‘Under Pressure’ was born of dissatisfaction.
Originally titled ‘Feel Like’, the song was written by drummer Roger Taylor, and although the musical bones are in place on the demo, the song itself is a mess. Considering the quite sophisticated lyrics of ‘Under Pressure’, the demo seems like someone has taken some teenage poetry, removed every second word, auto-translated it to another language, and then back again.
“Oh, you’re so good-looking and baby you’re so smooth /
I know you have, come on baby, wish me luck / I wanna be there, in that truck.”
When those are your placeholder lyrics, scatting begins to seem like a viable option.
Enter David Bowie, who was in the studio to record backing vocals on another Queen song, ‘Cool Cat’. Bowie was dissatisfied with his performance and requested it be erased – and while there, he decided to chime in on this ‘Feel Like’ song the band was jamming on. Why not?
Bowie discussed his involvement on the track during a Q&A on his website, claiming that he and Freddie Mercury basically improvised the entire vocal melody. “Freddie and I came up with our individual top line melodies,” he explained. “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.”
This story appears to check out. Almost every element of what Mercury sings on the ‘Feel Like’ demo is absent from the finished piece, and where Mercury’s vocal lines wander aimlessly in original form, the pair’s recorded interplay now works to propel the song forward. They even make scatting sound half-decent, an achievement which has yet to be replicated.
For a song with such an iconic bassline, it appears to have been added as an afterthought, not appearing at all during the demo. (The two-note piano riff is also missing, although a plunky placeholder suggests they had some plans.) In fact, the bassline’s inclusion came so late in the game that there is confusion as to who actually came up with it: Queen bassist John Deacon claimed Bowie wrote it, Brian May said Deacon wrote it, and Bowie himself remembered the bassline existing before he was involved.
It’s almost as if they all know the bass riff is behind the success of ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and therefore wish to distance themselves from it.