The Real Story Of How “Under Pressure” By David Bowie and Freddie Mercury Was Made

The Recording of the Ultimate Earworm

We have mixed feelings when we think of ’80s music but one thing we loved about that era is the ultimate musical collaboration we never thought we needed.

David Bowie and Freddie Mercury were similar in many ways – they knew how to put on a great show. They had unique voices, are both flamboyant and they were experts in casting a spell on their audience. Also, it goes without saying that they were undeniably talented and brilliant.

And when you think about it, there was this likelihood that their personalities would clash or they would try to upstage each other (remember David Bowie and Mick Jagger?) but they surprised everyone when they dropped what would become an epic rock masterpiece.

“Under Pressure” evolved from another Queen song called “Feel Like” written by drummer Roger Taylor. You can make out most of the elements you hear in the former minus the iconic bassline.

According to David Bowie, when he arrived in the recording studio in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1981, “the riff had already been written by Freddie and the others.” He was supposed to sing backing vocals for “Cool Cat” which was eventually scrapped. And because their sessions were mostly fueled by wine and cocaine, there were some conflicting statements on how “Under Pressure” came about. For example, while Bowie admitted going to the studio to record, Brian May said that Bowie lived near the studio that they “only hooked up properly because of a coincidence. We all happened to be in a sleepy little town called Montreux in Switzerland at the same time. “

And that bass line? Everyone points to John Deacon for coming up with it but Deacon claimed that it was Bowie who deserves the credit. And sure enough, he had forgotten all about that riff that May had to remind him. But whatever the real story is on how they got together, they were just jamming when Deacon started playing THE riff. They knew they had something but they took a break to eat and went back three hours later.

When they asked Deacon about the riff he played, he played it differently and Bowie said, “No it wasn’t. It was like this” and Bowie played it while Deacon was holding his guitar. May said it was both funny and tense because Deacon isn’t exactly the type who liked being told what to do but long story short, all was well and they took it from there.

It was also Bowie who urged them to continue saying, “We should just press on instinctively. Something will happen.” Then, May came up with guitar riff that he played on top of the bass line. Even with all that, there was nothing else but an instrumental track.

One thing that made the song unique was its spontaneity including how they came up with the lyrics. So what they did was without listening to each other sing, each of them went into the vocal booth and sang whatever pops into their heads. Then it was a matter of cut and paste – just picking which ones sounded best and putting them together. And the next day, Bowie took over.. sort of.

He wrote the lyrics that basically turned the song into “Under Pressure” and the rest of the boys, though it was highly unusual for them, just let him do his thing. He was the creative lead and if it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t sound as magical as it did. Even the Queen members knew Bowie was having his moment, he had a very clear idea what he wanted and how to achieve it.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why it stuck – it could be the easily recognizable riffs, the snapping fingers and clapping hands, or when Bowie sings “Pressure!” But the fact of the matter is, it’s a brilliant piece and it’s the culmination of what these rock acts could do together.