The Number Ones

The Number Ones Bonus Tracks: Queen & David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”

Welcome to the Number Ones Bonus Tracks, the addendum to our regular Number Ones column. We at Stereogum recently wrapped up our fundraising campaign, and we’d like to thank everyone who donated to support this site and keep it going. To those All Access donors who pledged $1,000, I promised that I’d write a Number Ones-style column on a song of their choosing, as long as that song charted on the Billboard Hot 100. We’ll publish those once a week for the next couple of months.

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Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”

PEAKED: #29 on January 9. 1982

SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Olivia Newton-John – “Physical

This column is at the request of Stereogum donor David Shanies. Here’s what Shanies writes about his pick:

One of my favorites of all time, by two of the greatest in rock history. It’s disjointed in a beautiful way, like three different songs smashed together; I also read that Queen and Bowie clashed hard, yet they created something transcendent and unforgettable. Lyrically, I find it fascinating, and it feels very apt at this moment. “People on the streets.” And today, who’s not feeling under pressure?

They weren’t supposed to be able to hear each other. That was the deal. David Bowie and Queen, fueled by red wine and cocaine and a general spirit of competition, had been working on a new song together in Queen’s Switzerland studios. It had been a spontaneous affair, a hangout session that turned productive and then stressful. Queen were used to running their own show. So was Bowie. But Bowie had an idea that seemed interesting enough for Queen to go along with it. They would improvise, and they’d do it without listening to one another.

The proposition: Bowie and Queen frontman Freddie Mercury would both improvise large parts of their new song “People On The Street.” One singer would head into the studio and howl whatever was in his heart, and then the other would be locked out, unable to hear what was happening. But when Mercury was recording his part — wailing and gibbering and occasionally leaven language behind entirely — Bowie was hiding in a doorway, taking in everything Mercury was doing.

When Bowie recorded his own parts, he’d already known what Mercury had sung, so Bowie sang his own parts in counterpoint. Listening back, Mercury couldn’t understand how Bowie managed to to fill all the spaces that Mercury had left — to cut right through Mercury’s own vocal typhoon. And when he found out that Bowie had broken his own rules and cheated, Mercury was pissed. David Bowie knew what he was doing. One might even say that Bowie stopped, collaborated, and listened.

When those recording sessions went down, Queen were at the absolute height of their powers. They’d been massive stars in their native UK for years, and they’d broken through in a big way in America. Less than a year earlier, Queen had landed their second American #1 with the panting, panicked “Another One Bites The Dust.” That song had drawn on American disco and funk — more specifically, on Chic’s previous smash “Good Times” — and it had broken Queen open to a whole new audience.

Around that same time, Queen had also recorded the soundtrack to the would-be blockbuster Flash Gordon, and they’d played to enormous crowds in Central and South America, becoming the first big rock band to do so. Some nights, Queen had more than a hundred thousand people in the audience. This was a whole new frontier for stadium rock, a level that nobody had ever reached before. Queen were lighting up stages, waxing chumps like candles.

At that moment, Bowie wasn’t really on the same level, at least as a pop-chart artist. It had been six years since Bowie had scored a #1 hit with “Fame” — at the time, Bowie’s only American chart-topper. Bowie had gotten himself extremely coked-out, and he had acted ill because he was full of eightballs. Artistically, though Bowie had gone on the intense inward journey documented on his Berlin trilogy, and he’d become a hero to the UK’s punk and new wave kids.

In 1980, Bowie had mounted a commercial comeback, taking influence from the new wavers who he’d already influenced. That year, Bowie had landed a #1 hit in the UK with his “Space Oddity” sequel “Ashes To Ashes.” (Even when you’re an artistic titan like Bowie, apparently flashy sci-fi franchises are the easiest way to success.) But Bowie had also spent months playing the Elephant Man on Broadway — a fascinatingly strange choice for a pop artist of his stature.

In the summer of 1981, Queen had finished with their South American trek, and they’d gone to make some music at Mountain Studios, a state-of-the-art facility in Montreaux, Switzerland. They’d actually bought those studios, a huge flex, and Bowie had come sniffing around. Bowie and Queen weren’t exactly peers; Bowie had already been a star in 1969, when Freddie Mercury, still working a shoe-salesman day job, had sold Bowie a pair of boots. But they knew each other a little bit, and Bowie was living in Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. Bowie and the members of Queen all liked to party, and when you were a world-famous rock star in the early ’80s, it was probably just common sense to party with other world-famous rock stars. Partying with anyone else, the power imbalance must’ve gotten weird. So Queen and Bowie kicked it.

In the studio, Bowie and Queen were having fun, playing old songs. There are some reports that Bowie recorded a backing vocal for the Queen song “Cool Cats” but that he’d had his work on the song deleted because he wasn’t happy with it. For Bowie, anything less than the best was a felony. (Bowie was the owner of one of the coolest voices in pop music, but he always got over on tone and personality, not on vocal theatrics. It must’ve been a headfuck to share the studio with one of the most gifted divas in rock history.) Eventually, Bowie had the idea that they should all come up with a whole new song together, and that song is what became “Under Pressure.”

Most of the people who were there, including Bowie, have said that Queen bassist John Deacon came up with the “Under Pressure” bassline, the famously insistent and propulsive two-note riff that drives the song. Deacon, who seems to be a very good dude, has said that the bassline was actually Bowie’s brand new invention. (This is a rare case where musicians argue over credit and try to give it to each other rather than trying to hog it for themselves.) In any case, Bowie and all four Queen members are credited as the songwriters, and they’re also credited for co-producing the song together. There’s a funny story about Deacon figuring out the bassline and then forgetting it while the band went out for pizza. Drummer Roger Taylor remembered it well enough to remind him.

Given the casual and unplanned nature of its creation story, it makes sense that “Under Pressure” isn’t a terribly tightly structured song. Instead, it’s a meditation on an idea — one that starts out sharp and crisp and gradually grows into something vast and overwhelming. In the opening moments of “Under Pressure,” you can hear some echo of the hard disco-funk strut that Queen had brought to “Another One Bites The Dust” — the lockstep hi-hat, the sparse finger snaps, the perfectly-placed piano plinks, that bassline. As the song grows and blooms outward, it pushes its way into howling stadium-rock grandiosity, and then even beyond that, into a gospel-level majesty. But even as it expands into head-spun maximalism, “Under Pressure” never loses its focus or its beat. It’s a remarkable tightrope-walk of a song, a mind-boggling magic trick.

Lyrically, “Under Pressure” slowly circles one of the central tensions of human life — the battle between the constant stress of survival and the love and inter-dependence that can help us, for a few moments at a time, transcend that struggle. Bowie and Mercury take turns lamenting the people on the street and the constant trials that they face: “It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about/ Watching some good friends screaming, ‘Let me out!'” Bowie and Mercury plead for the heavens for things to get better: “Why can’t we give ourselves just one more chance?” But Bowie ends the song by testifying to the power of something as simple and old-fashioned as human empathy: “Love dares you to care for the people on the streets.”

That’s a huge and powerful message. When you look at the “Under Pressure” lyrics on paper, Bowie and Queen’s words find strange and jangled ways to get that message across. But why would you ever look at the “Under Pressure” lyrics on paper? The song isn’t about that. It’s about hearing these two world-historical singers bouncing ideas off of each other, competing with one another, investing every declamation with some incomprehensible level of feeling. A few years ago, an edit of Mercury and Bowie’s isolated “Under Pressure” vocals went viral, and just the sound of those two voices is enough to leave your soul spinning.

The contrast between those two singers is something to behold. Bowie is huge and stentorian. He bellows with authority, grounding Mercury’s wildest flights while also, in certain moments, sounding like he’s just about ready to break. Bowie is larger than life — slicing like a ninja, cutting like a razorblade. Bowie maintains that power even as desperation creeps into his voice: “This is our last dance! This is ourselves!” Hearing him feels like getting a consoling hug from the Colossus Of Rhodes.

Mercury, meanwhile, is off on some off-planet vision quest, going crazy when he hears a cymbal. Even when he’s just scatting — quite possibly the single silliest use of the human voice — Mercury is wild and feverish and in love with the universe. On “Under Pressure,” I think Mercury does more with his marvel of a voice than on any other Queen song, and yet his theatrics never become too much for the song. Instead, his instincts are perfect. He understands when to let loose, when to hit impossible spiraling falsetto notes, when to launch into earth-shattering screeches, and when to dial things back, as if he’s folding in on himself.

“Under Pressure” is a song about tension, and just as much as that bassline, it’s driven by the tension between those two opposing vocal approaches. It’s a best-case scenario — two iconic singers pushing each other into strange territory, challenging each other, getting the most of each other, rocking mics like vandals. The song’s expanding, contracting arrangement finds just the right ways to keep that tension working. I get actual physical goosebumps every time I hear hear Queen surging into the mid-song “terror of knowing” crescendo, and then I get them again on the dizzy build of the “insanity laughs, under pressure we’re breaking” bit. For my money, “Under Pressure” is easily Queen’s greatest moment, and it might be Bowie’s, too. Conducted and formed, it’s a hell of a concept.

Given the magnitude of what Bowie and Queen were creating, “Under Pressure” did not remain a fun in-studio fuck-around for long. Instead, Bowie and the members of Queen fought over everything — the lyrics, the mixing job, even the title. (“Under Pressure” was originally going to be called “People On The Street”; Bowie insisted on the change.) There are some reports that Bowie threatened to block the single’s release unless he got his way on one issue or another. And maybe that tension between Bowie and Queen helped spur “Under Pressure” into the towering monolith that it became. After all, most fun in-studio fuck-arounds don’t produce something like this.

Queen eventually included “Under Pressure” at the end of their 1982 album Hot Space. (“Under Pressure” shows up at the end of the album, almost as a bonus track.) But at first, “Under Pressure” came out as a stand-alone single. In the UK, “Under Pressure” brought Bowie and Queen to #1 yet again. In the US, though, “Under Pressure” underperformed, just barely cracking the top 30. This was an early-’80s moment where breezy adult-contempo smoothness ruled. Olivia Newton-John and Daryl Hall and John Oates were the chart titans of the moment. Maybe the too-muchness of “Under Pressure” hurt the song’s commercial chances.

“Under Pressure” may have been Queen’s last truly great moment. After “Another One Bites The Dust,” Queen never made another top-10 hit in America. On Hot Space, Mercury pushed Queen further into disco and funk, alienating his bandmates and many of his fans. While Queen remained a global stadium powerhouse, they spent the rest of their career coasting on past glories. Bowie also dug deep into American dance-funk sounds, but his experiments connected. Teaming up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, a previous Queen inspiration, Bowie reached his commercial peak with the 1983 album Let’s Dance. The title track became Bowie’s second and final US #1.

Bowie and Queen never recorded together again. Maybe the process of making “Under Pressure” was too stressful, or maybe the idea of crafting a follow-up was too much pressure. Freddie Mercury died from complications of AIDS in 1991, when he was 45. A year later, the surviving members of Queen played a huge tribute concert at London’s Wembley Stadium, and Bowie joined them onstage. Bowie and Queen played “Under Pressure” together, with Annie Lennox singing Mercury’s parts. It was special.

(As a solo artist, Annie Lennox’s highest-charting single is “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” a Jackie DeShannon cover that she and Al Green recorded for the 1989 movie Scrooged. Lennox and Green’s version of the song peaked at #9; it’s a 6. As a member of Eurythmics, Annie Lennox is a past Number Ones artist.)

“Under Pressure” lingered, sticking around in rock-radio rotation and leaving an impression on the kids who heard it. The song is still a classic-rock radio staple. (Will it ever stop? Yo. I don’t know.) Eventually, “Under Pressure” did make it to #1 in America, albeit in sampled form. A few years after “Under Pressure” came out, Robert Van Winkle, a white teenager in Dallas, flipped that “Under Pressure” bassline on a rap. Eventually, that song took off, becoming the first rap single ever to top the Hot 100. At the time, Van Winkle didn’t credit Bowie or Queen, which led to a whole lot of legal maneuvering and which may have had grave effects on the entire art form of sampling. But that’s another column for another day.

GRADE: 10/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Charli Baltimore and Mase rapping over an “Under Pressure” sample — not the sample from that aforementioned white-rap chart-topper — on Chuck’s 2002 white-label single “Ice”:

(Charli Baltimore has never had a Hot 100 single as a lead artist. As a guest rapper, her highest-charting single is Irv Gotti’s 2002 Ja Rule/Ashanti/Vita collab “Down 4 U,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 4. As lead rapper, Mase’s highest-charting single is 1997’s “Feel So Good,” which peaked at #5. It’s an 8. As a guest-rapper, Mase will eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the wild, chaotic hardcore version of “Under Pressure” that Blood Brothers contributed to a 2002 compilation:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the arena-sized emo cover of “Under Pressure” that My Chemical Romance and the Used recorded for charity in 2005:

(My Chemical Romance and the Used’s take on “Under Pressure” peaked at #41. It’s the only time the Used have ever appeared in the Hot 100. My Chemical Romance’s highest-charting single is 2006’s “Welcome To The Black Parade,” which peaked at #9. It’s a 9.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here Xiu Xiu and Swans’ Michael Gira doing an expressionist art-punk version of “Under Pressure” on Xiu Xiu’s 2008 album Woman As Lovers:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weirdly moving musical number from George Miller’s 2011 film Happy Feet Two where a bunch of penguins and elephant seals sing “Under Pressure” together:

(Pink, the voice of the penguin mom Gloria in Happy Feet Two, will eventually appear in The Number Ones.)

Thanks, David!