The story of ‘Under Pressure’, the 1981 Queen hit co-written by David Bowie starts where all good stories should start – in the Swiss mountains. Queen were in the process of recording their tenth studio album Hot Space, at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland when who should drop by but the Thin White Duke himself, David Bowie.
Bowie was in the same studio recording the title track for the upcoming movie Cat People. But Bowie being Bowie, it wasn’t long before David stopped by the Queen sessions and got creative. The original idea being that he would contribute backup vocals on the song ‘Cool Cat.’
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 fueled, 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, 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.” 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.”
The battle didn’t quite stop there however as Bowie imposed his artistic will on most of the decisions. 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 be 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.
But with all the animosity, wine, cocaine and vocal battles which helped come together to birth the song, 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 here with perfect and enriching precision. This most perfectly heard in the pair’s a cappella