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 Queen's 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 Mojo magazine 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.
The video for the song features neither Queen nor David Bowie due to touring commitments. Taking the theme of pressure, director David Mallet edited together stock footage of traffic jams, commuter trains packed with passengers, explosions, riots, cars being crushed and various pieces of footage from silent films of the 1920s, most notably Sergei Eisenstein's influential Soviet film Battleship Potemkin, the silent Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore, and F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, a master work of the German Expressionist movement. The video celebrates the pressure-cooker mentality of a culture willing to wage war against political machines, and at the same time love and have fun (there is also footage of crowds enjoying concerts, and lots of black and white kissing scenes).
"Under Pressure" (Mercury, Taylor, Deacon, May, Bowie) – 4:02
The September 2005 edition of online music magazine Stylus singled out the bassline as the best in popular music history. In November 2004, Stylus music critic Anthony Miccio commented that "Under Pressure" "is the best song of all time" and described it as Queen's "opus". In 2012, Slant Magazine listed "Under Pressure" as the 21st best single of the 1980s.
Although very much a joint project, only Queen incorporated the song into their live shows at the time. Bowie chose not to perform the song before an audience until the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert, when he and Annie Lennox sang it as a duet (backed by the surviving Queen members). However, since Mercury's death and the Outside tour in 1995, Bowie has performed the song at virtually every one of his live shows, with bassist Gail Ann Dorsey taking Mercury's vocal part. The song also appeared in setlists from A Reality Tour mounted by Bowie in 2004, when he frequently would dedicate it to Freddie Mercury. Queen + Paul Rodgers have recently performed the song; and in summer of 2012, Queen + Adam Lambert toured, including a performance of the song by Lambert and Roger Taylor in each show. While Bowie was never present for a live performance of the song with Mercury, Roger Taylor instead filled for back-up vocals usually in unison with Mercury, as Mercury would take over most of Bowie's parts.
Queen first recorded a live version of the song at The Montreal Forum in Canada on 24 November 1981. This was included in the concert films We Will Rock You and Queen Rock Montreal. Incidentally it is one of the few times in concert where Mercury used falsetto in the song on the line "these are the days it never rains but it pours".
A second live version of the song was recorded at Milton Keynes, England, in 1982. This was released in 2004 on the live album/DVD Queen on Fire - Live at the Bowl. Prior to the concert, rumours circulated that Bowie would appear with Queen to sing his parts onstage, but it is probable that he did not even attend the concert.
Later, Queen recorded a third live version of the song at Wembley Stadium, London, in 1986. This was released on the live album/DVD Live at Wembley Stadium. Another rendition from this same tour (from Queen's concert in Budapest) appeared in edited form on the album Live Magic in 1986. A recording taken from Queen's last gig in Knebworth Park in 1986, appears, albeit in remixed form, as a B-side from second CD single of "Rah Mix" version of this song, released in 1999. (See below)
A version recorded by David Bowie's live band in 1995 was released on the bonus disc included with some versions of Outside – Version 2. This live version was also released on the single "Hallo Spaceboy" in 1996.
David Bowie's DVD A Reality Tour (2003) includes a live version with Bowie's bassist Gail Ann Dorsey singing Mercury's parts.
A remixed version (called "Rah Mix") was issued in December 1999 to promote Queen's Greatest Hits III compilation, reaching No. 14 on the UK Singles Chart. The video for Under Pressure "Rah Mix" was directed by DoRo and features footage of Freddie Mercury from the 12 July 1986 Wembley concert and David Bowie at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert also at Wembley on 20 April 1992 spliced together due to digital technology (and with Annie Lennox carefully edited out) and features on Greatest Flix III VHS, Under Pressure "Rah Mix" cd single CD1 and Queen Hot Space 2011 iTunes edition.
Two CD singles (one multimedia enhanced) released 6 December 1999 and 7" picture disc released 13 December 1999. As Bohemian Rhapsody wins The Song of The Millennium award, this released as b-side under the title "The Song of The Millenium – Bohemian Rhapsody"
Was featured nearly in its entirety in the 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story, initially as a 'cover' by the patients in a music therapy class at a New York City psychiatric ward, which the film transformed into the authentic song 'performed' by the patients, dressed in glam, in a near music-video style imaginary sequence (with David Bowie and Queen's original vocals and instrumentation).
In 2011, Wakefield trio The Cribs, who have expressed an interest in having latter-day Queen producer David Richards helm their fifth studio album, covered the song live in a session for the Brazilian website Popload.
In 1990, Florida-based rapper Vanilla Ice sampled the song's bass line and signature piano chords for his hit "Ice Ice Baby". The opening riffs of the two songs are virtually identical.
In 1999, rapper Charli Baltimore recorded a song called "Ice" (featuring rapper Mase) for her album Cold As Ice, which uses samples from "Under Pressure". However, it wasn't included as sample clearance could not be secured.
The song is also covered (instrumental) in the 2013 Target Back-to-School ad campaign.
The song was used prominently in a scene in the 2010 film It's Kind of a Funny Story
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 publishing rights to "Under Pressure". Vanilla Ice said buying the song made more financial sense than paying out royalties.
Rock Band music gaming platform
The song was made available to download on 7 December 2010 for use in the Rock Band 3 music gaming platform in both Basic rhythm, and PRO mode which allows use of a real guitar / bass guitar, and MIDI compatible electronic drum kits / keyboards in addition to up to three-part harmony or backup vocals.
^Anderson, Becky (22 February 2010). "Interview with Vanilla Ice (transcript)". cnn.com. Archived from the original on 10 March 2013. Retrieved 10 March 2013. "The great thing is, is I bought back all my royalties and I bought that song, too. So it kind of comes back around, kind of like Michael Jackson both The Beatles. [...] I can do whatever I want with it, because I own it."