More often than not, duets miss the mark. Even though two talents combining is a mercurial concoction in its own right, that doesn’t guarantee a sure-fire hit. However, when the two parties involved include the greatness of David Bowie alongside the majestic Queen on the powerful track ‘Under Pressure’, it was a completely different story. The two talents managed to unlock the best out of each other and create what might be the best duet of all time.
One reason the song is so revered is that the duet wasn’t forced in the slightest. It came about in the most organic fashion possible and the naturality between the two singers shone through. Bowie, at the time, was in the very same studio as Queen in Montreux, Switzerland, where he was recording the theme and title track for the upcoming film Cat People. At the same time, Queen were in the process of recording their tenth album Hot Space. When Bowie realised that Freddie Mercury and the band were in such close proximity, the Starman thought it would be rude not to pop by with ample amounts of cocaine and within just a few hours, the embers of ‘Under Pressure’ was born.
The original idea of that studio session was that Bowie would provide backup vocals on the song ‘Cool Cat’ but things changed rather quickly thanks to their cocaine-fuelled chemistry that transcended from mirror to recording booth as the song they stumbled upon grew into fruition. The track was remarkably written and recorded in the space of 24-hours, little did they know in the haze of the Swiss studio environment that they had created an all-time classic of the highest order.
In Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, the author recalls the scene with the help of May’s memories. “We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble,” said the guitarist. “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.”
Both Queen and David Bowie were acts that never compromised so the collaboration did lead to the emergence of some disagreements between the two. Two artists with singular visions and unstoppable attitude mean there were always likely to be disagreements. There is even talk that Bowie was so aggrieved with the final outcome of the track that he attempted to block the initial release but eventually caved in — something we are all thankful for.
“It was hard because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us,” Queen’s permed guitarist Brian May said to Mojo in 2008. “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,” he added.
May later noted that in the Days of our Lives documentary: “Suddenly you’ve got this other person inputting, inputting, inputting… he (David) 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.”
They were never going to arrive at a happy medium in which they were both thrilled with the outcome as Queen and Bowie always had it their own way and, to compromise and agree that one way or another was the best way, seemed impossible. But even if they weren’t elated at the final mix, it’s hard to deny the song’s greatness.
After all, isn’t that what great music is really about? Challenging one another to make something better than the last, to provide music to make both the audience and the artist dance with glee. If so, then we think that David Bowie and Queen’s duet on ‘Under Pressure’ may well be the greatest of all time.