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.