The story of ‘Under Pressure’, the 1981 Queen song co-written by David Bowie, starts where all good stories should start and where most James Bond films tend to find their origins—in the snowy Swiss mountains. At the time, Queen were in the process of recording their tenth studio album Hot Space at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, when the great David Bowie would drop by for a casual chat. As ever during this time, Bowie arrived with copious amounts of cocaine and a plan. Together they would rival one another when attempting to lay down the vocals on one of the century’s undying hits.
Bowie, at the time, was in the very same studio recording the theme and title track for the upcoming film Cat People—not something to be remembered in any great detail. However, upon realising that Freddie Mercury and the band were in such close proximity, the Starman couldn’t hold back and, within just a few hours of arriving at the studio, Bowie stopped by the Queen sessions and got creative.
Far from thinking of the classic pop song that would eventually transpire, the original idea being that he would contribute backup vocals on the song ‘Cool Cat’ but things changed rather quickly.
In Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, the band’s drummer Roger Taylor explained how one of the 20th century’s unstoppable collaborations came about: “David came in one night and we were playing other people’s songs for fun, just jamming,” it’s a nice image of musicians having fun but soon enough things got more professional, “in the end, David said, ‘This is stupid, why don’t we just write one?'”
What transpired was the writing and recording of quite possibly one of the greatest songs of all time—a piece of pop music history. Driven by Deacon’s incredible bassline, something which deserves all the praise it receives, both Bowie and Freddie Mercury battled in the vocal booth fuelled, as Blake suggests, by the two intoxicants of 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, let’s 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’.”
He continues: “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.”
Recalling the moment years later, iconic guitarist and wonderfully permed Brian May told Ultimate Classic Rock: “I remember David Bowie reaching over to John and saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,’ and John going, ‘Excuse me? I’m the bass player, right? This is how I do it!’”
He added: “The vocal was constructed in a very novel way, which came through David, because he had experience of this avant-garde method of constructing the vocals,” May recalled. “He said, ‘Everybody just goes in there with no ideas, no notes, and sings the first thing that comes into their head over the backing track.’ So we all did, and then we compiled all the bits and pieces—and that’s what ‘Under Pressure’ was based on; all those random thoughts.”
Speaking to Mojo in 2008, May backed up this somewhat confused construction: “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. Looking back, it’s a great song but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that.”
It was war of personalities that May saw fit to escape, telling the Days of our Lives documentary, “suddenly you’ve got this other person inputting, inputting, inputting… he [Bowie] had a vision in his head, and it’s quite a difficult process and someone has to back off… and eventually I did back off, which is unusual for me.”
The battle didn’t quite stop there, however, as Bowie imposed his artistic will on most of the decisions and enacted his creative spell over proceedings. One of them being the title of the track. Originally billed as ‘People on the Streets’ Bowie wanted it changed to ‘Under Pressure’. He then demanded he was present at the mixing of the record with Mercury coming down to the studio to help mediate between Bowie and producer Reinhold Mack. There was even talk of Bowie trying to block the song’s original release—the Starman is a staunch artist to work with.
However, with all the animosity, wine, cocaine and vocal battles—which helped come together to birth the song—you’d imagine the track to be a car crash. However, what remains is an incredibly powerful and poignant pop song that we will likely not see matched in our lifetimes.
The two juggernauts of Freddie Mercury and David Bowie collide head-on here with perfect and enriching precision. This is most perfectly heard in the pair’s acapella of the song which can be found below the original’s video. Both are spellbinding for different reasons, each acting as a reminder of the talent at hand and the creativity now lost.