BOWIE / MERCURY: Why was there friction between them when they recorded Under Pressure?

Robin Meadows · Michael Lee-Kapsalis, MM Music & Vocal Performance, Indiana University (2001)

There was friction between everyone when they wrote and recorded Under Pressure together. The song was written not just by Freddie and David but by Queen and David. In fact, it was John Deacon who came up with the bass line. However, according to both Deacon and Reinhold Mack who was the music producer for the song Freddie was the primary songwriter for the tune and music of Under Pressure.

Brian has said that David ultimately took over the lyrics to the song. Mack said that at one point David suggested that he and Freddie go in separate rooms and record separate vocals and see what happened. Afterward Freddie was amazed at how well David's vocals blended but Mack just laughed and said, well that's because he was actually listening in on you. (I'm assuming Mack wasn't also doing cocaine but who knows?)

Queen was known for having arguments in the studio. Brian said that it was like four artists trying to paint on the same canvas and that sometimes the arguments became quite vicious and personal. Music producers and sound engineers have said that although they all fought it was often Freddie who was the peacemaker between Brian and Roger who were often at odds. John joked once that he was the mild one because he didn't yell as loud or as often as the others.

Adding another ego into the mix naturally upped the ante. David might have had the biggest ego as he was acclaimed by the critics while Queen was scorned by them and this was before Queen became such a huge band later in the 80's. Brian became so frustrated with David that he walked out at one point and says he finally gave up fighting and sort of gave in. Brian did not go to NYC to put finishing touches on the song with the others as he “had backed out of the project”.

I've heard an early version of the song in which Brian also sings a few lines and I wish he had not given in. It sounds very good and should have made the cut because it would have been even cooler to have three vocalists IMO. David has collaborated happily with others and helped many up and coming artists and bands so maybe it was a Queen thing or maybe David thought he knew better. (Sorry for all the speculation but at least it's framed as such and without it one could just go to wiki where I found some of this info in addition to bios and interviews.) Freddie once called Queen the bitchiest band around and said they would fight over the air they breathed if possible.

When Freddie and David recorded the final vocals later in NYC it was said that they clashed and Roger had to play peacemaker. One of Freddie's friends from NYC claimed that David did not like Freddie's scatting—the nonsense sounds used by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz singers. I LOVE the scatting and all the vocals from Freddie. New Yorker Magazine said about Freddie's pleading lines “Can't we give ourselves one more chance” ending with “give love” x 5 “I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to describe that half-minute or so as truly perfect, in the purest sense of the word—complete, beyond improvement.”

Add heavy use of alcohol and cocaine and you have even more combustion. It's almost legendary how much cocaine was consumed during this marathon session lasting over 24 hours. Maybe that's why John said afterward that David had come up with the great bass line even though David said it was written before he came in the studio and Brian and Roger clarified that it was written by John. Early on after they took a break John couldn't even remember the bass line anymore but Roger was able to. There are other wildly varying accounts of what went on during the session and I guess the drugs would account for that as well. In 2005 Stylus magazine declared it the best bass line in rock history. It's so good it was stolen in broad daylight by Vanilla Ice who was sued and forced to credit Queen and Bowie for his song and pay them royalties. (I'm not sure why he didn't just have to credit and pay John. Maybe John should have yelled louder and more often.)

The session and song came about purely by accident. Queen was recording in their studio in Montreaux when David decided to stop in and visit with them. After jamming for a while someone suggested they write their own song. In a 2011 Rolling Stone poll it was considered the number one rock collaboration of all time.

Queen performed the song regularly but in spite of the song's big success, Bowie strangely refused to ever perform it live until the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert when he performed it with Annie Lennox. Really strange. This may have led to speculation that there was some sort of rift or something that he was unhappy about with the song. But after 1995 Bowie began performing it at almost every show and often dedicated it to Freddie.

Update: I just came across this while looking for something else.

Any friction between them must have become water under a bridge. A publicist for both Live Aid and Bowie named Bernard Doherty said about Freddie and David on the day of Live Aid, “The one musician David was genuinely pleased to see was Freddie. They really were delighted to be together again. They stood chatting as if they’d only seen each other yesterday. The affection between them was tangible.”

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