Covid Music: Under Pressure

Song Title, Performer

VITAL INFO: DETAILS:
Writer: Roger Taylor, Freddie Mercury, John Deacon, David Bowie, Brian May
Recorded: July 1981
Released: October 26, 1981
Album: Originally a single, later released on Queen’s Hot Space (1982)
Producer: Queen / David Bowie
Sales/Chart:
Additional Musicians: Queen / David Bowie

What This Song Means To Me:

This song is 100% nostalgia. It’s like it throws me in a DeLorean and it’s the 1980s again.

I first heard Under Pressure when I was watching Live Aid in 1985. It was the middle of summer and was THE EVENT not to miss. I remember popping from house to house of friends to see different moments during the show, taping the whole thing on a couple of cassette tapes. I still have them. Cherished possessions that will survive any cleaning purge we impose on ourselves as we age.

To be honest, I didn’t really know much about Queen, but I sure as hell knew David Bowie and when he jumped on the stage, I just about peed myself (man-crush publicly acknowledged).

Live Aid was a magical event, premised on a horrible song, but ultimately very good intensions: use our celebrity and wealth to generate awareness of the issue and, more importantly, funds.

Live Aid came together as a response to the unprecedented level of starvation that existed in Ethiopia and other parts of Africa. If there’s one holiday song I don’t enjoy, it’s the stupendously patronizing ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas‘ by Bob Geldof that formed the backbone of the call to action in Africa.

It spurred on the American and the Canadian responses, with We Are The World and Tears Are Not Enough, respectively. Canada’s was and still is – by a longshot – the best of the three.

A few years later, when I was studying for various courses at Carleton University and Under Pressure came on the radio. I can picture the scene: I was in my brother’s room that had been converted to an office that my father first used and then I started using when he moved his office to the basement.

I think the song came in on my basic little clock radio while I was listening to the local rock station, Chez 106. To be honest, I had forgotten about the tune but then got totally immersed in the situation to the point where air banding superceded the need to study.

The year was 1988.

Fast forward to 1997: Under Pressure shows up as a key moment in the movie Gross Pointe Blank with John Cusack. I hadn’t started dating Lisa yet (that was still a couple of years around the corner), but when I met her and we saw the movie together, I can only see the little baby that Cusack holds during the dance as our own boy. It was a moment of clarity for him and it’s an incredible scene shoved into the mayhem of assassins, criminals and other disturbing activity.

It’s a strange thing, right? We pack incredible nostalgia into a movie that uses the extreme to remind us that we reap what we sow. I’d love to get a psychologist or sociologist to comment on that and reassure me that there’s nothing wrong with allowing Grosse Point Blank to tug at my heart strings.

Covid Context:

You can’t ignore the fun that Jimmy Fallon, The Roots band and Brendan Urie singing their own self-isolation version of this classic. It made my day!

 

Additional Context:

I did a little digging on Under Pressure and apparently there was a lot of tension between Bowie and Mercury.

“Freddie and David locked horns, without a doubt,” Queen guitarist Brian May told MOJO magazine in 2017. “But that’s when the sparks fly and that’s why it turned out so great.”

When they got together at their respective homes just outside Montreux, Switzerland (like everyone does, right?) they started noodling about and it was the bass player John Deacon’s ‘hook’ with the intro that got everyone stewing on a possible song together, especially David Bowie.

Another version goes like this:

They took a break for dinner at a local restaurant, where they put back a number of bottles of the local wine, and went back to the studio, where May added a guitar riff to the bass line. “It really rocked,” May wrote. “Born completely spontaneously, it was fresh as a daisy.”

It was late, and a couple of the band members wanted to call it a night, but Bowie said no, insisting that they stay and lay down vocal tracks. In Is This the Real Life? The Untold Story of Queen, Mark Blake writes that a German producer at Mountain Studios at the time said the nearly 24-hour session was fueled by “so much blow.” Each singer went into the vocal booth and sang whatever came into their heads, without listening to each other. That’s where Mercury’s wordless scat that opens the song came from, as well as Bowie uttering the words “Pressure pushing down on me.”

And there are other versions. All I care is that they birthed a wicked tune for the world to enjoy, especially these days.

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