Behind the Song Lyrics: “Pressure” by Billy Joel

You have to learn to pace yourself … You’re just like everybody else.

Videos by American Songwriter

Palpable from the opening synthesized riffs and pulsing beats, “Pressure” came to Billy Joel during a stress-induced bout of writer’s block.

“Pressure is relevant,” said Joel in a 1982 interview of the meaning of the lyrics. “The pressure I was writing about in this song wasn’t necessarily music business pressure,” he shared. “It was writing pressure.”

Pressured to write more, the song came when he was only halfway through an album. “I said, ‘Well, what am I gonna do? I don’t have any ideas, it’s gone, it’s dead, I have nothing, nothing, nothing. There’s nothing,’” said Joel. “And then the woman who is my secretary came into the house at that point and said, ‘Wow, you look like you’re under a lot of pressure. I bet you that’d be a good idea for a song.’ And I went, ‘Thank you.’”

Also a missive to anxiety, life challenges, and fleeting American dreams, “Pressure” was Joel’s first foray into playing around with more ’80s synth and landed as the biggest single off his eighth album The Nylon Curtain in 1982, peaking at No. 20 on the U.S. charts.

Originally recorded as a longer track, the song was shortened for radio by removing the second bridge and the lyrics in the third verse of the song.

Don’t ask for help
You’re all alone

You’ll have to answer
To your own
I’m sure you’ll have some cosmic rationale
But here you are in the ninth
Two men out and three men on
Nowhere to look but inside
Where we all respond to

“Pressure” was not only the result of a strained songwriting session, it was a reflection of the times, the U.S. twisted around a Cold War, the aftermath of a recent war (Vietnam), and a country and state in dire straits. Single “Allentown” addressed the economic strife of Pennsylvania at the time, while “Goodnight Saigon” was written by Joel for his friends who served in Vietnam, and “Laura” around coping with the death of John Lennon two years earlier.

You’ve only had to run so far so good
But you will come to a place where the only thing you feel
Are loaded guns in your face
And you’ll have to deal with pressure

Mirroring the flashing imagery and scenes of Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” five years later, the music video for “Pressure,” directed by Russell Mulcahy—who also worked on Joel’s videos for The Nylon Curtain single “Allentown” and “Matter of Trust” off The Bridge (1986)—features the singer sat in front of a television screen with playing blinking imagery and references to films like Poltergeist and A Clockwork Orange, before getting swallowed up by a white carpet, while a younger version of himself disappears into the TV screen.

Talking about songwriting around the release of “Pressure”, Joel said “I feel music first. I feel the melody first and then the lyric is kicked off if I like the melody, if [the] melody creates a feeling or a mood.”

Photo: David Gahr/Sony Music Entertainment

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