Tuesday, 17 February 2009

1981 Queen & David Bowie: Under Pressure

It raises less of an eyebrow today, but in 1981 Queen and Bowie made for unlikely bedfellows; both acts had enjoyed their salad days in the seventies, but by 1981 Queen were heading down a far camper path than previous while Bowie had lost himself in a blizzard of cocaine that produced some very fine music but which was conspicuously short on humour.

In hindsight, it would appear that Bowie was the senior partner in this arrangement. It's his vocal that dominates and it's difficult to imagine the then synthesiser based dance music fixated incarnation of Queen having too much of an input into the amorphic palette of sound that makes up the main body of the track once the introduction is over.

And of course, it's a sound that is stitched together with John Deacon's crisp, clipped bassline that runs through the song like a Morse code signal spelling out 'Q.U.A.L.I.T.Y'. Because if nothing else, it's a killer bassline that not even Vanilla Ice could denigrate.

As for the song itself - again, it's difficult to imagine the obliquely referenced imagery of a relationship breaking down coming from anybody other than Bowie - not that any of Queen were above ladling out the self pity - far from it - but a Queen track was almost never ambiguous and they articulated in a far more direct way than is offered here:

"Pressure pushing down on me

Pressing down on you no man ask for
Under pressure - that burns a building down"

and the bug eyed paranoia of lines like:

"It's the terror of knowing
what this world is about
Watching some good friends screaming 'Let me out'"

could only have come from wherever Bowie's mind was at that time, and he duly sings them in his dry, spaced out 'Thin White Duke' persona of the man still falling to earth.

Of course, Freddie's ego is such that he could never have let him hog the whole of the spotlight, and he counter punches Bowie's jabs by histrionically hitting the high notes Bowie could only dream of reaching and by winning the in-song scat duels hands down.

In the final analysis, 'Under Pressure' is a strong song that plays like a genuine collaboration between two creative talents rather than having Artist A getting Artist B to play backing on his song, and it maintains enough of the personalities of the individual performers to let both sets of fans go home content with the outcome.

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