Under Pressure was born by chance, written by David Bowie and Queen in a day that wasn’t supposed to bring anything interesting. But sometimes, even from a bad start, an unforgettable hit can come.
In the fall of 1981, Queen were engaged in Montreux (where Deep Purple’s Smoke On the Water was born) for the recording of Hot Space, the album which was intended to repeat the great success of The Game.
For that occasion, they invited David Bowie to participate in Cool Cat, one of the songs planned for the album: The White Duke was coming off the success of Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), which approached again the high floors of the charts after the missing commercial appeal of Berlin trilogy.
The meeting between Queen and Bowie didn’t lead to appreciable results and the author of Space Oddity even asked to delete his contribution to the song, which evidently didn’t satisfy him.
Freddie Mercury proposed then a much more substantial collaboration between his band and the former Ziggy Stardust: instead of a simple appearance in the choirs, he would have been the protagonist of a duet.
The Queen had just a piece made by Roger Taylor, titled Feel Like, which was already in an advanced state and looked like it just needed the magic touch by Bowie.
The demo of Feel Like was not supposed to become a hit, both for its music and its lyrics, and probably if it wasn’r for Bowie Queen would have parked it somewhere, waiting for the right inspiration.
The contributions for the lyrics evolved the song into Under Pressure (initially renamed People On Streets) and shifted the mood from the typical love song to something thematically different, closer to Bowie’s character.
The Thin White Duke influenced the others and convinced them to describe the growing, often overwhelming “pressure” exerted by modern society over the common man.
Making the song took apparently a full day’s work (sustained thanks to coffee, wine and various “additives”). Bowie said afterwards that Under Pressure was born in a single day, or rather in “an infinite night”: they just didn’t stop working until they got the song they had in mind.
In fact there was some break, and one of them (for dinner) put on risk one of its most famous characheristics, the famous bass riff which managed to transform the rough demo of Feel Like in a potential hit: John Deacon got the inspiration for that riff before dinner, but when they were back he totally forgot it: luckily Roger Taylor had it still in mind and Deacon’s idea was not lost.
The monumental crescendo, the sinuous melodic line, the encounter between two of the most beautiful and charismatic voices ever, in addition to the aforementioned lyrics and the bass riff, all this decreed the success of Under Pressure, first published in October of 1981 as a single and then included in Hot Space the following year.
While Queen made out of it one of their must in live performances, Bowie didn’t play Under Pressure in any concert until 1995, and only then he decided to propose it regularly on the Outside tour. Before 1995, he played it live in one only occasion: at theFreddie Mercury Tribute Concert of 1992, when he performed together with Annie Lennox that hit born by chance and soon turned into one of the most popular songs ever made.