David Bowie’s relations with his record label RCA had been steadily deteriorating since the middle of the 1970s, and by 1981 he had little enthusiasm for recording for the label again.
Queen, conversely, were buoyed by the artistic freedom offered by their own label, EMI. During the Mountain Studios sessions, Bowie and Freddie Mercury discussed their respective contracts and royalty rates, which increased Bowie’s resolve to leave RCA and sign with EMI. This he did in 1983.
You could see his one good eye gleam when Freddie used the words artistic control. After that, David was all over him for details. Were the advances prompt? Who paid what? Stuff like that. Bowie had reached the end of his rope with his label.
Bowie: Loving The Alien, Christopher Sandford
Bowie’s disaffection was manifest in his willingness to allow ‘Under Pressure’ to be released by EMI, and for it to appear on Queen’s 1982 album Hot Space.
The single was released on 26 October 1981, with a Queen song, ‘Soul Brother’, on the b-side.
‘Under Pressure’ entered the UK charts at number 8, climbing to the top spot the following week. It displaced the Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ from number one, where it remained for two weeks.
As so often with Bowie singles, its success was more modest in the US. ‘Under Pressure’ peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, which was still Bowie’s highest chart placing since ‘Golden Years’.
As well as the UK, ‘Under Pressure’ topped the charts in Canada, the Netherlands, and Argentina. It was a top ten hit in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, and Switzerland.
In 1995 the Let’s Dance album was reissued by Virgin Records, with ‘Under Pressure’ as a bonus track.
‘Under Pressure’ has appeared on numerous Bowie and Queen best-of compilations since its release. The full-length album and single version can be heard on Nothing Has Changed, while a shorter 3:58 edit was included on the Singles Collection, Best Of Bowie, and Queen Greatest Hits II collections. Some other compilations have contained a remix lasting 4:01.
In December 1999, ‘Under Pressure’ returned to the charts following the release of a Rah Mix version, which was also included on Queen’s Greatest Hits III collection. A new video mixed footage of Freddie Mercury at Wembley Stadium in 1986 with scenes of Bowie at the Mercury tribute concert in 1992.
Under Pressure was the video I never made. (laughs) I think it was an assemblage job on that one.
Top Of The Pops 2, 1999
Neither Queen nor David Bowie were willing or available to film a promotional clip for ‘Under Pressure’. Instead, director David Mallet, who had worked with both acts previously, was tasked with assembling a video focusing on the theme of pressure.
Mallet assembled an extended montage of newsreel library footage and scenes from silent films, including Battleshop Potemkin, Nosferatu, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The newsreel material included scenes of riots, traffic jams, packed commuter trains, cars being crushed, and explosions. There were more positive images too, including people kissing, and crowds at music concerts.
Footage from IRA bombings in Belfast led to the video being banned by the BBC. An edited version without this was included on the Queen video compilations Greatest Flix II and Greatest Video Hits 2.
The BBC opted not to show the amended cut. When ‘Under Pressure’ was included on their long-running music show Top Of The Pops, it was to a choreographed performance by the in-house dance troupe Zoo.