Queen’s “Under Pressure” Lyrics Meaning

Queen’s “Under Pressure” features the vocalists complaining about “pressure” in the truest sense of the word, i.e. as something we all have to deal with on a daily basis. 

Furthermore, it can be said that they’re speaking to what some would term as a Western level of pressure, i.e. the type of anxiety that is part of parcel of living and surviving in the modern world. We can sort of derive that idea, using our imaginations a bit, from the metaphor of ‘a building burning down’ (as well as imagery in the track’s music video). 

But again, the vocalists are generally speaking to a more pervasive, shall we say adult-human kind of pressure, i.e. the type of stress that can even rend a family in two.

Lyrics

And in the process of doing so, David Bowie in particular gets quite philosophical, or perhaps we can even argue Biblical in his approach. For the idea being put across in the chorus and bridge reads like a passage of Ecclesiastes that goes “he that increases knowledge increases sorrow’. 

In other words, the more you actually know about this world, the sadder you’re going to be in it. Or at least that’s what it sounds like Bowie is talking about when he proclaims in the chorus for instance that the titular “pressure” is akin to “the terror of knowing what this world is about”. 

Then in the bridge, in trying to overcome this malady, the narrator speaks of “(turning) away from it all like a blind man”. 

So it’s almost like he’s trying to forget everything he knows – make his problems magically disappear so to speak. But of course such a simple, unrealistic tactic does not work.

Lyrics of "Under Pressure"

And truth to be told, the situation is never definitively resolved. Rather it’s more like the singer inherently comes to the conclusion that the pressure he and others suffer from, the one from which they wish they can escape, is to the contrary inescapable. 

But coming to that realization also leads to him trying to make the best out of the situation, if you will. And he does so by espousing the practice of increased love. 

So the song actually ends on two notes.  The first one is the vocalist’s marked pessimism. The second is his belief that we being “under pressure” can be mitigated by more conscientiously loving one another.

Music Video

The music video to this track is devoid of David Bowie and Queen. The reason is because both acts were touring at the time it was filmed. 

Rather it features harrowing urban footage (including riots and things of the such) intermixed with scenes from a few 1920s’ silent movies. 

Some of said footage was from acts of terrorism committed in Northern Ireland. The appearance of the aforementioned footage, at first raised some eyebrows. For example, it resulted in Top of the Pops (original run 1964-2005), the UK’s number one television-music show, banning the clip until an edited version was made.

When was “Under Pressure” released?

This song came out, via the efforts of Elektra Records, on the date of 26 October 1981. It’s the lead single from Queen’s 1928 album “Hot Space”. 

And it marked the first and only official collaboration they had with David Bowie (1947-2016), with both acts hailing from the UK. Moreover it was also the first collaboration Queen had ever done with any other artist in general.

Achievements

And both the critical and commercial reception of the track is what you would expect from a collaboration between such musical powerhouses. For instance, in terms of chart success, the song reached number one in three different countries, including on the UK Singles Chart. 

The other two countries are:

  • Canada
  • Netherlands

And overall it charted in 15 nations, breaking the top 30 of the Billboard Hot 100 in the process. 

Then in 2016, apparently in light of David Bowie’s passing, the song re-charted again in over a dozen countries, including reappearing on the UK Singles Chart and Billboard Hot 100. 

It has also been certified double-platinum in the US and Italy and platinum in the UK. And just to note the Rah Mix of this song, a remix which appeared on Queen’s 1999 Greatest Hits III album, also managed to chart in the UK and Netherlands during that year.

And as far as its critical reception goes, in 2011 Rolling Stone ranked “Under Pressure” as the second ‘Best Collaboration of All Time’

VH1 also placed it on their listing of the “100 Greatest Songs of the ‘80s” (as did Slant Magazine). 

And it was also a favorite of the Queen themselves, as they regularly rendered it live since its dropping until they had ceased touring in 1986. And Bowie was not too fond of the tune at first (as will be expounded on a bit later). However, eventually he seemingly embraced it during live performances also.

More Interesting Facts about “Under Pressure”

This collaboration came about after a previous joint effort between Queen and David Bowie fell apart. 

Or put differently Bowie had in fact lent his vocals to “Cool Cat”, another song from “Hot Space”. However, he was not satisfied with his personal performance on said tune and thus had his vocals removed. 

But he and Queen were able to eventually put “Under Pressure” together, resulting from an impromptu jam session they had in Switzerland.

This song was produced and written by Queen and Bowie. 

And in the latter regard there are actually five writers listed. So in addition to Bowie, every member of Queen is given individual credit for songwriting. The full list of writers is therefore as follows:

  • Freddie Mercury (1946-1991)
  • Brain May
  • John Deacon
  • Roger Taylor
  • David Bowie

Indeed the foundation of this song is premised on a prior track Queen had put together but never released entitled “Feel Like”.

And this classic coming together was no easy affair. According to Brain May, Mercury and Bowie found themselves involved in a fierce misunderstanding over the track’s mixing, on top of other issues. 

In fact there was so much discontent that Bowie was on the verge of halting the song’s release altogether.

Usage in Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”

For readers who are into hip-hop trivia, “Under Pressure” is actually the song whose bassline Vanilla Ice sampled on “Ice Ice Baby” (1990). The hip-hop song in question was the first true crossover rap hit. Simply put, it was the first hip-hop song to top the Billboard Hot 100. 

Back in those days producers more or less sampled at will, and doing so in this particularly instance, perhaps considering the song was such a hit, led to a serious court battle. 

Resultantly the individual members of Queen and Bowie were given proper due for their contribution (i.e. songwriting credit). And the entire case set the precedence that it is in fact illegal to sample another artist’s work without their permission.

Freddie Mercury and David Bowie’s First Meeting

Here’s an interesting story – the first time Bowie and Mercury met was actually back in 1969. By that time Bowie had already more or less established himself as a music star across the pond. 

Concurrently Mercury was a second-hand clothes’ salesman (on top of aspiring musician). Interestingly enough, while selling second-hand clothes at London’s Kensington Market, Mercury sold Bowie a pair of boots.

Famous Live Performance

One of the most famous live performances of “Under Pressure” happened in 1992 (after Mercury’s death). Said performance took place at Freddie’s Tribute concert. It featured the three other members of Queen and alongside Annie Lennox and Bowie. Lennox handled the vocals of the late Mercury.

The concert in question was a benefit one. It took place on the 20th of April, 1992. Its purpose was to honor Freddie and raise funds to fight the HIV/AIDS menace.

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