Brian May on why recording ‘Under Pressure’ with David Bowie was “terrible”

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Within the confines of a recording studio, an atmosphere often thick with tension can either dismantle creative synergy or serve as the crucible for artistic brilliance. Such was the case for Queen when they joined forces with David Bowie for the iconic collaboration, ‘Under Pressure’.

By 1981, Bowie’s illustrious career had reached towering heights, yet he remained unreserved in expressing his candid opinions during the collaborative process. Unlike previous partnerships with solo artists, Bowie found himself navigating the dynamic personalities of all four Queen members, each forthright and unyielding in their artistic convictions.

The genesis of this collaboration unfolded organically at Queen’s studio in Montreux, Switzerland, where they were engrossed in recording their forthcoming album, Hot Space. This wasn’t an orchestrated collaboration devised by record executives but a fortuitous meeting as Bowie, concurrently recording ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ for a horror film soundtrack, crossed paths with Queen in the same facility, laying the groundwork for ‘Under Pressure’.

Bowie’s initial involvement included providing backing vocals for the Queen track ‘Cool Cat,’ although these contributions were later omitted from the final release. As the collaboration evolved, the quintet collectively penned ‘Under Pressure,’ with Bowie credited alongside all four Queen members.

Despite Bowie’s longstanding acquaintance with Queen’s frontman Freddie Mercury since their teenage years, the studio environment ignited tensions, a friction acknowledged by guitarist Brian May. May confessed to the Express that the clash between Freddie and Bowie, while not enjoyable, became the catalyst for their creative zenith. May reflected, “Freddie and David locked horns, without a doubt. But that’s when the sparks fly, and that’s why it turned out so great… (They battled) in subtle ways, like who would arrive last at the studio. So it was sort of wonderful and terrible.”

Initially dissatisfied with the finished version of ‘Under Pressure,’ May’s perspective evolved. He admitted that, despite his initial reservations, the song held a special place in his heart. In an interview with Mojo in 2008, May disclosed, “Looking back, it’s a great song, but it should have been mixed differently. Freddie and David had a fierce battle over that. It’s a significant song because of David and its lyrical content.”

Despite grappling with the challenges of Bowie’s assertive creativity in the studio, the tumult yielded a timeless classic that soared to the top of the charts, proving that even amidst discord, greatness could emerge.

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