How Queen and David Bowie Put Themselves ‘Under Pressure’
Brian May recalled the challenges Queen faced while they worked with David Bowie on 1981 collaborative track “Under Pressure,” saying that there had been a struggle for overall control which Bowie eventually won.
All five musicians had gathered with no preconceived ideas as to what the result of their efforts might be – but each of them also had strong feelings on where the piece they were creating should go, as May told Uncle Joe Benson on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights radio show.
“We went in there with a clear canvas, David and the four of us, and kicked around a few riffs and things, and that was one of the the things we came up with,” May said, confirming that the song had been titled “People on the Streets” for “a day and a half, probably.” He recalled a moment soon after John Deacon had come up with the signature bass riff: “I remember David Bowie reaching over to John and saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,’ and John going, ‘Excuse me? I’m the bass player, right? This is how I do it!’”
Freddie Mercury and the rest of Queen followed Bowie’s lead when it came to the words and melody. “[T]he vocal was constructed in a very novel way, which came through David, because he had experience of this avant-garde method of constructing the vocals,” May reported. “He said, ‘Everybody just goes in there with no ideas, no notes, and sings the first thing that comes into their head over the backing track.’ So we all did, and then we compiled all the bits and pieces – and that’s what ‘Under Pressure’ was based on; all those random thoughts.
“But somebody has to take the helm,” the guitarist continued. “Somebody has to decide what you actually use. And really, to be honest, that person was David, because he just went, ‘I’m doing it, I’m doing it,’ being David Bowie. And we went, ‘Ooh, okay…’”
May eventually bowed out of discussions over the mixing of the song, because “we all had different ideas.” Bowie and Mercury did a rough mix between them in a New York studio, and more or less did it alone because, May said: “I’m giving away secrets here – the guy we were working with didn’t really understand the [mixing] desk!” He continued: “I would have mixed it very differently, but I think what’s going on in ‘Under Pressure’ is great. It’s David who nailed the title and ultimately what the song was about.”
Queen and David Bowie - ‘Under Pressure’
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