The song was written from the ground up on the night I visited their studio. I believe the riff had already been written by Freddie and the others so then we jointly put together the different chord sections to make it a cohesive piece of music. Then Freddie and I came up with our individual top line melodies. So when you hear Freddie sing, that’s what he wrote and when you hear me sing, that was mine. Then we worked on the lyrics together. I still cannot believe that we had the whole thing written and recorded in one evening flat. Quite a feat for what is actually a fairly complicated song.
-David Bowie Queenzone.com
Think about all of the technology involved in recording today and listen to this analog track. No Auto Tune or Punching on Pro Tools. This is pure talent and to think it was written and recorded in one night is mind blowing!
Queen had been working on the song under the title “Feel Like” but were not yet satisfied with the result. David Bowie had originally come to Mountain Studios in order to sing backing vocals on another Queen song, “Cool Cat”, which would end up being edited out since he was not satisfied with it. Once he got there, they worked together for a while and wrote the song. The final version that became “Under Pressure” evolved from a jam session that Bowie had with the band at Queens studio in Montreux, Switzerland; therefore it was credited as co-written by the five musicians. The scat singing that dominates much of the song is evidence of the jam-beginnings as improvisation. According to Queen bassist John Deacon (as quoted in a French magazine in 1984), however, the song’s primary musical songwriter was Freddie Mercury — though all contributed to the arrangement. Brian May recalled to Mojomagazine in October 2008 that, “It was hard, because you had four very precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us. David took over the song lyrically. 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.” The earlier, embryonic version of the song without Bowie, “Feel Like”, is widely available in bootleg form, and was written by Queen drummer Roger Taylor.
There has been some confusion about who created the song’s bassline. John Deacon said (in Japanese magazine Musiclife in 1982, and in the previously mentioned French magazine) that David Bowie had created it. In more recent interviews, Brian May and Roger Taylor have credited the bass riff to Deacon. Bowie, on his website, said that the bassline was already written before he became involved. Roger Taylor, in an interview for the BBC documentary Queen: the Days of Our Lives, stated that Deacon had indeed created the bassline, stating that all through the sessions in the studio he had been playing the riff over and over; he also claims that when the band returned from dinner Deacon had, amusingly, forgotten the riff, but fortunately Taylor was still able to remember it.
Controversy arose when Vanilla Ice sampled the bassline for his 1990 single “Ice Ice Baby”. Initially he denied the accusation, and then said he had modified it, and did not originally pay songwriting credit or royalties to Queen and Bowie. A lawsuit resulted in all members of Queen and Bowie being given songwriting credit for the sample. Vanilla Ice later purchased the rights to “Under Pressure”. Vanilla Ice said buying the song made more financial sense than paying out royalties.
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