Listen to Freddie Mercury and David Bowie on the Isolated Vocal Track for the Queen Hit ‘Under Pressure,’ 1981

In the summer of 1981, the British band Queen was recording tracks for their tenth studio album, Hot Space, at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland. As it happened, David Bowie had scheduled time at the same studio to record the title song for the movie Cat People. Before long, Bowie stopped by the Queen sessions and joined in. The original idea was that he would add backup vocals on the song “Cool Cat.” “David came in one night and we were playing other people’s songs for fun, just jamming,” says Queen drummer Roger Taylor in Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen. “In the end, David said, ‘This is stupid, why don’t we just write one?’” And so began a marathon session of nearly 24-hours–fueled, according to Blake, by wine and cocaine. Built around John Deacon’s distinctive bass line, the song was mostly written by Mercury and Bowie. 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.

“It was very hard,” said May in 2008, “because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. Passions ran very high. I found it very hard because I got so little of my own way. But David had a real vision and he took over the song lyrically.” The song was originally titled “People on Streets,” but Bowie wanted it changed to “Under Pressure.” When the time came to mix the song at Power Station studios in New York, Bowie insisted on being there. “It didn’t go too well,” Blake quotes Queen’s engineer Reinhold Mack as saying. “We spent all day and Bowie was like, ‘Do this, do that.’ In the end, I called Freddie and said, ‘I need help here,’ so Fred came in as a mediator.” Mercury and Bowie argued fiercely over the final mix. At one point Bowie threatened to block the release of the song, but it was issued to the public on October 26, 1981 and eventually rose to number one on the British charts. It was later named the number 31 song on VH1′s list of the 100 greatest songs of the 1980s. “‘Under Pressure’ is a significant song for us,” May said in 2008, “and that is because of David and its lyrical content. I would have found that hard to admit in the old days, but I can admit it now…. But one day, I would love to sit down quietly on my own and re-mix it.”

After listening to the isolated vocal track above, you can hear the officially released 1981 mix below:

via That Eric Alper

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  1. Christina says . . . | June 4, 2013 / 8:51 am

    Freddie Mercury’s voice was out of this world. Amazing.

  2. Emmy says . . . | June 4, 2013 / 9:25 pm

    This moved me to tears. Timeless. Priceless. Never forget. Thank you.

  3. gomez de riquet says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:34 am

    parallel fifths

  4. Joseph Hunt says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:36 am

    There are actually 3 vocals here, Roger Taylor sings backing @2.53 ;)

  5. Joseph Hunt says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:38 am

    But still amazing :) Mercury and Bowie had at least 4 octaves in their vocal range.

  6. Kathy says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:51 am

    Genius

  7. Clete says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 9:22 am

    I like the Vanilla Ice version better.

  8. Chucky says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 10:17 am

    Ice Ice Baby … Ice Ice Baby …

  9. cee_major says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 11:04 am

    Don’t worry, Chucky. You’ll grown out of your “shitty music is da bomb” phase. We all do eventually.

  10. Joel says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 11:15 am

    Amazing. Utterly amazing. Thank you for this!

  11. Susan Hauk says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 1:03 pm

    2 amazing artists in this land!!!! Absolutely artful!
    Thank You for sharing

  12. Jana says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 2:45 pm

    I love David Bowie but Freddie Mercury is absolutely amazing.

  13. Harris says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 4:41 pm

    gomez de riquet, most modern music uses parallel fifths to great effect. music theory is just that — theory.

  14. Tyrone Vaux says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 4:59 pm

    Hearing this is fantastic! I was a kid when this came out but it’s a seminal track in music history. Well done!

  15. CL Jahn says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 5:05 pm

    I’d really love to hear Brian May’s mix. Brian – DO IT!

  16. Charity Froggenhall says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 5:46 pm

    Ooh, chills!

  17. Arthur Dent says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 7:00 pm

    What a song!

    42

  18. Roberta Hilliger says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 7:39 pm

    Picture I clicked on for this was of Bowie and Annie Lennox I believe.

  19. serge says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:19 pm

    Brian May’s final comment got me thinking about how many possible versions of such iconic songs could have existed.

  20. Liz says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 8:57 pm

    Epic.

  21. F.M. Hopkins, Author says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 9:12 pm

    Unabashed goosebumping talent

  22. Ben says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 10:20 pm

    @gomez: if we’re gonna be music theory geeks it’s actually parallel fourths ;)

  23. Susannah Fairbanks says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 10:49 pm

    I was there live aid July 5th wembley 1985 epic day, queens performance Brel em all away!

  24. Sabby says . . . | June 5, 2013 / 11:38 pm

    I heart Emmy.

  25. Bernie says . . . | June 6, 2013 / 9:54 am

    Drying my eyes (Emma) and so amazed at Freddie’s voice. I miss his unmade contributions to our world even more after listening to this.

  26. Dan Castady says . . . | June 6, 2013 / 1:54 pm

    haha, I love that he STILL wants to remix it. I read the following over Joe Gastwirt’s mastering rig: “A mix is never finished, only abandoned.”

  27. Mary Ann Vorasky says . . . | June 7, 2013 / 12:09 am

    Love this-learning the back story and hearing the vocal-only track makes it way better. It was never my favorite song of either artist. The video also really adds a lot and I now appreciate this entire collaboration much more.

  28. Billy Whitehorn says . . . | June 7, 2013 / 6:57 am

    Yea …a certain person got sued for stealing another’s work didn’t they chucky?

  29. Herman the cat says . . . | June 7, 2013 / 5:52 pm

    Amazing. Somehow better without the instrumental. You can really hear what talented vocalists they were/are.

  30. Matthew Parrish says . . . | June 7, 2013 / 9:08 pm

    I’ve always felt that this song was mixed poorly. The elements are amazing. It has more incredible parts than 3 great songs. But something is really off about the mix and I would love to hear May’s version.

  31. Adam Heilman says . . . | June 7, 2013 / 10:04 pm

    As a vocalist, both Bowie and Mercury were my main vocal mentors, and, both will always remain two of the premier vocalists of our time.

    Under Pressure is a timeless song that is what it is. Mucking about with the mixdown isn’t far off from Vanilla Ice ripping tracks from it.

    Fantastic songs come about due to all of the events that led to their creation.

    It’s simply a FANTASTIC song!!!

  32. Jan says . . . | June 8, 2013 / 12:49 am

    Bowie has always been no 1 for me but Freddie is a close secound.
    I loved listening to their amazing vocals like this it made me realize just how amazing they both are once again.
    I love the song as it is but would still love to hear Brian’s version.

  33. jeff G says . . . | June 8, 2013 / 2:30 am

    I listened to this and sat motionless for a time, I don’t know how long. Then I read the many messages here afterwards, at times having to stop because I couldn’t see. Realizing with a start that everything had moved me to tears. Oh what a sadder world we live in without one half of this duo. Imagine what could have come from this collaboration if time had permitted it.

  34. Jdkatz says . . . | June 8, 2013 / 4:50 am

    Truly sublime. I’d raise its ranking in the top 100. More like top 10

  35. David says . . . | June 8, 2013 / 4:02 pm

    Can we even begin to imagine what the world lost when Freddie Mercury died. Add to that John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Shannon Hoon, and literally thousands of other artists who left this world far too early.

  36. yvonnemax says . . . | June 9, 2013 / 6:49 pm

    so pure. just a joy to listen to.

  37. Marcia says . . . | June 10, 2013 / 12:00 pm

    Wow. Have always been one day older than Freddie we were teenagers together?What tallent….what a great loss.

  38. mike flynn says . . . | June 14, 2013 / 3:41 pm

    This is coming from a metal/punk fan….this song is top 5 song ever written by man.

  39. Resoundsound says . . . | June 16, 2013 / 3:07 am

    Queen was a phenomenal boy band!!!

  40. Zoe Delay says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 9:01 am

    gema don’t allows it to hear in germany

  41. Chay Min says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 10:23 am

    Wow, it is amazing to hear this as just vocals. I have always loved this song!

  42. Dan Colman says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 10:39 am

    Hi all,

    Does anyone know what Facebook page mentioned this post today?

    Many thanks,
    Dan (the editor)

  43. toby says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 12:11 pm

    I get the feeling there was argument as the Queen boys wanted to turn it into a Queen sounding song. Thanks god they didn’t. And Brian May – how could it ever be remixed? just how? what would you do to it? it’s absolutely timeless, perfect, well done Bowie!

  44. Wiv says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 2:43 pm

    Dan;
    Cake music posted about this on fb.

  45. Cat says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 3:51 pm

    https://www.facebook.com/cakemusic?hc_location=stream

    These guys! Wiv already said it. but here’s a link to them!

  46. zach says . . . | June 25, 2013 / 4:57 pm

    Uh, yes Freddie and Bowie are great on this, but I think the genius award for this song must go to John Deacon, talk about iconic and memorable. And it’s not his only iconic bass line

  47. spurv says . . . | June 30, 2013 / 2:08 am

    “People on streets”? Are you kidding me? Good thing Bowie stepped in. “Under pressure” is a much more fitting and interesting title.
    I don’t understand why Freddie always gets more accolades than Bowie for his singing chops. He just screams more. Bowie rates amongst the top 3 singers of all time in my book (if not the best).
    And forget about remixing this song. Have you heard any of Brian Mays solo material? It would be a Titianic version, all strings and sobbiness. I really like the balls this song has. I believe this song is a product of its time. It couldnt have been made today. And, as much as I hate drug addiction, it must have contributed in some way.

  48. peepeegirl says . . . | September 5, 2013 / 4:01 pm

    As an artist (semi well known…) it’s kind of true re: mixes. I feel the best I can do on a mix is about a 95 out of 100%. I feel I never can get to a 100% groovy mix in my mind.

  49. nosnafus says . . . | October 19, 2013 / 12:19 pm

    I hear what you’re saying about Bowie’s chops, butu2026nnThere’s a Pro Tools session of all the vocal stems from Bohemian Rhapsody that pops up around the web from time to time. Find it and it’ll answer your question pretty clearly. Should you find it, keep it mind it was a world without auto tune.

  50. yellowbird500 says . . . | October 21, 2013 / 2:10 pm

    One of my all time favorites.

  51. fortune says . . . | November 25, 2013 / 12:58 pm

    I give the most props to Queen’s sound engineer. If I had a coked up Bowie barking orders at me I’d strangle myself with the 2 inch reels.nMuch respect

  52. infomaniac says . . . | November 25, 2013 / 1:03 pm

    Snap Judgment, an NPR program

  53. Manuella GLA says . . . | November 25, 2013 / 3:18 pm

    Precious things do get even more precious with less

  54. Constantinos says . . . | December 1, 2013 / 2:33 am

    “He just screams more”?? “He just screams more” ?!?!?!??????nOk, now we learned a new thing. Freddie Mercury screamed. A lot.

  55. teamgloria says . . . | December 3, 2013 / 9:36 am

    l o v e.

  56. JasonB says . . . | January 23, 2014 / 3:13 am

    Recording companies seems to have too much control over the artists for this type of thing to happen anymore. Shame that in so many creative fields now, it seems to be a choice of art over ‘success’.

  57. holly says . . . | February 6, 2014 / 4:34 pm

    Bowie 4/life!

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