The majesty of David Bowie’s legacy has left much of his artistic output shrowded in a veil of golden hues. His career was so glittering that one often worries that rose-tinted glasses can replace the lens under in the microscope. But when you look back at rehearsal footage of Bowie and Annie Lennox performing ‘Under Pressure’ in 1992 with Queen, you know that he was the real deal.
The footage comes from behind-the-scenes of a huge benefit concert for Queen singer Freddie Mercury who had died at the result of AIDS not long before. The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness was held on Easter Monday, 20 April 1992 at Wembley Stadium in London, England for an audience of around 72,000. The concert was produced for television by Ray Burdis, directed by David Mallet and broadcast live on television and radio to 76 countries around the world, with an audience of up to one billion… a billion. The concert was conducted in tribute to Queen’s lead vocalist, Freddie Mercury, who had died of AIDS on 24 November 1991. All profits found their way to specific AIDS charities
The footage offers a rare glimpse into the working mind of Bowie and Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox as they take on Bowie’s own duet with Mercury on ‘Under Pressure’. During the clip we not only see Bowie’s fun side, making aside jokes to the camera and generally larking around between cigarettes and notes, but we also see the powerful singer that he was. Too often Bowie is reduced to his costuming and performance when in essence what make’s Bowie great is his unstoppable, unfathomable and unique vocal take. Lennox, however, does do her best to give him a run for his money with her unimaginable range and match the unbelievable scales of ‘Under Pressure’.
The song was originally written between Bowie and Mercury during one mammoth 24 hours, a coke-fuelled, wine-drenched recording session in the Swiss mountains. In Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, the band’s drummer Roger Taylor said: “David came in one night and we were playing other people’s songs for fun, just jamming… in the end, David said, ‘This is stupid, why don’t we just write one?'”
What transpired was the writing and recording of one of the greatest songs of all time. Driven by Deacon’s incredible bass line both Bowie and Freddie Mercury battled in the vocal both fuelled, Blake suggests, by wine and cocaine. Blake describes the scene, beginning with the recollections of Queen’s guitarist: “We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble,’ recalled Brian May. ‘When the backing track was done, David said, ‘Okay, lets each of us go in the vocal booth and sing how we think the melody should go–just off the top of our heads–and we’ll compile a vocal out of that’. And that’s what we did.’ Some of these improvisations, including Mercury’s memorable introductory scatting vocal, would endure on the finished track. Bowie also insisted that he and Mercury shouldn’t hear what the other had sung, swapping verses blind, which helped give the song its cut-and-paste feel.”
In this video, where the two juggernauts of their own era, Lennox and Bowie, are finding their sweet spot with the vocals there is one more legend practising his best Mercury impression, George Michael. You can see the singer putting some extra work in on the clip at around the 2:13 mark. We’ve also put in some bonus footage of Michael performing ‘Somebody To Love’ which includes Bowie watching on with glee standing next to a very young Seal.
Watch below as David Bowie and Annie Lennox rehearse ‘Under Pressure’ for their mammoth 1992 gig.