“Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest. He took it over the edge. And of course, I always admired a man who wears tights. I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”
David Bowie on Freddie Mercury
It is interesting how many times the lives and careers of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury intersected over the years. Bowie, struggling to make a name for himself in the late 60s, played a gig at Freddie’s college in London (Bowie never went to college but was self-taught and a voracious reader). Freddie was there to help out. As there was no stage, Bowie told Freddie and the others to help him push some desks together to create a makeshift one and the show went ahead.
Freddie had a desire to become a rock star himself but was struggling to write songs. The man, who in just a few short years would go on to write what is routinely cited as the best song of all-time, Bohemian Rhapsody, would bang his head in frustration on his piano and ask: “how do they do it?” It’s possible he took inspiration from Bowie, a man writing his own material and performing it before Freddie’s very eyes. Bowie’s visual element wasn’t yet there. There’s no doubt that Freddie took inspiration from it when it was. Freddie changed his name to Mercury, messenger of the Gods but also a planet, just as Bowie had christened his alter ego Stardust in a celestial fashion. It was the Dionysian god-like approach to rock music that Jim Morrison had taken earlier.
Freddie and Queen drummer Roger Taylor had a stall in Kensington Market selling exotic clothes and various bits of tat. Even then, Freddie had an eye for the visual. So did Bowie, once again their paths crossed. Freddie’s stall with Roger was going nowhere, so they decided to close it. Freddie got a job at another stall. One day, David Bowie showed up looking for a pair of boots. Freddie fitted him for a pair and sold them to him (did Bowie remember Freddie from Ealing College? It’s possible he didn’t, but Freddie almost certainly remembered him. It wasn’t the first time a star had come down and bought something at the stall where Freddie worked. Noddy Holder from Slade dropped by and bought his iconic mirrored top hat there: “I got the hat off a guy in Kensington market, called Freddie,” Noddy said. “He said: ‘One day I’m gonna be a big pop star like you.’ I said: ‘Fuck off, Freddie.’ He became Freddie Mercury.” So Freddie was playing an important backstage part in glam rock already, seeing their choices, helping them into them and watching their fans react.)
Roll on a few years and David Bowie has found his musical mojo in the character of alien rock god Ziggy Stardust. The 1970s were going to be about the visuals as much as the music.
Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor recalls: “Freddie and I saw the first Ziggy gig at Friar’s Aylesbury. We drove down in my Mini. We loved it. I’d seen him there about three weeks before in the long hair and the dress. Suddenly you saw this spiky head coming on stage. You thought, wha-a-at??? They looked like spacemen.” Once again, Bowie was taking chances on stage as Mercury took mental notes in the audience.
Queen soon joined Bowie in the ranks of rock stardom. Bowie and Mercury both worked seperately with photographer Mick Rock. Rock was particularly fond of an old shot of German actress Marlene Dietrich and asked David and Freddie if they wanted to recreate it. Both divas saw the visual possibilities and favourable comparisons with glamorous old Hollywood and responded.
Mercury’s Dietrich pose would form the basis of Queen’s cover of their second album “Queen II” and be recreated in the video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975.
In October 1977, Queen and Bowie released very similar anthems. Queen had “We Are The Champions” and Bowie had “Heroes.” They are both played regularly at sporting events.
Fast-forward to Montreux, Switzerland in 1981. Queen are recording their album Hot Space at Mountain Studios there. Bowie happens to be in town the same night at his apartment there. Engineer David Richards sees a chance at rock history and invites Bowie down to the studio. Bowie does backing vocals for Queen’s track “Cool Cat” (he later refuses permission for the song to be released and insists that his vocals are taken off the track. Some advance tapes had already been sent out with Bowie’s backing vocals on them and are worth quite a lot of money today. The song, minus Bowie’s vocals, was included on Hot Space) In the studio though, everyone seems happy and relaxed with Bowie’s minor contribution. Bowie wants more though and suggests that they write a song together. Roger Taylor already had a track called “Feel Like” which has many background elements of what would become “Under Pressure.” It would be rewritten, have Bowie’s vocals and that classic John Deacon bassline added.
Bowie and Queen could have written an obvious song about love but chose to write about pressure which is something both camps clearly understood. Fans only hear the joy in most music without considering the blood, sweat and tears that sometimes goes into the creation of it. Big stars that write their own material have to keep topping what they’ve done before. They become hostages to their own talent and fanbase in a way. So pressure was the common ground that Bowie and Queen chose to occupy and occupy it spectacularly they did.
Bowie took over the session which seems to have unnerved Brian May: “It was very hard, because you already had four precocious boys and David, who was precocious enough for all of us.” May said Bowie “took over the song lyrically” and demanded control of the last mixing session. (Roger Taylor didn’t seem to mind Bowie’s instructions and felt that Queen could have done more with him at a later date.)
There is a well-known story of the vocal sparring session that developed between Mercury and Bowie. They weren’t supposed to hear the other’s contribution so as to keep their improvisations fresh. However, Bowie was secretly listening to what Mercury was doing. When Mercury got suspicious as to how Bowie was perfectly counterpointing him, Queen’s German producer Mack revealed the deception. “The bastard,” Mercury swore. It wasn’t the only way these two titans were competing with quantities of wine and cocaine allegedly being consumed to jazz up proceedings in the 24-hour session.
As the line “People On Streets” is repeated in the song, that was its title until it became “Under Pressure” at the last minute. Bowie refused to film a video for it but, even so, it gave Queen their second number one when it was released in November 1981 just after the release of their first and best Greatest Hits album. Bowie had hit the top spot the previous year with “Ashes to Ashes” and he would have another chart-topper 18 months later in 1983 with “Let’s Dance.” So the experiment worked for all concerned and is now considered one of the best duets ever recorded (even better than Bowie’s duet with Bing Crosby, although that seems to grow in popularity every Christmas and will again, no doubt, with Bowie’s death.) With “Under Pressure,” David Bowie became a part of Queen history and vice versa.
Their paths crossed again at Live Aid in 1985, when Queen gave what is generally considered the greatest live performance of all-time . Bowie had the unenviable task of having to go on after them and he raised his game. Queen did him a favour in one way as the crowd were already fired up from their performance and Bowie didn’t have to do much to excite them even though he did with a rousing rendition of “Rebel Rebel” and a seminal performance of “Heroes.”
The bassline from “Under Pressure” was sampled in the 1990 Vanilla Ice song “Ice Ice Baby” which also reached number one and once again brought the combined careers of Bowie and Mercury to public attention.
Freddie Mercury knew he was dying for years before his actual passing (as Bowie did for the last 18 months of his life when diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in 2014.) Freddie had only publicly announced his HIV status on Saturday, November 23rd 1991 when he died of AIDS the next day to worldwide shock. Bowie did something similar, bringing out a new album on his birthday with his death being announced just two days later. The impact of Bowie’s death seems greater, possibly because there was no internet when Freddie died. Anyone and everyone could say their piece online about Bowie’s passing and they have.
At Mercury’s funeral, a wreath from David Bowie was sent with the hastily-scribbled note: “Will be missed.” Bowie appeared at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert in 1992 where he reunited with his old Ziggy Stardust bandmate Mick Ronson (Ronson died in 1993). Bowie performed “Heroes” and “Under Pressure” with Annie Lennox filling in for Freddie on the duet. (As no video exists showing Bowie and Mercury singing “Under Pressure” together, this duet with Lennox was recut in 1999 to make it appear as if Bowie and Mercury were performing it on stage simultaneously.)
Bowie surprised everyone by getting down on one knee on stage at the old Wembley Stadium and saying The Lord’s Prayer. He hadn’t told Queen or anyone else and only decided to do it five minutes before going on.
When Bowie himself died in January 2016, Brian May described Bowie as a “fearsome” talent (it appears May is still unnerved by the “Under Pressure” sessions 35 years on.)
Many internet memes appeared after Bowie’s death showing him reunited with Freddie Mercury in Heaven to sing “Under Pressure” again, reuniting them even in death. The show, as Freddie Mercury once sang, must go on.
© Stewart Stafford, 2016. All rights reserved.
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