In the days since David’s sad passing, we’ve heard a lot about Bowie the personality, songwriter, performer, chameleon and producer, but it’s also important to acknowledge Bowie the singer.
Though he was apparently very blasé about his own vocal abilities, he must surely lay claim to being one of the finest singers of his generation (this channel has been a revelation) with instinctively brilliant phrasing, breath control, tone and range.
David’s frequent collaborator Mike Garson has recently intimated that Bowie would have liked to do a full-on big-band jazz album, and that doesn’t seem so outlandish given the power of his baritone.
I’ll be looking at some other great Bowie vocal performances in future editions but for now we focus on the 1981 UK number one single ‘Under Pressure’. It was arguably the beginning of Bowie’s ‘pop’ period, when his lyrics and music generally celebrated positivity and unity.
In July 1981, Bowie was at Mountain Studios in Montreux, Switzerland, working on the ‘Cat People’ theme song with producer/co-writer Giorgio Moroder. Queen were in an adjacent room recording the Hot Space album, and, when Bowie popped in to say hello to his good friend (Queen drummer) Roger Taylor, a long-overdue collaboration was finally on the cards.
It was apparently no walk in the park for either party though: Queen guitarist Brian May later recalled that ‘to have his ego mixed with ours made for a very volatile mixture’ while Taylor also confirmed that ‘certain egos were slightly bruised along the way’. But the blend of personalities and approaches paid off; in a feverish, adrenalin-fuelled few hours, described by producer David Richards as ‘a complete jam session and madness in the studio’, they quickly came up with a song initially titled ‘People On Streets’.
The song is a fascinating snapshot of Bowie and Mercury’s vocal styles. Mercury is generally playful and operatic, while Bowie is brooding and understated, until he breaks out the extraordinary trademark ‘histrionics’ in the very moving double-tracked section: “Cause love’s such an old-fashioned word, and love dares you to care/And love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves”.
It’s also very moving to hear his mastery of breath control here, belying the idea that he was just a good ‘natural’ singer; close listening reveals that he takes short, deep breaths at exactly the same points throughout the section, demonstrating that the part was meticulously worked out in advance. Roger Taylor also clearly joins Bowie for a high harmony. David’s whole vocal in general sends chills down the spine.
It’s also impressive from a vocal and production point of view that neither Mercury nor Bowie ever ‘pop’ the microphone in their delivery of the word ‘pressure’ – no mean feat for anyone who’s ever sung in a studio. It’s also instructive to hear the mastery of David Richards’ production – check out the variety of effects added to the vocals, from the deep reverb of the first section through to the total ‘dryness’ of the subdued middle-eight.
The track was mixed in New York by Queen alone without any input from Bowie, a decision that apparently divided opinion; Taylor considered it ‘one of the best things Queen have ever done’ while Bowie surmised that ‘it was done so quickly that some of it makes me cringe a bit.’
EMI were understandably convinced it was a hit, Bowie and Queen less so, though on its UK release in November 1981 it knocked The Police’s ‘Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic’ off the top spot and stayed at number one for two weeks. In the US, ‘Under Pressure’ reached number 29, not particularly impressive but nonetheless Bowie’s best chart placing since ‘Golden Years’ six years before.
David returned to the song 11 years later for a very famous rendition at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert on 20th April 1992, and he would perform it frequently throughout the ’90s usually in duet with his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey.
Though ‘Fashion’ was the first Bowie track that hooked me, this was the second, and it’ll forever be a firm favourite. Let’s celebrate a beautiful song and performance. Thanks to Suzanna Noort for hipping me to the vocal-only version.