Listen to Freddie Mercury & 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:

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this clas­sic post appeared on our site in 2013.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Queen’s Stun­ning Live Aid Per­for­mance: 20 Min­utes Guar­an­teed to Give You Goose Bumps (July 13, 1985)

Watch David Bowie & Annie Lennox in Rehearsal, Singing “Under Pres­sure,” with Queen (1992)

Watch Queen’s “Bohemi­an Rhap­sody” Act­ed Out Lit­er­al­ly as a Short Crime Film

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