"David was an awesome creative force. But you can't have too many awesome creative forces in the same room," reflected May on the 1981 hit
In a new interview with Total Guitar, the Queen guitarist reflected on how the 1981 duet came together between the two British acts and said Bowie removed some of his guitar parts from the final product, sparking his complicated relationship with the rock song.
Queen and Bowie created "Under Pressure" during a late-night studio session "after we had a meal and a lot of drinks," May, 76, told the outlet, explaining that an early iteration of the song "sounded like The Who" and was "massively chord-driven" — which he enjoyed.
"I was beaming because I liked The Who. I remember saying to David, 'Oh, it sounds like The Who, doesn’t it?' He says, 'Yeah, well it’s not going to sound like The Who by the time I’ve finished with it!' You know, in a joking kind of way. But he didn’t want it to be that way," recalled May.
The band member described the collaboration as "very difficult" due to each musician coming with "different ideas of how it should be mixed." May said the moment was "the only time in my career I bowed out, because I knew it was going to be a fight."
"So basically it was Freddie and David fighting it out in the studio with the mix. And what happened in the mix was that most of that heavy guitar was lost," he explained.
May used an electric guitar on "the main riff," playing in a similar "arpeggiated style" used in Queen's live shows today, he detailed: "But that never made it into the mix. What they used [were] the acoustic bits which were done first as a sort of demo."
Despite knowing how strongly audiences connected with "Under Pressure," May admitted, "I never liked it, to be honest, the way it was mixed. But I do recognize that it works. It’s a point of view, and it’s done very well. And people love it."
Looking back, May felt there were too many cooks in the kitchen. "I mean, David was an awesome creative force. But you can’t have too many awesome creative forces in the same room," he told Total Guitar. "It starts to get very difficult! Something has to give."
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"Under Pressure" was originally released as a single in October 1981 before the track was included on Queen's 1982 album Hot Space. The collaboration charted at No. 1 in the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands, while it reached No. 29 in the United States.
Since its initial hit run, "Under Pressure" has proven to be an influential classic — the song has received cover versions by the likes of My Chemical Romance and Shawn Mendes, and it was controversially sampled for Vanilla Ice's 1990 hit "Ice Ice Baby." Following Bowie's death at age 69 in 2016, the song also returned to the charts in several countries.
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