Remembering Freddie Mercury and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’
Freddie Mercury passed away 25 years ago today at age 45. It wasn’t until the passing of his occasional collaborator David Bowie last January that I came across this “a-capella” version of the 1981 Queen song “Under Pressure”, a duet with Bowie, when it was making the social media rounds.
It blew my mind. On this day when friends and family in the US celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s one of the things I’m truly thankful for, that this bit of immeasurable beauty found its way to me this year.
I remember liking the song when it was released back in my late high school years, but my appreciation for it now doesn’t even inhabit that same universe. Like many of you, I’ve probably heard the song a thousand times over the past three decades. But I hadn’t heard all the lyrics clearly until listening to this version that isolates the vocal tracks and rips it to its barest essentials, with Mercury and Bowie’s astounding voices building to this powerfully desperate but sublime sliver of illumination:
‘Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word
And love dares you to care for
The people on the edge of the night
And love dares you to change our way of
Caring about ourselves
This is our last dance
This is our last dance
This is ourselves
The song came about primarily by coincidence, according to this account by Open Culture, when Queen and Bowie crossed paths at Mountain Studios in Montreaux, Switzerland, in the summer of 1981. Bowie dropped in on one of their sessions, they played around a bit, and eventually agreed to have him join in as a back-up vocalist on one song.
Blake describes the scene, as recounted here in the Open Culture piece:
‘We felt our way through a backing track all together as an ensemble,’ recalled Brian May. ‘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 top of our heads–and we’ll compile a vocal out of that.” And that’s what we did.’ Some of these improvisations, including Mercury’s memorable introductory scatting vocal, would endure on the finished track. Bowie also insisted that he and Mercury shouldn’t hear what the other had sung, swapping verses blind, which helped give the song its cut-and-paste feel.
“It was very hard,” said May in 2008, “because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. Passions ran very high. I found it very hard because I got so little of my own way. But David had a real vision and he took over the song lyrically.”
The song was originally titled “People on Streets,” but Bowie wanted it changed to “Under Pressure.” When the time came to mix the song at Power Station studios in New York, Bowie insisted on being there.
“It didn’t go too well,” Blake quotes Queen’s engineer Reinhold Mack as saying. “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.” Mercury and Bowie argued fiercely over the final mix. At one point Bowie threatened to block the release of the song, but it was issued to the public on October 26, 1981 and eventually rose to number one on the British charts. It was later named the number 31 song on VH1’s list of the 100 greatest songs of the 1980s.
“‘Under Pressure’ is a significant song for us,” May said in 2008, “and that is because of David and its lyrical content. I would have found that hard to admit in the old days, but I can admit it now.
That was taken at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, where Mercury appeared on a several story high video screen singing Day-o, as an introduction to “We Are The Champions” which was performed live by May, Queen’s guitarist, and British singer Jessie J. During the brief video clip, May was seen shedding tears. He wasn’t alone.
And for the record, today’s Pic du Jour, the site’s 1,056th straight, was snapped on 12 August 2012.