In the studio

‘Under Pressure’ was recorded in July 1981. David Bowie lived in Switzerland, not far from Mountain Studios, where Queen recorded many of their albums.

Asked in 2004 about the recording, in response to a question from a fan, Bowie revealed the genesis of the song.

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. Then 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.
David Bowie

The recording took place over a 24-hour period, fuelled by copious amounts of cocaine and wine. “There was so much blow,” recalled the album’s producer Reinhold Mack.

Queen had been working on a song titled ‘Feel Like’, which was failing to come together. The chords in the verses were reused for ‘Under Pressure’ which, according to guitarist Brian May, emerged from a studio jam.

Now time dims the memory a little, but the way I remember it we all very quickly decided that the best way to get to know each other was to play together. So we all bowled down into the studio and picked up our instruments.

We had fun kicking around a few fragments of songs we all knew. But then we decided it would be great to create something new, on the spur of the moment. We all brought stuff to the table, and my contribution was a heavy riff in D which was lurking in my head.

But what we got excited about was a riff which Deacy began playing, six notes the same, then one note a fourth down. Ding-Ding-Ding Diddle Ing-Ding, you might say.

But suddenly hunger took over and we repaired to a local restaurant for food and a fair amount of drink. (Local Vaux wine as drunk in Montreux is a well-kept secret). A couple or three hours later, we’re back in the studio. “What was that riff, you had, Deacy?” says David B. “I was like this”, says John Deacon. “No it wasn’t, says Bowie – it was like this”.

This was a funny moment because I can just see DB going over and putting his hand on John’s fretting hand and stopping him. It was also a tense moment because it could have gone either way. Deacy did not take kindly to being told what to do, especially by physical interferences while he was playing! But he was good natured, and it all went ahead.

Then we began playing around – using the riff as a starting point. Now normally, if it had been just us, we probably would have gone away and thought about it, and started mapping out a song structure. David said something like “We should just press on instinctively. Something will happen.”

And he was right. It did. I put a little tinkling guitar riff on top of John’s bass riff (David later was adamant it ought to be played on a 12-string, so I overdubbed that later at some point). And then we all mucked in with ideas to develop a backing track.

The track had something that sounded like a verse, then a quiet contemplative bit, which built up ready for a climax. I managed to get my heavy riff in here. I remember saying … ‘cool – it sounds like The Who!” At which point David frowned a little and said “It won’t sound like The Who by the time we’re finished!”

Now at this point there is no song … no vocal, no words – no title, even – no clue as to what the song will mean – just an instrumental backing track. But it really rocked. Born completely spontaneously, it was fresh as a daisy. Stop there? Go away and write a song for it ? “No” – says David.

He’d been working with a bunch of people who developed a technique for creating the top like by ‘democracy’ as well as the backing track. The procedure was each of us went into the vocal booth consecutively, without listening to each other, and, listening to the track, vocalised the first things that came into our heads, including any words which came to mind, working with the existing chord structure.

At this point Freddie laid down his amazing De Dah Day bits, very unusual, which actually made it to the final mix.

Brian May
Daily Mirror, 11 January 2016

A rough mix was made of the backing track and improvised vocals. At this stage the song was known as ‘People On Streets’. Copies of the mix were given to each of the five musicians to take away overnight.

The following day, Bowie arrived at the studio with a vision for the focus of the song.

I think I was prepared to try some new ideas out. But David was in there first, and told us he wanted to take the track over, because he knew what he wanted it to be about.

So, to cut a long story short, that is what happened. We all backed off and David put down a lyric which now focussed on the ‘Under Pressure’ part of the existing lyric.

It was unusual for us all to relinquish control like that but really David was having a genius moment – because that is a very telling lyric.

Brian May
Daily Mirror, 11 January 2016

‘Under Pressure’ was mixed on 11 September 1981 by Bowie, Freddie Mercury, drummer Roger Taylor, and engineer Reinhold Mack. The 18-hour overdub and mixing session took place at New York’s Power Station studio.

The first of the two sessions for Under Pressure was twenty-four hours and the second, a couple of weeks later and 4,000 miles away in New York when Freddie and Bowie finished off the track at the Power Station, was a session which lasted another eighteen hours… I was overjoyed in New York when Freddie took up my suggestion of the two-octave vocal slide which I had noticed being so successfully used on another current chart disco track.
Freddie Mercury, Peter Freestone

Bowie initially worked on the mix with Mack, although the pair failed to make good progress.

It didn’t go too well. 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.
Reinhold Mack
Is This The Real Life?, Mark Blake

Bowie and Mercury clashed during the fractious mixing session, to the degree that Bowie is said to have threatened to block the song’s release as a single.

I didn’t think it was a big enough hit. Actually I think it deserved to be a bigger one but I think that, you know, it was all a bit difficult. We had never actually collaborated actively with anybody before. So certain sort of egos were slightly bruised along the way. We never actually finished the record to my satisfaction. We finished it in New York, and it wasn’t, technically, as good as it could have been. It could have been a lot better I think.
Roger Taylor

Taylor reportedly played a key role in both peacekeeping and guiding the song to completion. Of all the Queen members, he was closest to Bowie, and the pair worked well together.

Roger hung right in there – and Roger, who had been a fan of Bowie from way back, was very instrumental in making sure the track got finished.

In fact it didn’t get mixed until a few weeks later in New York.

That’s a whole different story, but I wasn’t there, so all I know is that 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.

But that was what became the finished album track, and a single too, which made a mark all around the world.

Now Roger stayed close to David from then on.

Brian May
Daily Mirror, 11 January 2016