It was a song birthed from the convergence of rock’s two greatest and brightest stars. Maybe it was that unforgettable riff. Maybe it was the harmony and clash between Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Maybe because of its legendary backstory. Or maybe it really was because of that unforgettable riff.
Which wasn’t really that unforgettable since John Deacon forgot about it after eating pizza. Maybe it was the booze and drugs in the mix, but alright then… Good thing one Roger Taylor remembered. And a Brian May stepped back to give space to two rock deities butting their heads to create one of the greatest songs to ever exist.
It seemed as if some sort of cosmic force was trying to stop the collaboration, and, with how things went the song, shouldn’t have been born. But it has now become the amalgamation of many amazing things done in one night.
Queen had just bought a new studio called Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland a few years back. In July 1981, they were recording some tracks for their upcoming album Hot Space, including the tune called “Feel Like”.
That particular track left them unsatisfied.
Cue in the majestic David Bowie, who was also in Mountain Studios around that time recording “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, the title song for the erotic horror film of the same name. Probably drawn in by their mutual love for felines, Mercury and Bowie initially teamed up for the song aptly named “Cool Cat”.
“They were recording there and, David knew that I was in town, and phoned me up and asked me if I’d come down, if I’d like to go down and see what was happening,” Bowie recalled in the archive footage used in the video above, an episode of the Youtube series Queen the Greatest.
The enigmatic solo artist arrived at the studio after getting a call from David Richards, English-born Swiss-based record producer who had a hand in many albums by Bowie and Queen. They did “Cool Cat” but Bowie felt he didn’t give a great performance.
The disappointed Bowie requested for his vocals to be scraped off the track days before the release of Hot Space. You can hear Bowie sing and speak a few lines in the bootleg version of the song, while Mercury easily records the whole song in falsetto.
Thankfully, the collaboration didn’t end there.
In Mark Blake’s Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury, Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recounted how Bowie and the band staged a jam session that grew into something unforgettable.
“David [Bowie] 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?’”
The Starman also said in the archive footage that “it certainly wasn’t planned.”
“So I went down and these things happen, you know, suddenly you’re writing something together and it was totally spontaneous, it certainly wasn’t planned. It was peculiar!” he said.
Like all good things in the world, it started with an iconic bassline.
And it’s probably a finger guitar exercise John Deacon randomly played, but of course, who knows really? Apart from forgetting about it even before the recording of “Under Pressure” started, he even said in a Japanese music magazine interview that Bowie created the riff.
Bowie himself said that the riff was already made before he stepped in.
Roger Taylor gave more light to the riff-gate during a more recent interview, saying that the iconic “ding ding ding di di ding ding” was from the magical hands of Deacon. All throughout the sessions, Deacy had been playing the bassline riff over and over again. It was weird how the great bassist promptly forgot about it after dinner.
Thank God Taylor had it stuck in his mind and helped Deacon remember it.
The previous “Feel Like” was overhauled and redone with better parts, turning into “Under Pressure”.
As the session went on, the recording became more intense. In the episode of Queen the Greatest above, Brian May shared: “By that time David was very impassioned with it and he had a vision in his head I think. It’s quite a difficult process and somebody has to back off, and actually, I did back off, which is unusual for me.”
Brian stepping off the stage to become a bystander of one of music history’s most memorable artistic clashes paid off well.
The pressure was immense as ardent Starman tried to assert his dominance and rule over the recording process. One time, the guitarist remembered how David tried to influence the introverted Deacon saying, “saying, “No, don’t do it like that,” but the bassist fired back going, “Excuse me? I’m the bass player, right? This is how I do it!”.
Brian shared that David wanted each of them to go into a vocal booth and sing how each of them wanted the melodies should go.
And that’s how the scat singing by Freddie at the start made it onto the final recording. The stars “swapped verses blind”, hence the cut-and-paste feel of the track.
Bowie on his website said “Freddie and I came up with our individual top-line melodies. So when you hear Freddie sing, that’s what he wrote and when you hear me sing, that was mine. Then we worked on the lyrics together. I still cannot believe that we had the whole thing written and recorded in one evening flat. Quite a feat for what is actually a fairly complicated song.”
The randomness of the bits and pieces of the record, the novel way of constructing the vocals, and the fierce battle of wills and wits between the hopeful Freddie and the cynical David were the recipe for the resilience of the song’s power and influence.
As amazing as how it turned out, it was supposed not to work. With the wine and cocaine getting in the way, and the veiled animosity between Queen and Bowie, the track was somehow completed and recorded. And completely dominated the scene after its release.
When “Under Pressure” was released in October 1981, it became a massive worldwide success and gave Queen their second U.K. No. 1, with music critics and publications ranking it as one of the best songs of all time.
Not bad for an impromptu song with a chaotic recording process.
It was instantly embraced by the public after being surprised by a seemingly random collaboration between two of the most recognizable names in the industry. “Under Pressure” was initially released as a single and wasn’t a part of any LP until Hot Space came out in May of the following year.
Despite churning out classics, the last time Queen released a UK No. 1 was six years earlier with the legendary “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Maybe the collaboration was the puzzle piece Bowie needed as he started considering more accessible sounds, gifting the world with his 1983 smash hit record Let’s Dance.
The immense pressure of two rock supernovas being adjacent to each other might have been too much for the universe to handle as Freddie and David never performed together again due to scheduling conflicts.
They didn’t even have the chance to make a music video for the iconic song. Director David Mallet made up for it by creating a memorably poignant music video featuring a patchwork of silent cinema and documentary footage from the 1920s.
They did however almost had a chance to perform “Under Pressure” together at Live Aid in 1985, but due to different time slots and the two being known stage perfectionists, the world missed an amazing act.
Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, 1985. pic.twitter.com/bDI4tXeiNY
— queen stuff (@photosqueen) November 4, 2018
Queen finally had the chance to have Bowie perform on stage, but it was at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 at Wembley Stadium. Annie Lennox performed with them and sent off Freddie with an unforgettable performance.
“Under Pressure” stands as a testament to the beauty and magic that can emerge from the most challenging circumstances. The collaboration birthed a song that transcends time and it remains one of rock’s most enduring songs.
As we listen to this iconic anthem, we are reminded that even under pressure, diamonds are formed, and art is born.