Queen and David Bowie recorded Cream covers in Under Pressure sessions

A new interview with Roger Taylor and Brian May reveals the existence of recordings born from a boozy Swiss jam session

A new interview with Brian May and Roger Taylor reveals there are further unreleased recordings made by David Bowie and Queen during the sessions that produced Under Pressure.

In summer 1981, Queen were recording in Switzerland. Bowie, then a tax exile in the country, popped in to pick their brains about record advances while he searched for a new label. His visit turned into a boozy jam session in which the glam stars tooled around playing “all sorts of old songs … whatever came into our head”, said Roger Taylor. They eventually worked up Under Pressure – released in October 1981, it became Queen’s second UK No 1 (after Bohemian Rhapsody) and Bowie’s third.

The front cover of Record Collector Presents … Queen.
The cover of Record Collector Presents … Queen. Photograph: -

A new conversation with Taylor and Brian May in a special one-shot edition of Record Collector dedicated to Queen reveals that further recordings exist from those sessions, including covers of songs by Cream.

“If we look to the archives, yeah, there’s probably stuff,” says Taylor. “We would do the odd thing like covering old Cream songs. I remember we did NSU and I Feel Free, just for a laugh really, and then we decided, ‘Let’s write one for ourselves.’”

The interview makes no mention of whether the recordings will ever be issued in the future.

Smile, the pre-Mercury incarnation of Queen, had previously covered I Feel Free. Bowie and the Spiders from Mars included the 1966 Cream hit – the group’s second single, which reached No 11 – in encores to their shows in the early 70s, where it played the role of “crowdpleaser”, wrote Ashes to Ashes author Chris O’Leary. “A hit song in a set mainly consisting of unreleased material”.

“We didn’t do it very well,” Bowie later said of those performances, a perception that prompted him to record a version with Mick Ronson on his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise. The song had a personal resonance, Bowie told NME that year.

Queen and David Bowie: Under Pressure – video

He recalled seeing the group in Bromley with his half-brother, the late Terry Burns, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. The brothers had to leave the gig because Burns “started feeling very, very bad … He used to see visions a lot.”

Outside, said Bowie, Burns “collapsed on the ground and he said the ground was opening up and there was fire and stuff pouring out the pavement, and I could almost see it for him, because he was explaining it so articulately.” Burns died by suicide in 1985.

Despite its stature, Under Pressure was not promoted by Queen or Bowie – “The single sleeve had no photographs, its video was cobbled together by David Mallett from stock footage,” O’Leary wrote in Ashes to Ashes – and they never performed the song together, even at Live Aid where they both appeared.

Though a staple of Queen’s setlists, Bowie did not perform it live until the 1992 memorial concert for Mercury, as a duet with Annie Lennox and the surviving members of Queen.

Speaking to Record Collector, May recalled that the Queen song I Go Crazy (released on the B-side to Radio Ga Ga in 1984) was also developed in the Swiss sessions, though the final recording – which does not credit Bowie – was “very different to the version that we started off when David was around”.

Once Queen unearthed an instrumental then titled Feel Like, complemented by Bowie trying ideas out on the piano, Under Pressure was born. “That became very much the priority,” said May. “So there are only little sketches apart from that.”

There is, however, also the infamous version of Cool Cat that Bowie attempted to suppress. A Queen-only version of the song appeared on their 1982 album Hot Space, but the original was, inevitably, leaked – and panned.

• Record Collector Presents … Queen is available in shops and to order now.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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