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:
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Freddie Mercury’s voice was out of this world. Amazing.
This moved me to tears. Timeless. Priceless. Never forget. Thank you.
There are actually 3 vocals here, Roger Taylor sings backing @2.53 ;)
But still amazing :) Mercury and Bowie had at least 4 octaves in their vocal range.
I know Mercury had about that big of a vocalrange, but do/did Bowie too? Really?
I like the Vanilla Ice version better.
Ice Ice Baby … Ice Ice Baby …
Don’t worry, Chucky. You’ll grown out of your “shitty music is da bomb” phase. We all do eventually.
Amazing. Utterly amazing. Thank you for this!
2 amazing artists in this land!!!! Absolutely artful!
Thank You for sharing
I love David Bowie but Freddie Mercury is absolutely amazing.
gomez de riquet, most modern music uses parallel fifths to great effect. music theory is just that — theory.
Hearing this is fantastic! I was a kid when this came out but it’s a seminal track in music history. Well done!
I’d really love to hear Brian May’s mix. Brian – DO IT!
What a song!
Picture I clicked on for this was of Bowie and Annie Lennox I believe.
Brian May’s final comment got me thinking about how many possible versions of such iconic songs could have existed.
Unabashed goosebumping talent
@gomez: if we’re gonna be music theory geeks it’s actually parallel fourths ;)
I was there live aid July 5th wembley 1985 epic day, queens performance Brel em all away!
I heart Emmy.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Yea …a certain person got sued for stealing another’s work didn’t they chucky?
Amazing. Somehow better without the instrumental. You can really hear what talented vocalists they were/are.
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.
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!!!
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.
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.
Truly sublime. I’d raise its ranking in the top 100. More like top 10
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.
so pure. just a joy to listen to.
Wow. Have always been one day older than Freddie we were teenagers together?What tallent….what a great loss.
This is coming from a metal/punk fan….this song is top 5 song ever written by man.
Queen was a phenomenal boy band!!!
gema don’t allows it to hear in germany
Wow, it is amazing to hear this as just vocals. I have always loved this song!
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!
Cake music posted about this on fb.
These guys! Wiv already said it. but here’s a link to them!
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
“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.
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.
“He just screams more”?? “He just screams more” ?!?!?!??????nOk, now we learned a new thing. Freddie Mercury screamed. A lot.
One of my all time favorites.
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
Precious things do get even more precious with less
l o v e.
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’.
There’s is no one today that can sing like them!
Hauntingly beautiful, made me sit peaceful and still for a long time -thank you! I appreciated the vocals so much more hearing it this way
Dam There is no limits to Freddies range. That ascending portamento to a high A is just incredible…And how long did he hold it for…
That’s not Freddie… it’s the drummer, Roger Taylor.
No, that’s Freddie. Roger Taylor did do the high notes on many Queen songs (like the high “Galileos” and the drawn out “for me” on “Bohemian Rhapsody”), but on this one it’s clearly Freddie.
Very manipulated in studio! Freddy could never hit that note on the best of days, and especially live! falsetto, and major auto tuning, or whatever they called it back then.
Auto-Tune wasn’t invented until 1997, and the first to use it commercially was in 1998. There were ways to manipulate pitch mechanically in the 80s, but not in a way that sounded natural for extended periods to most people’s ears.
My friend owns a studio, and he said they were able to do all kinds of things back then to voices.
Oh, he could – he just chosed not to. Listen to the Live version of this song realas on the Queen Rock Montreal – he dosn’t do the glissando, but he actaully do sing the “It never rains but it pours” in the original falsetto range form the studio track – and he nails it!
So he could hit the nots live, he just chosed not to!
Vanilla Ice doesnt get enough credit for writing this song.
Just joined stumblupon setup likes and first thing I clicked on is this only to tell me not available in your country WHAT!
This is USA BAYBE Not impressed so far !
best song of the 80’s
I always thought this song sounded cobbled together. And I was right.
Love the vocal version it emphasises their complete talent and that high note that Freddie hits?!!!!!!! WOW!!
Still one of my favorite songs.. Every chance I have to hear it on a juke box .. It’s on! Two of my favorite artist ! Freddy Mercury .. True legend ! No one will ever be a front man like him! RIP
David Bowie was excellent in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but his later style was to ego driven. As good as Bowie is, I think that this song would have been much better with only Freddie’s vocals. Freddie Mercury grew over the years as a vocalist, but David Bowie peaked in the the early 70’s. Bowie still had a great voice, but it just didn’t have the same artistic quality, it was too sterile and didn’t mix with the artsy quality of Freddies voice in my opinion. It made for a big hit, but not as much of a classic as it would have been otherwise.
…and Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison. All great and unique talents gone too soon.
so beautiful. it took me a few minutes to catch my breath. love, love, love it!
this video is chilling…
2 of the best singers of our time. It’s very unfortunate that we lost Freddie Mercury. He had so much more to give.
Blasphemy! Bowie’s voice brings a soft haunting quality that compliments Mercury’s piercing clarion notes perfectly. This song would be greatly diminished if either were missing.
LOL Best response, ever!
Freddie mercury is irreplaceable.I miss him and he died too young.not finishing his work with great talent.love bowie too
FUCKING UNREAL!! UNTOUCHABLE!!WAT A COMBINtion CANT TOUCH THIS FREDDY N BOWIE XOXO
It sounds like a coke-fueled jam if I’m honest. Always sounded like a half-written song. Not one of my favourites.
Nice. Pretty sure its Roger Taylor with the high backing bit in “This is our last dance” at the end.
I see what you did there. LOL ;)
Kanye West needed to redo this one and show us how it should have been done. Preferably pointing at the sky in big untied sneakers.
Voice type: Baritone
Sung range: G1-B♭5
Voice Type: “Mercury” Tenor (See explanation below)
Vocal Range: F2-F6
WOW! Two of my faves! Isolated vocals are amazing!
RIP David Bowie. Now both legends can remix this as much as they want in heaven :-(
Do you know they both believed in God?
“No one bleeds for the dancer…”
4 @love Doris
I like Adam Lambert better.