of Cell 44

The Great Songs: The O’Jays – Back Stabbers

 

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laurie May 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

Great pick! Plus, it’s on the soundtrack to one of my fav movies, Grosse Pointe Blank.

Reply

2 Laurie May 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

Great pick! Plus, it’s on the soundtrack to one of my fav movies, Grosse Pointe Blank.

Reply

3 Laurie May 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

Great pick! Plus, it’s on the soundtrack to one of my fav movies, Grosse Pointe Blank.

Reply

4 Reed May 6, 2010 at 6:44 am

Yes, this is a song with legs. It’s amazing how powerful it remains, even though it is so clearly of its time. I really dig the cover by Crooked Fingers as well.

Oh, and give Vanilla a break. He was just another dumb pop star who got lucky with a fake image and one huge hit. What was he going to say? That he blatantly ripped them off? You can tell he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. There’s a wink there.

Reply

5 Reed May 6, 2010 at 6:44 am

Yes, this is a song with legs. It’s amazing how powerful it remains, even though it is so clearly of its time. I really dig the cover by Crooked Fingers as well.

Oh, and give Vanilla a break. He was just another dumb pop star who got lucky with a fake image and one huge hit. What was he going to say? That he blatantly ripped them off? You can tell he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. There’s a wink there.

Reply

6 Reed May 6, 2010 at 6:44 am

Yes, this is a song with legs. It’s amazing how powerful it remains, even though it is so clearly of its time. I really dig the cover by Crooked Fingers as well.

Oh, and give Vanilla a break. He was just another dumb pop star who got lucky with a fake image and one huge hit. What was he going to say? That he blatantly ripped them off? You can tell he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying. There’s a wink there.

Reply

7 Eric Melin May 6, 2010 at 9:23 am

IDK, Reed. I think he’s serious. Remember, this is the guy who brought Flava Fav along with him to the Arsenio Hall Show to prove that black people were “down” with him….

Reply

8 Eric Melin May 6, 2010 at 9:23 am

IDK, Reed. I think he’s serious. Remember, this is the guy who brought Flava Fav along with him to the Arsenio Hall Show to prove that black people were “down” with him….

Reply

9 Eric Melin May 6, 2010 at 9:23 am

IDK, Reed. I think he’s serious. Remember, this is the guy who brought Flava Fav along with him to the Arsenio Hall Show to prove that black people were “down” with him….

Reply

10 MonkeyCarson May 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Uh yeah . . . I played this on a bar jukebox about 2 months ago. The locals paid me to let the bartender change the song. Oh well, I like it.

Reply

11 MonkeyCarson May 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Uh yeah . . . I played this on a bar jukebox about 2 months ago. The locals paid me to let the bartender change the song. Oh well, I like it.

Reply

12 MonkeyCarson May 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Uh yeah . . . I played this on a bar jukebox about 2 months ago. The locals paid me to let the bartender change the song. Oh well, I like it.

Reply

13 Eric Melin May 14, 2010 at 4:13 pm

What a bunch of jackasses! I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it’s a freaking classic.

Reply

14 Eric Melin May 14, 2010 at 4:13 pm

What a bunch of jackasses! I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it’s a freaking classic.

Reply

15 Eric Melin May 14, 2010 at 4:13 pm

What a bunch of jackasses! I don’t mean to belabor the point, but it’s a freaking classic.

Reply

16 Shamil Elvenheim May 28, 2010 at 8:26 am

In fact one of the best songs. But I will not take the VH1 list too seriously. They placed also “London Calling” from The Clash on rank 42, claiming that it was from 1982. But in fact it was released in 1979!

Lol, and the vanilla cream man apologized later for everything (even for the fact of being born I think…)

Reply

17 Shamil Elvenheim May 28, 2010 at 8:26 am

In fact one of the best songs. But I will not take the VH1 list too seriously. They placed also “London Calling” from The Clash on rank 42, claiming that it was from 1982. But in fact it was released in 1979!

Lol, and the vanilla cream man apologized later for everything (even for the fact of being born I think…)

Reply

18 Shamil Elvenheim May 28, 2010 at 8:26 am

In fact one of the best songs. But I will not take the VH1 list too seriously. They placed also “London Calling” from The Clash on rank 42, claiming that it was from 1982. But in fact it was released in 1979!

Lol, and the vanilla cream man apologized later for everything (even for the fact of being born I think…)

Reply

19 John Ali July 15, 2010 at 9:42 am

when i hear about David Bowie, it reminds me of Vanilla Ice. ;”~

Reply

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