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.
During the summer of 1981, David Bowie and members of Queen found themselves in the quiet town of Montreux, Switzerland. Queen regularly recorded at Mountain Studios in Montreux, and Bowie had a home in nearby Vevey. Bowie and Queen members - Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon - were already acquainted with one another, so it was merely a friendly drop-in.
According to Peter Hince, former head of Queen's road crew, drummer Roger Taylor had invited Bowie to the studio out of "mutual admiration." Bowie remembered it differently, telling BBC Radio 1 that they came together through the efforts of David Richards, the sound engineer at Queen's Mountain Studios:
I was in town, in Montreux, doing some other work there, and because I believe that Queen have something to do with the studio on a business level, I think it's their studio or something like that and they were recording there, and David knew that I was in town and phoned me up and asked me to come down, if I'd like to come down to see what was happening, so I went down, and these things happen, you know.
When Bowie arrived at the studio to greet the band, they all decided that working together was a good idea.
Once in the studio, Queen and David Bowie picked up their instruments and started playing. Peter Hince recalled, "They just started knocking things around. They did cover versions [and] a few of their own things... It was one of those rock-n-roll moments. They were just fooling around and played each other['s] songs."
Bowie called the whole experience "totally spontaneous, it certainly wasn't planned. It was... peculiar."
Roger Taylor spoke about the session, stating, "Well, I think the process was we were all drunk and in the studio and we were, just for fun, we were playing all sorts of old songs, and then a couple Cream songs, and whatever came into our heads."
After the musicians were jamming for a while, Taylor said it was Bowie who suggested tackling some new material.
As Queen and David Bowie played, their collaboration took a shift from existing music to creating something new. Brian May recalled, "We played a few old songs and then something new started to happen and we said, 'Okay, let’s try and record this.' It was a truly spontaneous thing. We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble."
John Deacon played the well-known six-note riff that opened the song, and after the group broke for dinner, they returned - having imbibed several bottles of wine - and the song began to take shape. For his part, Deacon credited Bowie and Freddie Mercury for doing most of the work, claiming he had to learn the bassline. In yet another version of how it came together, Deacon came up with the riff but, when he tried to replay it for Bowie later, the glam-rocker corrected him by guiding Deacon's hands.
In 2004, Bowie told a reporter:
The song was written from the ground up on the night I visited their studio. I believe the riff had already been written by Freddie and the others, so then we jointly put together the different chord sections to make it a cohesive piece of music.
The song that David Bowie and Queen wrote in July 1981 was initially called "People on Streets." Those words appeared in the initial lyrics laid down by the musicians during their first night of recording, but the next day, as Bowie continued to lead the way on the vocals, everyone focused on the "under pressure" lyric instead.
After some initial mixing, Bowie changed the song's name to "Under Pressure."