It was a once-in-a-lifetime pairing and a unique superstar collaboration. ‘Under Pressure,’ the single by Queen and David Bowie, completed its rapid climb to the top of the UK charts on 21 November 1981.
The track was a genuine, physical collaboration, at the band’s favourite recording location of Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland. Bowie, who had a house nearby, dropped in by one night when Queen were recording. ‘Under Pressure’ grew out of a jam session, from a riff by bassist John Deacon, and had quite an impromptu in its finished version, with Freddie Mercury scatting and he and Bowie trading some impromptu vocal expression.
The single took the record-buying public by surprise, as it wasn’t on an existing album and didn’t appear on an LP until it was included on Queen’s Hot Space the following May. Bowie showed up at the sessions for the album, the original plan being that he would sing backing vocals on the track 'Cool Cat.' But as Queen drummer Roger Taylor recounted in Mark Blake’s Is This The Real Life? The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury and Queen, “David came in one night and we were playing other people’s songs for fun, just jamming. In the end, David said, ‘This is stupid, why don’t we just write one?’”
The b-side, ‘Soul Brother,’ was a non-album track too. But fans took to the release quickly, ushering the 45 into the UK chart for the week ending 14 November at No. 8. A week later, it was starting a two-week run at No. 1. Queen’s Greatest Hits album began its second week at the top on the same day.
Perhaps surprisingly, for all the classic singles Queen had already amassed by then. ‘Under Pressure’ was only their second UK singles chart-topper and the first since ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ nearly six years earlier. It was Bowie’s third, after the 1975 reissue of ‘Space Oddity’ and 1980’s ‘Ashes To Ashes.’ The single peaked at a modest No. 29 in America.
Our favourite piece of trivia about ‘Under Pressure’? It marked only the second time that two previous UK chart-topping artists had collaborated on a new No. 1. The previous occasion was in 1967, when Frank and Nancy Sinatra duetted on ‘Somethin’ Stupid.’
Purchase 'Under Pressure' on the expanded remaster of the Hot Space album here.
Follow the official Queen Best Of playlist.