The Story of... 'Under Pressure' by Queen & David Bowie

27 August 2021, 19:28

Freddie Mercury and David Bowie both performing at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985.
Freddie Mercury and David Bowie both performing at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid in 1985. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

The unmistakable bassline in 'Under Pressure' is probably one of the most iconic intro's in rock music history.

It's a rock anthem we've all heard, and have all likely belted out at the top of our lungs at some point in our lives.

Two titans of British rock music came together arm in arm to create one of the most recognisable songs of the past 40 years.

But who wrote the song and how did it come about? Was the song a success when it was first released? Here's all you need to know about the classic track:

Who wrote 'Under Pressure'?

Well, this answer is surprisingly straight-forward. Both David Bowie and Queen wrote the song together.

They had individually booked recording sessions at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland in July 1981. It was in fact Queen's recording engineer Dave Richards that reached out to Bowie with an impromptu phone call and asked if he wanted to join Queen for a session.

Read more: Queen: The pivotal moment unknown band stood in for David Bowie on TV and found overnight fame - video

Bowie later recalled: "They were recording there and, David (Richards) knew that I was in town, and phoned me up and asked me if I’d come down, if I’d like to go down and see what was happening.

"So I went down and these things happen, you know, suddenly you’re writing something together and it was totally spontaneous, it certainly wasn’t planned. It was peculiar!"

What inspired the song?

Each of the band members have slightly different versions of how the song came to be, but they all agree it was after a long night of jamming and messing about about with various cover versions before deciding to write their own material whilst they were in the same place together.

"We were fooling around and then just sort of jamming with tracks and suddenly we said ‘why don’t we just see what we can do on the spur of the moment?’ Freddie Mercury remembered from the session.

Read more: Pop icons on tour: Behind the scenes with George Michael, Queen, Bowie and more

After John Deacon came up with the iconic "Ding, ding, ding, de de, ding, ding” bassline, things got creatively tense between Bowie and Freddie.

Brian May said on the Queen The Greatest series: "by that time David was very impassioned with it and he had a vision in his head I think. It’s quite a difficult process and somebody has to back off, and actually I did back off, which is unusual for me."

Hearing the way it turned out, it was evidently for the best Brian.

When was it released?

Queen bassist John Deacon performing live on stage at Wembley Arena. (Photo by Phil Dent/Redferns)
Queen bassist John Deacon performing live on stage at Wembley Arena. (Photo by Phil Dent/Redferns). Picture: Getty

'Under Pressure' was initially released as a standalone single in October 1981.

Queen later included it on their album Hot Space which was released the following year.

How did it perform in the charts?

Freddie Mercury on stage during a live concert at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes, 1982. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Freddie Mercury on stage during a live concert at the National Bowl in Milton Keynes, 1982. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

The song reached No.1 in the UK singles chart, and hit the top spot in 10 other countries.

It became Queen's second No.1 single, and David Bowie's third. Queen's previous No.1 single was with 'Bohemian Rhapsody', where Bowie had achieved No.1's in the UK with 'Space Oddity' and 'Ashes To Ashes'.

Did they ever perform the song live together?

Unfortunately they never actually performed the song live together, despite one major opportunity to at 1985's Live Aid concert in which they were both on the bill.

Work commitments meant they didn't even have time to shoot the music video together. The official music video directed by David Mallet was beautifully put together using a mish-mash of 1920's silent cinema and documentary footage.

Read more: When mischievous David Bowie pranked Annie Lennox by calling live TV show to make song request

Sadly the nearest we came to hearing David Bowie performing the song with Queen was without Freddie, when Annie Lennox performed the song with the band and Bowie at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 at Wembley Stadium.

Has anyone covered the song?

Numerous artists have covered 'Under Pressure' over the years including Shawn Mendes, Joss Stone, Pink, and Keane.

Foo Fighters cover it on a regular basis in their headline sets, one time even inviting Roger Taylor onstage to perform the iconic track with them.

Vanilla Ice also famously sampled the bassline for his 1990 single 'Ice Ice Baby', but failed to properly credit either David Bowie or Queen which later lead to a lawsuit.

How influential was the song?

'Under Pressure' is widely considered one of the greatest collaborations of all time, given its perfect mix of anthemic lyricism and genuine human sentiment.

One critic said of the track: "[It's] an incredibly powerful and poignant pop song that we will likely not see matched in our lifetimes."

You'd be hard pushed to find someone that doesn't agree.