From Open Culture comes this tale of the making of the Queen/David Bowie collaboration, “Under Pressure”.
It demonstrates that sometimes, the unsung heroes of rock were the studio engineers who cobbled together the fleeting pieces of greatness.
The 1981 single hit number one in Great Britain and was a staple of the early days of the burgeoning MTV, and it came about when David stopped off to visit Queen while they recording in Switzerland:
“David came in one night and we were playing other people’s songs for fun, just jamming,” says Queen drummer Roger Taylor in Mark Blake’s book Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen. “In the end, David said, ‘This is stupid, why don’t we just write one?’” And so began a marathon session of nearly 24-hours–fueled, according to Blake, by wine and cocaine. Built around John Deacon’s distinctive bass line, the song was mostly written by Mercury and Bowie. Blake describes the scene, beginning with the recollections of Queen’s guitarist:
‘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.
Here’s the raw vocals recorded that night, in which Freddie Mercury of Queen demonstrates his rock chops by out Bowie-ing Bowie.
And of course, the final version: