When David Bowie Grabbed the Reins From Queen During the ‘Under Pressure’ Sessions
While David Bowie notched two No. 1 hits on America’s pop charts in his career, he had even more success in the UK. After topping the pack with 1975’s “Space Oddity,” Bowie kicked off his most commercially successful decade with 1980’s “Ashes to Ashes.”
The following year, Bowie again hit No. 1 in the UK with “Under Pressure,” a single on which he shared headline billing with Queen. In those days, Queen was on a run of its own: The group scored both its Billboard No. 1 hits (“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” and “Another One Bites the Dust”) in ’80.
So when Bowie and Queen got to work together on a new song in July 1981, music fans and record companies alike had plenty to get excited about. And “Under Pressure,” the result of their collaboration, was the critical and commercial success you’d expect.
All commerce aside, “Under Pressure” was a rocking track that saw two of the era’s top artists joining forces. According to interviews Queen guitarist Brian May has given over the years, Bowie and the band (including Freddie Mercury) butted heads during the sessions. And Bowie eventually got his way.
Brian May recalled David Bowie taking control in the studio
As you might expect with a song that’s four decades old, there has been some confusion about whether Bowie or a member of Queen came up with particular parts of the song. But May has been consistent about remembering Bowie and Mercury battling in the studio.
“Freddie and David locked horns, without a doubt,” May recalled in a 2017 Mojo interview. “But that’s when the sparks fly, and that’s why it turned out great.” The sessions began harmlessly enough, with Bowie and the four members of Queen knocking around ideas.
In a 2019 interview on the Ultimate Classic Rock Nights show, May said the song originally had the working title of “People in the Streets.” He described Bowie’s “avant-garde method of constructing the vocals” that involved everyone singing whatever popped into their head on the backing track.
Eventually, the random thoughts and lyrics started taking shape. However, it couldn’t continue being an open collaboration. “Somebody has to take the helm,” May said. “And, really, to be honest, that person was [Bowie].”
May said Bowie originally balked at the classic bass line
You can’t talk about “Under Pressure” without discussing the song’s signature bass line (later sampled by Vanilla Ice). According to May, Queen bassist John Deacon came up with the classic hook during the early stages of working through the track with Bowie.
As May recalled it, Bowie wasn’t thrilled about Deacon’s riff at first. “I remember David Bowie reaching over to John and saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,'” May told Ultimate Classic Rock Nights. But Deacon held his ground.
“Excuse me? I’m the bass player, right? This is how I do it!” May recalled Deacon telling Bowie. Eventually, the band worked through the horn-locking to lay down their legendary cut. It took some deferring on Queen’s part, but the group stuck to their guns when it mattered.