First, the story of the juke-box. In the relatively brief period after Susan and I decided we liked each other enough to be married to each other, and before we actually did marry, weekends meant at least one round-trip to Shropshire – usually to take Sue back to her place (near the school where she was employed on her first teaching post) on a Sunday night. On this particular weekend, quite shortly after our commitment, I was bringing her back from Shropshire – half-term, perhaps – and taking an odd route, deciding near Ross-on-Wye to veer off towards Gloucester by B roads. We stopped for some refreshment at an old pub, where I noticed – just before we left – that they were selling off their big old Rock-ola jukebox! Perhaps Sue recognized the gleam in my eye, perhaps I was insistent, I can’t remember, but one thing was clear, in those dewy-eyed days of love, Sue was crazily willing to forgo any hopes of an engagement ring to allow the purchase of the huge record-machine. The magic of the evening was sealed by our witnessing – by chance – the passing of the Severn Bore from a bridge in Gloucester where a crowd had gathered.
I tell the story here because of the discs it came with. When, by the support of longsuffering friends, it was transported and heaved into the ‘though lounge’ of my little terraced house, I could see that its carousel was stocked with a selection of early 80s songs with which I had little sense of connection. When the great re-stocking took place, the only ones I left on, if I remember rightly, were Hall and Oates ‘I can’t go for that’, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney singing ‘The Girl is Mine’ and ‘Under Pressure’ by Queen and Bowie. I liked this latter track well enough, but in the fervent enthusiasm for all things Bowie following his recent death, I wish I could say that I had liked it more…the truth is that although I gleefully sang along on the ‘under pressure’s, really I probably thought of it as an odd novelty collaboration and I had little patience to explore beyond its ‘um ba ba be’s to see whether the lyric had any specific substance. Soon it had lost its place on the jukebox.
Now, it’s really not going to be cool to admit this, but what has single-handedly resurrected this song for me in recent years has been the US music/drama series ‘Smash’ (largely centred around the writing, directing, producing, performing and staging a Broadway hit musical on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and spin-off rival musicals) – see: I said it wasn’t going to be cool. In one particular episode (series 2, maybe?) ‘Under Pressure’ is given a ‘dramatized’ performance by the main cast as they converge on a theatre ready for, I think I recall, the Grammys to deliver verdicts on their rival productions. A shame that the subject matter is something that petty, but the emotional intensity is evident, and even after repeated viewing, I still feel it is a stirring dramatization that respects the energy of the song in a way that even (for me at least) elucidates and focuses it. (*and what a shame – the videoclip of this has been pulled from youtube; you don’t get the same sense of dramatic interpretation from the mere audio).
Thankfully it sends me back – as good interpretations generally do – to the of course superior original, and now, late in the day, it appears as quite a remarkable impressionistic sound/word collage of a song. This we get not just in the scat-singing ‘day-da-de-mm-hm’s, but it’s also in the distinctive non-fluency of some of the lines – ‘…Pressing down on you no man ask for’.. Still, conversely I also begin to see there is actually more of a lyrical progression than I’d realized all those years ago. Sure, the first half of the song bemoans the ‘pressure’ of..modern life? Urban living (‘people on streets’)? Societal conflicts (‘..that burns a building down/Splits a family in two..’)? and then Bowie gets to sing these great lines which make the ‘pressure’ seem more pervasive and existential – ‘It’s the terror of knowing/What this world is about/Watching some good friends screaming/Let me out!’. He repeats these same lines a little further on, and his voice has the right kind of strident urgency for it.
The turning-point of the song – echoed in melody and tempo – comes with the words ‘Turned away from it all like a blind man..’ and the implication is that one tempting response to the overwhelming pressures of life is to distance oneself, to ‘sit on the fence’ of disengagement… and the first mention of ‘love’ is a pessimistic one – ‘Keep coming up with love/But it’s so slashed and torn…’. The ‘Why…’ that follows takes the falsetto of the ‘blind man’ line to greater heights screeching up the octaves in high-octane madness. But this takes us to another stage – the challenge to reject disenchantment and ‘give love one more chance..’. And that would be great enough, if we stopped there. But no, there’s even a further challenge – and this is brilliant and profound, so I’ll quote it practically all. While first acknowledging our over-familiarity with the word ‘love’ (‘such an old-fashioned word’) we hear this: ‘And love dares you to care for/The people on the edge of the night/And dares you to change our way of/Caring about ourselves/This is our last dance…’ Within the context of the rock idiom, this is powerfully articulate and challenging.
The ‘Smash’ cast – Anjelica Huston, Jack Davenport et al – do in fairness give this section sufficient gravity, but at the same time trivialise it – the march into the theatre, the forming then breaking from their circle and the individual line-up on ‘This is ourselves’ is effective but by rooting it in their story it still feels like some petty showbiz angst -‘Ooooh such pressures we have, delivering Broadway shows for the critics and public..’. Whereas Queen and Bowie’s original is more powerfully generalised. The ‘last dance’ seems to imply that if we don’t make love work, what else is there? And the ‘this is ourselves’ is perhaps asking us to be accountable and individually responsible… yet still, no facile ending, we are left with the single word ‘pressure’. Rock n roll classic. OK, back on the famous jukebox.