“Under Pressure” is a 1981 song by the British rock band Queen and the British singer David Bowie. It was included on Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space. The song reached number one on the UK Singles Chart, becoming Queen’s second number-one hit in their home country (after 1975’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which topped the chart for nine weeks) and Bowie’s third (after 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes” and the 1975 reissue of “Space Oddity”). The song only peaked at No. 29 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in January 1982 and would re-chart for one week at No. 45 in the US following Bowie’s death in January 2016. It was also number 31 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the ’80s. It has been voted the second best collaboration of all time in a poll by the Rolling Stone magazine.
The song was played live at every Queen concert from 1981 until the end of Queen’s touring career in 1986. It is recorded on the live albums Queen Rock Montreal and Live at Wembley ’86. The song was included on some editions of Queen’s first Greatest Hits compilations, such as the original 1981 Elektra release in the US. It is included on the band’s compilation albums Greatest Hits II, Classic Queen, and Absolute Greatest as well as Bowie compilations such as Best of Bowie (2002), The Platinum Collection (2005), Nothing Has Changed (2014) and Legacy (2016).
It was certified 2x Platinum in the US by the RIAA , for over two million digital download equivalent units, on 20 March 2018.
Queen had been working on a song called “Feel Like”, but was not satisfied with the result. David Bowie had originally come to Mountain Studios to sing back up vocals on another Queen song, “Cool Cat”, but his vocals were removed from the final song because he was not satisfied with his performance. Once he got there, they worked together for a while and wrote the song. The final version, which became “Under Pressure”, evolved from a jam session that Bowie had with the band at Queen’s studio in Montreux, Switzerland. It was credited as being co-written by the five 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 (as quoted in a French magazine in 1984), the song’s primary musical songwriter was Freddie Mercury– though all contributed to the arrangement. Brian May recalled to Mojo magazine, in October 2008, that, “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. 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.” The earlier, embryonic version of the song without Bowie, “Feel Like”, is widely available in bootleg form, and was written by Queen drummer Roger Taylor.
There has also been some confusion about who had created the song’s bassline. John Deacon said (in Japanese magazine Music life in 1982) 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 that the bassline was already written before he became involved. 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, amusingly, forgot the riff, but fortunately, Taylor was still able to remember it. Brian May clarified matters in a 2016 Mirror Online article, 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 corrected (actually changed) Deacon’s memory of the riff to “Ding-Ding-Ding Diddle Ing-Ding”
Although very much a joint project, only Queen incorporated the song into their live shows at the time. Bowie chose not to perform the song before an audience until the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert when he and Annie Lennox sang it as a duet (backed by the surviving Queen members). However, after Mercury’s death and the Outside tour in 1995, Bowie performed the song at virtually every one of his live shows, with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey taking Mercury’s vocal part. The song also appeared in setlists from A Reality Tour mounted by Bowie in 2004, when he frequently would dedicate it to Freddie Mercury. Queen + Paul Rodgers have recently performed the song; and in summer of 2012, Queen + Adam Lambert toured, including a performance of the song by Lambert and Roger Taylor in each show. While David Bowie was never present for a live performance of the song with Freddie Mercury, Roger Taylor instead filled for backing vocals usually in unison with Mercury, as Mercury took over all of Bowie’s parts.
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