'Under Pressure': Queen's Brian May 'never liked' the final, less heavy Bowie mix

Queen's Brian May recently admitted he never liked the final mix on the hit song "Under Pressure." Let's look at why, and also see how May addressed the issue with dignity and grace.

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In a recent interview with Total Guitar magazine, Brian May disclosed his dissatisfaction with the production process of Queen and David Bowie's iconic 1981 collaboration, "Under Pressure,"
saying "What happened in the mix was that most of that heavy guitar was lost."

This renowned track, which marked a pinnacle for both acts, is often hailed as a masterpiece of its time, with iconic musical elements with a far-reaching impact (including the bassline being borrowed for Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby"). However, the Queen guitarist revealed that the song's original conception was significantly altered, much to May's dismay. Recalling the genesis of the song, May reminisced about a late-night studio session fueled by food and drinks, where a heavy guitar-driven backing track was laid down. The atmosphere was charged with creativity, resembling the energy of legendary bands like The Who.

May's enthusiasm was palpable, drawing comparisons to the iconic rock group, which he fondly admired. However, Bowie had different ideas for the direction of the song, leading to a clash of creative visions. May lamented that Bowie's influence steered the track away from its initial guitar-heavy arrangement, ultimately resulting in the loss of much of his crafted guitar work during the mixing process.

Brian May and mixed feelings about the mix

Despite his reservations, May acknowledged the song's success and the admiration it garnered from fans worldwide. However, he confessed that the final mix never fully satisfied him, preferring the heavier rendition they perform live. Reflecting on the collaboration, the diplomatic May praised Bowie's immense creative prowess while acknowledging the challenges that arise when multiple visionary artists converge. Despite his personal qualms with the final product, May recognized the song's enduring appeal and its significance in both acts' legacies.

The legacy of "Under Pressure"

Bowie is no longer on this planet, writing in his song "Lazarus," "Look up here, I’m in heaven" — no doubt aware his time was limited as that song was penned. At the same time, as we look back at what musicians have created, it's common for fans and artists alike to ponder what could have been. In this case, what if Bowie had been quicker to ask "What do you think?" and maybe get more of a compromise mix between himself and May?

While some might shrug these issues off as little things, to a musician they can be pretty big, potentially even causing someone to walk away from a band or collaboration altogether. It's also easier to shrug off an artist not being present in the mix (or having one's vision altered) when we are not that artist. Can you imagine, for example, someone wanting to remove key guitar passages from the The Who's "Behind Blue Eyes," and do something extra-cartoonish with it, such as adding a kazoo solo? That would be a dramatic example, of course, but a sensitive musician with the proverbial soul and intelligence of a great composer might feel their work is a similar mockery if they don't have their way.

In other words, Brian May is still a class act, not getting overly dramatic about things, even when his own presence in the song was diminished. It truly could have been a blast to his ego. Meanwhile, to rock fans, it can certainly be interesting to peer behind the curtain a bit and learn how such iconic songs were composed. Such stories also provide food for thought, and one indeed wonders what could have been.

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