The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #15: Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen (KEXP)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song and going until I reach Song . When you see the song title listed as something like: Song (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #15: Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie.

“Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie is one of those songs that just about everyone seems to really like. In fact, I can’t think of a single soul who dislikes this song. If you happen to be that outlier then, stand up, speak out and be prepared to explain yourself. Then, be prepared to the scorn and ridicule that will surely come your way! How can anyone not like this song?! It is the a song born from the union of two of Rock’s biggest names, Queen and David Bowie. It is as powerful and dramatic a song as there has ever been performed; its’ subject matter merely the state of the pressure we live under in this life and what can be done about it all. It is a crowd-pleasing, stadium-rocking anthem that has given rise to some of the best live concert moments in rock history. The song is “Under Pressure”. Let’s find out all about it.

The story goes that Queen were in Switzerland working on songs for a new album. They had a song they were working on called, “Feel Like” that was coming along ok but just wasn’t right yet. As luck would have it, in the same town of Montreux that they were staying at, David Bowie, also, happened to be in town, (he actually lived not too far away). So, a call went out to see if he wanted to pop by and hang out with the band for awhile. He did. They all started jamming away and having fun. Eventually, Freddy Mercury asked Bowie if he felt like helping them on their new album now they were all warmed up and, perhaps, just see what would happen. So, bassist John Deacon began to play the familiar opening bass line to “Under Pressure”. It was merely a baseline at that point. But, it served as inspiration for Bowie and Queen and away they went. According to guitarist Brian May, working with an inspired Bowie was difficult, in a way, because both he and Freddy Mercury both had a vision for how the song that became “Under Pressure” should be written and constructed and that there was a lot of alpha-male butting of heads involved before it all came together as we know it to be. But, work it out, they did. The result was the glorious song we all know as, “Under Pressure”.

But, there are a couple of facts about the song that many people misinterpret or, flat out, get wrong. First of all, David Bowie and Queen never ever performed “Under Pressure” together live. Not long after the song/album was released, Queen went on tour. David Bowie, meanwhile, stayed back in Switzerland, working on the songs for his next album, “Let’s Dance” and then, he went out on a world wide tour. By the end of it, Freddy Mercury’s health went into decline and he died not long after. The very first time that David Bowie performed “Under Pressure” with Queen was when he sang it with Annie Lennox at the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium in London.

The second often misconstrued fact is that despite how it appears at first blush, “Under Pressure” in not a duet. Sure, there are two singers singing but, the structure of “Under Pressure” is such that it is not actually a duet at all. What the song is, is actually a two-person play or even, a musical debate. The concept of the song is two people debating about the nature of being alive in the world. One person (Bowie) takes on the pessimistic role and sings about everyone being under pressure. Freddy Mercury takes on the opposing role as the person who champions love as a solution to what ails the planet. A good example of the interplay that goes on throughout the song can be seen in this snippet from the song:

“FM: Love, love, love, love, love

DB: Insanity laughs under pressure, we’re breaking!

FM: Why can’t we give ourselves one more chance? Why can’t we give love that one more chance? Why can’t we give love, give love, give love, give love…….

DB: ‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word. And love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night and love (FM: people on streets) dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.

FM: This is our last dance.

DB: This is our last dance.

FM/DB: This is ourselves……….under pressure……….under pressure………….pressure.”

As mentioned, Freddy Mercury and David Bowie never performed this song together on stage. They recorded their vocal tracks separately in studio. It was only during the final recording process that their voices were brought together on tape and the magic happened.

Queen sang this song as part of their standard setlist throughout the remainder of their touring days; with Freddy Mercury doing all of the parts. Bowie never sang this song as part of his setlist until after Freddy Mercury had died. And then, Bowie still sang only his original lines, with a back-up singer filling in for Mercury.

But, as we all know, this song spawned some memorable covers. The best known is the Bowie/Lennox cover at the Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert. But, a second cover has come to the fore and taken on extra poignancy lately. That cover was by the recently deceased drummer for the Foo Fighters, Taylor Hawkins. The Foo Fighters were known for throwing covers of well-known songs into their own sets when playing live. One of the songs that they liked to do was “Under Pressure”. Whenever it came time to perform this song, Hawkins would leave his drum kit and come to centre stage. Lead singer, dave Grohl, would leave the stage and play drums. Then, Hawkins would team up with the lead singer of whoever opened for them tat night and they would launch into a cool “Foo Fighters’ version of “Under Pressure”. Well, as many of you know, Taylor Hawkins, who was such a good drummer and such a happy, positive person, died unexpectedly recently at the young age of 50. One of the last songs he played with the Foo Fighters was “Under Pressure”.

So, when it comes time for the videos, I am going to showy four!!!! The first will be the original lyrics video that acted as the official video for many years, since there was never a live video to record. The second video will be one where Freddy Mercury and Queen perform the song on their own, with Freddy Mercury’s trademark showmanship and pizzazz. The third video will be the iconic Bowie/Lennox version, which I adore. The chemistry between those two was phenomenal that day. A complete home run of a performance. Finally, I will share Taylor Hawkins and the Foo Fighters covering this great song.

So, without further delay, here is “Under Pressure” written by Queen and David Bowie and performed by a cast of thousands, or so it seems. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the lyrics version of the song, “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Under Pressure” as performed by Queen, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Under Pressure”, as covered by David Bowie and Annie Lennox during The Freddy Mercury Tribute Concert, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Under Pressure”, as covered by Taylor Hawkins of The Foo Fighters, can be found here. ***The drummer here, Rufus Taylor, is the son of the original Queen drummer, Roger Taylor.

The link to the official website for Queen, can be found here.

The link to the official website for David Bowie, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Annie Lennox, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Foo Fighters, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best music by the best artists. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

Author: Tom MacInnes

Among the many characters I play: husband, father, son, retired elementary school teacher, writer, Cape Bretoner, lover of hot tea and, above all else, a gentleman. I strive to make a positive difference in the lives of others. In Life, I have chosen to be kind.

2 thoughts on “The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #15: Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen (KEXP)”

  1. As you’ve said throughout the countdown , David Bowie was a remarkable person , friend and mentor to many artists . Another fine example . What an amazing man and song!!❤️

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