The Making of Queen and David Bowie’s 1981 Hit “Under Pressure”: Demos, Studio Sessions & More

Before “Ice Ice Baby” became the most ubiq­ui­tous ear­worm of 1989, its sam­pled groove drove a song record­ed 8 years ear­li­er, Queen and David Bowie’s bril­liant col­lab­o­ra­tion “Under Pres­sure.” Sty­lus mag­a­zine—who declared Queen bassist John Deacon’s three-note riff the num­ber one bassline of all time—called the song “pos­sessed of under­stat­ed cool […] min­i­mal and pre­cise.” And if some­how you’ve nev­er heard it, have a lis­ten; you’ll sure­ly agree. Bowie and Fred­die Mercury’s trad­ed lines and melod­ic scat­ting build to pow­er­ful crescen­dos then pull back into deeply mov­ing har­monies. Lyri­cal­ly the song com­petes with any­thing writ­ten by either artist. As it turns out, Queen and Bowie wrote the song in a day, or as Bowie has it, “one evening flat.” “Quite a feat,” “for what is actu­al­ly a fair­ly com­pli­cat­ed song,” he wrote in response to a fan’s ques­tion on his offi­cial web­site.

Bowie remem­bers that “the riff had already been writ­ten by Fred­die and the oth­ers” when he joined them in the stu­dio in Mon­treux, Switzer­land. In fact, “Under Pres­sure” evolved out of anoth­er song entire­ly, “Feel Like,” writ­ten by drum­mer Roger Tay­lor, which you can hear above in a very rough demo record­ing. A great many of the ele­ments are there—Brian May’s restrained gui­tar work, Taylor’s midtem­po clock­work drum­ming, and many of the vocal melodies that would end up on “Under Pres­sure.” But that icon­ic bassline is miss­ing, as is, of course, the lat­er song’s oth­er big star. You can see the influ­ence Bowie had on the the­mat­ic direc­tion of the new song. “Feel Like” is a clas­sic Queen lament over lost love, “Under Pres­sure” an apoc­a­lyp­tic cry of both fear and empa­thy.

And that bassline? Every­one recalls that John Dea­con him­self came up with it. But Dea­con, ever mod­est, cred­it­ed it to Bowie in a 1984 inter­view. In either case, Dea­con appar­ent­ly for­got the riff, and May had to remind him of it—a fun­ny moment you can hear above in a record­ing of stu­dio ses­sions for the song. Bri­an May recalls that Bowie lived near the stu­dio and that they “went out for a meal or some drinks or some­thing.” This may well be, but he doesn’t tell us that Bowie orig­i­nal­ly joined the band in the stu­dio to sing back­ing vocals for an even­tu­al­ly scrapped R&B song called “Cool Cat.” An ear­li­er Open Cul­ture post fea­tur­ing the iso­lat­ed vocal tracks from “Under Pres­sure” (below) quotes both Tay­lor and May’s descrip­tions of what was, some­what con­trary to Bowie’s under­state­ment, actu­al­ly a 24-hour-long ses­sion, pow­ered by wine and cocaine.

Their rem­i­nisces, record­ed in Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Sto­ry of Fred­die Mer­cury and Queen, also inform us that Bowie and Mer­cury “swap[ped] vers­es blind, which helped give the song its cut-and-paste feel.” Though the band sounds light­heart­ed enough in the stu­dio ses­sions, the song­writ­ing, May remem­bers, was fraught with ten­sion. “It was very hard,” he said in 2008, “because you already had four pre­co­cious boys and David, who was pre­co­cious enough for all of us.” Bowie, says May, “took over the song lyri­cal­ly” and insist­ed on pre­sid­ing over the final mix ses­sion, which “didn’t go well,” accord­ing to Queen engi­neer Rein­hold Mack. For his part, May has said he would “love to sit down qui­et­ly on my own and re-mix it.”

While he hasn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­lowed through on that desire, May and Roger Tay­lor did con­tribute a dance mix of “Under Pressure”—the so-called “Rah Mix”—to 1999’s Great­est Hits III (hear it above). The remix was a top 20 hit, but I, for one, think it’s impos­si­ble to improve on the orig­i­nal.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Gui­tarist Bri­an May Explains the Mak­ing of Queen’s Clas­sic Song, ‘Bohemi­an Rhap­sody’

The Sto­ry of Zig­gy Star­dust: How David Bowie Cre­at­ed the Char­ac­ter that Made Him Famous

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (9)
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  • 2katman2 says:

    It’s a 2‑note riff, not 3‑note.

  • DW says:

    cor­rec­tion — that bass riff is only 2 notes not 3.

  • actual muscian says:

    The riff is sev­en notes long. Six notes played on the ton­ic, and the last note played on the under­ly­ing fifth.

    More specif­i­cal­ly, three quar­ter notes, then two 16th notes, then two quar­ter notes, and a quar­ter-note rest, filled with a fin­ger snap, to end the mea­sure in 4/4 time.

  • self-hating white guy says:

    the brat­ty bick­er­ing above is why i hate the inter­net

  • Rio says:

    …the brat­ty bick­er­ing above is the rea­son i hate musi­cians :D well, kin­da love/hate. They real­ly are just nerds, only cool­er, because music is cool. If i had a dollar(actually we have euros but..)every time i have wit­nessed dis­cus­sion like that… i could have a pret­ty decent night out :D

  • Martin Cervantes says:

    Love that song.

  • Xavier says:

    The first video is from a radio tour ses­sion that Bri­an did in 1991, I think. He went do dif­fer­ent radio sta­tions and played some songs. It’s not a rare out­take of the record­ing ses­sions of the song.

  • Xavier says:

    Sec­ond video, I meant, sor­ry

  • ER says:

    That first video looks like it the per­for­mance on Sat­ur­day Night Live in NYC; just the visu­al, not the vocals. It’s blocked on YouTube„ but avail­able on Vimeo.

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