When David Bowie and Freddie Mercury came together to record "Under Pressure" in 1981, the result was one of the best duets of all time. Though the recording process managed to unite some of the most prolific musical geniuses of the 20th century, creating the masterpiece was no simple task.
"Under Pressure" was a song that, like its namesake implies, was produced under pressure. Performed alongside Queen creative masterpieces like "Bohemian Rhapsody," the song became a staple at concerts and appeared on Queen and Bowie albums alike. Creative differences and clashing personalities tested the limits of music-making, but the tension between the singers also made "Under Pressure" a landmark collaboration.
David Bowie Took Over The Vocals, Causing Tension
When David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, and the others returned to Mountain Studios the next day, Bowie continued to guide the vocal component of the song. Brian May acknowledged, "Freddie and David locked horns, without a doubt... but that's when the sparks fly, and that's why it turned out great."
Both Bowie and Mercury had strong personalities, but they behaved like "consummate professionals," according to Peter Hince. "In some ways I think David took over a little bit which caused a few tensions, but that’s how you get good music," Hince added.
The tension continued to New York City where, weeks later, Mercury and Bowie met again to do the final mix on the track. By this point, May had given up on trying to get the two "precocious" stars to agree with one another, recalling to the Daily Mirror:
Freddie and David had different views of how the mix should be done, and the engineer didn't completely know how the studio worked! So it ended up as a compromise... a quick, rough monitor mix.
David Bowie Insisted On Recording Vocals Instead Of Breaking For The Night
Once the musicians laid down the backtrack for what would later become "Under Pressure," several members of the group wanted to call it an evening. It was late and they'd had a lot of wine, but David Bowie wanted to presevere. Brian May recalled:
[Bowie] brought up an unusual idea for creating the vocal. He was kind of famous for writing lyrics by collecting different bits of paper with quotes on them. And we did a corresponding thing as regards writing the top line for the song.
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 tops of our heads - and we'll compile a vocal out of that." And that's what we did.
According to one of the producers at Mountain Studios, there was also "so much blow" fueling the marathon recording session.
David Bowie And Freddie Mercury Started Recording Separately
When Freddie Mercury and David Bowie went into the recording booth to lay down vocals for "Under Pressure," Bowie insisted that they each sing a unique melody separately, then later blend the tracks in the final product.
Mercury and Bowie took turns. Mercury sang "b-b-b-boom-ba" (the scat segment of the song), and it stuck. Bowie sang the famous line, "Pressure pushing down on me," and soon started putting the lyrics together.
Freddie and I came up with our individual top line melodies. So when you hear Freddie sing, that's what he wrote and when you hear me sing, that was mine. Then we worked on the lyrics together. I still cannot believe that we had the whole thing written and recorded in one evening flat. Quite a feat for what is actually a fairly complicated song.
The Mixing Desk Broke While They Were Completing The Song
Freddie Mercury and David Bowie went to New York's Power Station studio to mix the final version of "Under Pressure." Bowie gave orders throughout the process, and at one point, engineer Reinhold Mack had to call in Mercury to help him manage all of Bowie's changes. During the day, the mixing desk broke. The end result was what Brian May called a "cobbled together" version of the song.
The version of "Under Pressure" mixed in New York debuted as a single in October 1981. Before this point, however, Mercury and Bowie bickered about whether or not the song should be re-recorded.