"Under Pressure" is a song by the British rock band Queen and singer David Bowie. Originally released as a single in October 1981, it was later 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 and Bowie's third, and also charted in the top 10 in more than 10 countries around the world.

"Under Pressure"
Artwork for UK release
Single by Queen and David Bowie
from the album Hot Space
B-side"Soul Brother"
Released26 October 1981 (1981-10-26) (US)
2 November 1981 (1981-11-02) (UK)[1]
RecordedJuly 1981
StudioMountain, Montreux
  • Queen
  • David Bowie
Queen singles chronology
"Under Pressure"
"Body Language"
David Bowie singles chronology
"Up the Hill Backwards"
"Under Pressure"
"Wild Is the Wind"
Alternative cover
Artwork for US release
Artwork for US release
Music video
"Under Pressure" on YouTube

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".[3][4] "Under Pressure" was listed at number 31 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the '80s, and voted the second-best collaboration of all time in a poll by Rolling Stone. In 2021, it was ranked number 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.[5][6][7] Live recordings appear on the Queen 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 North America. 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), Legacy (2016), and Re:Call 3 (2017).

"Under Pressure" was sampled by American rapper Vanilla Ice for his 1990 single "Ice Ice Baby". Vanilla Ice initially did not credit Bowie or Queen for the sample, resulting in a lawsuit that gave Bowie and Queen songwriting credit. "Under Pressure" has been covered by American rock bands My Chemical Romance and the Used, and singer Shawn Mendes, whose version featured singer Teddy Geiger. Xiu Xiu also covered the song with Swans frontman Michael Gira, a version that was included on Xiu Xiu's 2008 album Women as Lovers.

Background and composition edit

"Under Pressure" was recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, in July 1981.[8] Queen, working on their 1982 album Hot Space, had been working on a song called "Feel Like", but were not satisfied with the result.[9][10] While they were there, David Bowie was also at Mountain recording his vocals for "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)", the title song for the 1982 horror film of the same name.[11] The artists ran into each other during the session.[12] Bowie sang backing vocals for Queen's song "Cool Cat",[13] but his vocals were removed from the final song because he was not satisfied with his performance. Afterward, they worked together for a while and wrote the song.[11][14] 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),[15] 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 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."[16] 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.[17]

Also, some confusion has arisen 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 the bassline was already written before he became involved.[18] Roger Taylor, in an interview for the BBC documentary Queen: The Days of Our Lives, stated that Deacon did indeed create the bassline, and 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.[19] 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".[20]

Reception edit

"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 called "Under Pressure" the "cornerstone" of its parent album.[21] Record World said that "Bowie and Freddie Mercury combine for a spellbinding musical experience."[22] 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".[23] 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."[23] Similarly, Ned Raggett of AllMusic described the song as "anthemic, showy, and warm-hearted, [and] a clear standout for both acts".[24]

Following Bowie's death in 2016, Jack Hamilton of Slate called "Under Pressure" a "masterpiece" and is a reminder to the public that Bowie could be "wonderfully, powerfully human."[25] 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."[4]

The September 2005 edition of online music magazine Stylus singled out the bassline as the best in popular music history.[26] In November 2004, Stylus music critic Anthony Miccio commented that "Under Pressure" "is the best song of all time" and described it as Queen's "opus".[27] In 2012, Slant Magazine listed "Under Pressure" as the 21st best single of the 1980s.[28] It was listed at number 31 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the '80s[29] and voted the second best collaboration of all time in a poll by Rolling Stone magazine.[30] It is ranked number 429 on Rolling Stone's list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.[31]

Music video edit

The music video for the song features neither Queen nor David Bowie due to touring commitments.[32] Taking the theme of pressure, director David Mallet edited together stock footage of 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.[32][33] 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).[33] 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.[34] In 2003, Slant Magazine ranked "Under Pressure" number 27 among the 100 greatest music videos of all time.[35]

"Ice Ice Baby" sampling controversy edit

Controversy arose when Vanilla Ice sampled the song's intro bassline and piano chords for his 1990 single "Ice Ice Baby". Initially, he denied the accusation and then said he had modified it[36] but did not originally pay songwriting credit or royalties to Queen and Bowie.[37][38] A lawsuit resulted in Bowie and all members of Queen receiving songwriting credit for the sample.[39] Vanilla Ice later claimed that he purchased the publishing rights to "Under Pressure",[40][41] saying that buying the song made more financial sense than paying out royalties,[40] but a Queen spokesman clarified that Vanilla Ice's statement was inaccurate.[42]

Track listing edit

7": EMI / EMI 5250 (UK) edit

Side one

  1. "Under Pressure" (Mercury, May, Taylor, Deacon, Bowie) – 4:08

Side two

  1. "Soul Brother" (Mercury) – 3:38

7": Elektra / E-47235 (US) edit

Side one

  1. "Under Pressure" (Mercury, May, Taylor, Deacon, Bowie) – 4:08

Side two

  1. "Soul Brother" (Mercury) – 3:38

1988 3" CD: Parlophone / QUECD9 (UK) edit

  1. "Under Pressure" – 4:08
  2. "Soul Brother" – 3:40
  3. "Body Language" – 4:33

Personnel edit

According to Bowie biographer Chris O'Leary and Queenvinyls:[13][43]

Live performances edit

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).[44] 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 set lists 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.[45] While Bowie was never present for a live performance of the song with Mercury, Taylor instead filled for backing vocals in unison with Mercury, as Mercury took over all of Bowie's parts.

Live recordings edit

Remixes and other releases edit

Rah Mix edit

"Under Pressure (Rah Mix)"
Single by Queen and David Bowie
from the album Greatest Hits III
Released6 December 1999
  • 4:08 (album and single)
  • 4:27 (music video)
  • Queen
  • David Bowie
  • Queen
  • David Bowie
Queen singles chronology
"Another One Bites the Dust (Small Soldiers remix)"
"Under Pressure (Rah Mix)"
"We Will Rock You"
David Bowie singles chronology
"The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell"
"Under Pressure (Rah Mix)"

A remixed version (called the "Rah Mix") was issued in December 1999 to promote Queen's Greatest Hits III compilation, reaching No. 14 on the UK Singles Chart. The video for the Rah Mix was directed by DoRo, featuring footage of Freddie Mercury from Queen's Wembley concert on 12 July 1986 and David Bowie at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert also at Wembley Stadium on 20 April 1992 spliced together using digital technology (with Annie Lennox carefully edited out). This version is featured on the Greatest Hits III compilation, the Rah Mix CD single (as an Enhanced CD video) and the 2011 iTunes LP edition of Hot Space.

Track listing edit

Two CD singles (one multimedia enhanced) released 6 December 1999 and 7" picture disc released 13 December 1999. As "Bohemian Rhapsody" won The Song of The Millennium award, this was released with Bohemian Rhapsody as B-side [50]

CDS No. 1
  1. "Under Pressure (Rah Mix)"
  2. The Song of the Millennium – "Bohemian Rhapsody"
  3. "Thank God It's Christmas"
CDS No. 2
  1. "Under Pressure (Rah Mix – Radio Edit)"
  2. "Under Pressure (Mike Spencer Mix)"
  3. "Under Pressure (Knebworth Mix)"
  4. Enhanced section
7-inch single
  1. "Under Pressure (Rah Mix)"
  2. The Song of the Millennium – "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Other releases edit

Other remixes edit

Mouth Pressure. Released in January 2017 as a part of the Neil Cicierega album Mouth Moods, "Mouth Pressure" pairs the instrumentals from "Under Pressure" with the vocals from Smash Mouth's "All Star".[53][54]

Percy's Pressure. A karaoke version of the song was released in September as a part of the soundtrack of the animated Warner Brothers musical film Smallfoot whose lyrics detail one of the central human characters Percy's (voiced by James Corden) fall from fame and his need to bounce back. Additional lyrics were written by Karey Kirkpatrick, the film's director, and his brother Wayne Kirkpatrick.[55]

Charts edit

In the U.K., "Under Pressure" was Queen's second number-one hit and Bowie's third. Queen's smash hit "Bohemian Rhapsody" reached number one in November 1975, just two weeks after Bowie's "Space Oddity" had done the same. Bowie also topped the British charts in August 1980 with "Ashes to Ashes", his answer song to "Space Oddity".[56]

Original version edit

"Rah Mix" edit

Certifications edit

Region Certification Certified units/sales
Australia (ARIA)[97] 3× Platinum 210,000
Denmark (IFPI Danmark)[98] Platinum 90,000
Italy (FIMI)[99] 2× Platinum 100,000
Spain (PROMUSICAE)[100] 2× Platinum 120,000
United Kingdom (BPI)[101] 3× Platinum 1,800,000
United States (RIAA)[102] 4× Platinum 4,000,000

Sales+streaming figures based on certification alone.

My Chemical Romance and the Used version edit

"Under Pressure"
Single by My Chemical Romance and the Used
from the album In Love and Death
Released12 April 2005
GenreAlternative rock[103]
Producer(s)Howard Benson
My Chemical Romance singles chronology
"Under Pressure"
"The Ghost of You"
The Used singles chronology
"I Caught Fire"
"Under Pressure"
"The Bird and the Worm"

The song was covered in 2005 by American alternative rock bands the Used and My Chemical Romance for tsunami relief. The cover was originally released as an Internet download track but has subsequently been featured as a bonus track on the 2005 re-release of the Used's second studio album In Love and Death, and received wide airplay in 2005.

On the Billboard charts, the single reached number 28 on Modern Rock chart and number 41 on the Hot 100.[104]

Chart (2005) Peak
US Billboard Hot 100[105] 41
US Alternative Airplay (Billboard)[106] 28
US Billboard Pop 100 28

Shawn Mendes version edit

"Under Pressure"
Promotional single by Shawn Mendes featuring Teddy<3
Released11 October 2018
Producer(s)Teddy Geiger
Shawn Mendes promotional singles chronology
"Don't Be a Fool"
"Under Pressure"

In October 2018, Canadian singer and songwriter Shawn Mendes featuring American singer and songwriter Teddy Geiger (credited as teddy<3) released a version of the song.[107]

The song was released to coincide with the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. Universal Music Group released three tracks by different artists "channeling their inner Freddie Mercury"; this was the first installment, released in October 2018 followed by 5 Seconds of Summer's "Killer Queen" cover track.[108][109][110]

A portion of the profits from the "Under Pressure" cover was donated to Mercury Phoenix Trust, which was founded by Queen's Brian May and Roger Taylor (and the group's manager, Jim Beach) after Mercury's death to help fight AIDS worldwide. Mendes said in a statement: "I am so honoured to be able to support the amazing legacy of Freddie and Queen by doing a cover of one of my favourite songs, 'Under Pressure'".[109][111]

Reception edit

Taylor Weatherby from Billboard called the track "breezy" and said "Mendes and Geiger put their voices at the forefront of the stripped-down rendition, with Mendes' falsetto and Geiger's 'raspier' tone complementing their plucky acoustic guitars."[109]

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Sources edit

External links edit