“Under Pressure” is a song born in a collaboration between the British rock band Queen and singer David Bowie, at the time, 2 of the most popular and successful artists in the UK and beyond, with UK #1s already achieved, twice for David Bowie. Originally released as a single on October 26th, 1981, it was later included on Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. The song reached #1 on the UK Singles Chart, becoming Queen’s 2nd #1 hit in their home country and Bowie’s 3rd. “Under Pressure” hit #1 in Netherlands and Canada as well. It reached #2 in Ireland, #4 in South Africa, #5 in Norway, Portugal and Belgium, #6 both in Australia and New Zealand, #9 in Spain, #10 in Sweden, Switzerland and Austria, plus in the top 20 in Italy, 21 in West Germany and 22 in the US.
It was performed by Freddie Mercury – lead and backing vocals, piano, Hammond organ, handclaps, finger snaps, Brian May, electric guitar, handclaps, finger snaps, John Deacon – bass guitar, handclaps, finger snaps, Roger Taylor, drums, backing vocals, handclaps, finger snaps, David Bowie, lead and backing vocals, synthesizer, handclaps, finger snaps, David Richards, piano.
The song has been described as a “monster rock track that stood out” on the Hot Space album, as well as “an incredibly powerful and poignant pop song”. “Under Pressure” was listed at #31 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s, and voted the 2nd best collaboration of all time in a poll by Rolling Stone magazine. In 2021 it was ranked #429 on Rolling Stone‘s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was played live at every Queen concert from 1981 until the end of the band’s touring career in 1986. Live recordings appear on the Queen live albums Queen Rock Montreal and Live at Wembley ’86.
“Under Pressure” was sampled by American rapper Vanilla Ice for his 1990 single “Ice Ice Baby” with no credit given to either David Bowie or Queen, resulting in a lawsuit that gave Bowie and Queen songwriting credit.
“Under Pressure” was recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1981. Where both Queen and David Bowie happened to be recording in the same period. Queen’s recording engineer, Dave Richards, called David Bowie and invited him to join Queen for a session. Artists of that level speak the same language and in no time, spontaneously, they quickly started creating together, after Bowie sang backing vocals for Queen’s song “Cool Cat” (eventually removed from the final song because he was not satisfied with his performance). “Under Pressure” was credited as being co-written by the 5 musicians. The scat singing that dominates much of the song is evidence of the jam-beginnings as improvisation. However, according to Queen bassist John Deacon, the song’s primary musical songwriter was Freddie Mercury – though all contributed to the arrangement. As Brian May recalled to Mojo magazine in October 2008, “It was hard, because you had 4 very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically…” He collided with Freddie Mercury, while others withdrew from the tense interactions, but David Bowie was serious, and had a vision for the night and for the song. Queen were messing with other artists’ songs, covers, just jamming for fun, David Bowie came along and wanted to write one. Reportedly fueled by wine and cocaine, one of the best songs and collaborations of the highest level, happened right there, on the swiss mountains. “…Looking back, it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that. It’s a significant song because of David and its lyrical content.”
There has also been some confusion about who had created the song’s bassline. John Deacon said that David Bowie created it. In more recent interviews, Brian May and Roger Taylor credited the bass riff to Deacon. Bowie, on his website, said the bassline was already written before he came along. Roger Taylor, in an interview for the BBC documentary Queen: the Days of Our Lives, stated that Deacon did indeed create the bassline, stating that all through the sessions in the studio he had been playing the riff over and over. He also claims that when the band returned from dinner, Deacon misremembered the riff, but Taylor was still able to remember it. Brian May clarified matters in a 2016 article for Mirror Online, writing that it was actually Bowie, not Taylor, who had inadvertently changed the riff. The riff began as “Deacy began playing, 6 notes the same, then one note a fourth down”. After the dinner break, Bowie changed Deacon’s memory of the riff to “Ding-Ding-Ding Diddle Ing-Ding”.
“Under Pressure” has received critical acclaim since its release, with multiple publications ranking it among Queen and Bowie’s best songs and among the greatest songs of all time. On release, Sandy Robertson of Sounds magazine called “Under Pressure” the “cornerstone” of its parent album. Reviewing Hot Space decades later, Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic called “Under Pressure” as the album’s “undeniable saving grace” and “the only reason most listeners remember this album”. He described the song as “an utterly majestic, otherworldly duet … that recaptures the effortless grace of Queen’s mid-’70s peak, but is underscored with a truly affecting melancholy heart that gives it a genuine human warmth unheard in much of their music.” Similarly, Ned Raggett of AllMusic described the song as “anthemic, showy and warm-hearted, [and] a clear standout for both acts”.
Following Bowie’s death in 2016, Jack Hamilton of Slate called “Under Pressure” a “masterpiece” and is a reminder to the public that David Bowie could be “wonderfully, powerfully human.” Jack Whatley wrote for Far Out Magazine “with all the animosity, wine, cocaine and vocal battles which helped come together to birth the song, what remains is an incredibly powerful and poignant pop song that we will likely not see matched in our lifetimes. The two juggernauts of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie collide here with perfect and enriching precision.”
The music video for the song features neither Queen nor David Bowie due to touring commitments. Taking the theme of pressure, director David Mallet mixed 1920s silent cinema images and documentary footage; there are traffic jams, commuter trains packed with passengers, explosions, riots, cars being crushed and various pieces of footage from silent films of the 1920s, most notably Sergei Eisenstein’s influential Soviet film Battleship Potemkin, the silent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore, and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, a masterpiece of the German Expressionist movement. The video explores the pressure-cooker mentality of a culture willing to wage war against political machines, and at the same time love and have fun (there is also footage of crowds enjoying concerts, and many black and white kissing scenes).Top of the Pops refused to show the video in its original form due to it containing footage of explosions in Northern Ireland, so an edited version was instead shown. In 2003, Slant Magazine ranked “Under Pressure” #27 among the 100 greatest music videos of all time.
The official video on You Tube has almost 211 million views at the time of writing.