Billy Joel was about halfway through his eighth studio album, The nylon curtain, and feel the creative tension. He turned that sentiment into the album’s lead single.
“The pressure that I was writing in this song wasn’t necessarily pressure from the music industry. It was writing pressure,” Joel told MTV. evening school in 1982. “I said, ‘I have no ideas. It’s gone! It’s dead! I have nothing, nothing, nothing! There is nothing!’
“And then the woman who is my secretary came into the house at that point and said, ‘Wow, you look like you’re under pressure. I bet that would be a good idea for a “song”, Joel added. “And I said, ‘Thank you!'”
The creative pipes opened, Joel went on to pen the aptly titled ‘Pressure’, an existential treatise that acknowledges and pokes fun at the contemporary anxiety of the early 80s. The word ‘snowflake’ is never used , but the song is something of a backwards slap in the face for anyone – including himself – paralyzed by the stresses of the modern world: “You have to learn to pace yourself. … you are like everyone else.”
Along the way, he pokes fun at those who “can’t take the pressure”, sardonically invoking totems of innocence such as Peter Pan and sesame street as part of his message to lift spirits and carry on. “I’m basically saying you can’t be soft,” he told this writer when The nylon curtain has been freed. “The pressure is there, whether you like it or not. It will be there, so either you deal with it or you crumble.”
Released before the album arrived on September 23, 1982, “Pressure” got The nylon curtain the campaign got off to a quick start as the seventh Top 20 single on the Billboard 200. The single version shaved almost a minute and a half off its counterpart on the album, editing out the third verse and the second bridge.
Watch Billy Joel’s video for “Pressure”
The recording of “Pressure”, meanwhile, became a creative adventure. It was an integral part of the sessions that producer Phil Ramone described in his book Make recordings as “an opportunity to make a credible avant-garde statement. Our palette was extensive.”
The song itself was driven by a synthesizer rather than Joel’s trademark piano, and the instrumentation also included a cast of New York balalaika players. They “were used to performing at Russian Orthodox weddings,” Ramone added. “They had no idea who Billy Joel was.”
Also worth noting is a section at the 3.46 mark that sounds like an instrumental version of a taxi horn but is actually Joel “singing every note in my repertoire” then putting his voice through an emulator. A happy accident followed about 12 seconds later as Joel barks the title track “with the same inflection a Royal Air Force captain might use to bark a command like Ten-Hunt!” he says in Make recordings.
“While the master tape was running, I impulsively pressed every button on the tape recorder to delete everything except the section with the screams,” Joel added. “Phil was stunned. ‘My God! What did you do? You erased part of the song!’ Phil was right: for this segment, everything stops short except my vocals, but that was exactly what the track needed.” Ramone agreed that the “inadvertent error added an inexplicable dimension to an already stylized song”.
“Pressure” can now be found on most of Joel’s compilation albums and many of his live sets. It was followed the same month by the second nylon curtain single, “Allentown”. A third, “Goodnight Saigon”, was released the following February.
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