How Queen and David Bowie wrote ‘Under Pressure’ – Exclusive


My piece for the Daily Mirror (11 January 2016)…
[They are devoting an entire souvenir issue to Bowie, Tuesday. Bri]

Roger Taylor, Brian May and David Bowie

David Bowie and we guys from Queen came from the same country, of course … and quite close by, in London, at that. But we only hooked up properly because of a coincidence. We all happened to be in a sleepy little town called Montreux in Switzerland at the same time. In the 70s we worked at the small studio there, Mountain Studios, with David Richards, and liked it so much we bought it, and continued to work there until Freddie’s passing many years later. David Bowie had actually settled in Switzerland to live, very close by, and since we already knew him a little, he popped in to say hello one day while we were recording.

Now time dims the memory a little, but the way I remember it we all very quickly decided that the best way to get to know each other was to play together. So we all bowled down into the studio and picked up our instruments. We had fun kicking around a few fragments of songs we all knew. But then we decided it would be great to create something new, on the spur of the moment. We all brought stuff to the table, and my contribution was a heavy riff in D which was lurking in my head. But what we got excited about was a riff which Deacy began playing, 6 notes the same, then one note a fourth down. Ding-Ding-Ding Diddle Ing-Ding, you might say. But suddenly hunger took over and we repaired to a local restaurant for food and a fair amount of drink. (Local Vaux wine as drunk in Montreux is a well-kept secret).

A couple or three hours later, we’re back in the studio. “What was that riff, you had, Deacy?” says David B. “I was like this”, says John Deacon. “No it wasn’t, says Bowie – it was like this”. This was a funny moment because I can just see DB going over and putting his hand on John’s fretting hand and stopping him. It was also a tense moment because it could have gone either way. Deacy did not take kindly to being told what to do, especially by physical interferences while he was playing! But he was good-natured, and it all went ahead. Then we began playing around – using the riff as a starting point. Now normally, if it had been just us, we probably would have gone away and thought about it, and started mapping out a song structure.

David said something like “We should just press on instinctively. Something will happen.” And he was right. It did. I put a little tinkling guitar riff on top of John’s bass riff (David later was adamant it ought to be played on a 12-string, so I overdubbed that later at some point). And then we all mucked in with ideas to develop a backing track. The track had something that sounded like a verse, then a quiet contemplative bit, which built up ready for a climax. I managed to get my heavy riff in here. I remember saying … “cool – it sounds like The Who!” At which point David frowned a little and said “It won’t sound like The Who by the time we’re finished!”

Now at this point there is no song … no vocal, no words – no title, even – no clue as to what the song will mean – just an instrumental backing track. But it really rocked. Born completely spontaneously, it was fresh as a daisy. Stop there? Go away and write a song for it ? “No” – says David.

He’d been working with a bunch of people who developed a technique for creating the top line by ‘democracy’ as well as the backing track. The procedure was each of us went into the vocal booth consecutively, without listening to each other, and, listening to the track, vocalised the first things that came into our heads, including any words which came to mind, working with the existing chord structure. At this point Freddie laid down his amazing De Dah Day bits, very unusual, which actually made it to the final mix.

The next step was to cut up everybody’s bits and make a kind of compilation ‘best of’ vocal track – which would then be used as the template for the final vocals. It came out pretty strange, but very different. We all went home that night with a rough mix which was provisionally called ‘People on Streets’, because these words were part of the rough.

The next day we reconvened, and I think I was prepared to try some new ideas out. But David was in there first, and told us he wanted to take the track over, because he knew what he wanted it to be about. So, to cut a long story short, that is what happened. We all backed off and David put down a lyric which now focussed on the ‘Under Pressure’ part of the existing lyric. It was unusual for us all to relinquish control like that but really David was having a genius moment – because that is a very telling lyric. And the rest is history?

When it came to mixing the track, I, (uncharacteristically, since I was usually the last one left in the studio of a night), opted out altogether, so that there were fewer cooks to spoil the broth. Roger hung right in there – and Roger, who had been a fan of Bowie from way back, was very instrumental in making sure the track got finished. In fact it didn’t get mixed until a few weeks later in New York. That’s a whole different story, but I wasn’t there, so all I know is that Freddie and David had different views of how the mix should be done, and the engineer didn’t completely know how the studio worked! So it ended up as a compromise … a quick rough monitor mix. But that was what became the finished album track, and a single too, which made a mark all around the world.

Now Roger stayed close to David from then on. We all frequently bumped into each other in Montreux at the Jazz Festival, at Claude Knobs’s house (creator of the Festival) or at the house of Charlie Chaplin, close by in Vevey – his last wife was a friend of David’s and very hospitable. So the links were there, and I remember David was always very patient with my small boy Jimmy … playing with him on the floor with Claude’s toys.

But the next time we really spent serious time together was at the rehearsals for the Freddie Tribute Show, which Roger and I put together after we lost Freddie. There was one bizarre moment, when I looked around in the rehearsal room and realised that, on some makeshift chairs, in a line waiting for their rehearsal spots, sat Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant, George Michael, and David Bowie. David, as I remember, was very mellow by then, and made a wonderful contribution to the show, including a literally show-stopping moment when he went down on one knee and recited the Lord’s Prayer. If you look at our faces on the video for that moment, you can see that it was just as big a surprise to us as it was to the audience!! David’s duet with Annie Lennox that night is legendary. But pretty much everything David did was legendary.

Never predictable, never classifiable, immensely lateral thinking and fearless, he stands as one of Britain’s greatest musical creators. I’m certainly proud to have worked with him.

RIP David.