Those of you who’ve stuck with this blog for a while may recall that this entry appeared last Christmas too. Consider it the joker in the pack.
Originally aired on a forgettable 1977 TV special, the Crosby/Bowie duet had a second life with the arrival of MTV, which ran it regularly during the Christmas season. That’s where I first saw it, and I was entranced with the performance—it was like watching your grandfather meet Han Solo. The Internet has formally preserved it at last and in 2010, there’s a brand-new, nearly word-for-word parody video by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Which means the duet is basically Christmas canon now, and probably in my old age, I’ll see school kids in assemblies acting out the “Bing” and “Bowie” roles.
In 1999, Bowie recalled filming the duet. It was not fun.
[Bing] was not there at all…He looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. He had been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him.
Crosby died on a Madrid golf course less than a month later.
The song medley was an eleventh-hour compromise. Bowie balked at having to sing “Little Drummer Boy” (“I hate that song,” he told the producers, and I have to agree—it’s irritating and it’s one of the worst offenders of the modern habit of creating endless new supporting players for the Nativity (see Nestor the Christmas Donkey)). So “Drummer Boy” was assigned to Crosby and quickly mated with a new piece for Bowie, “Peace on Earth,” which the Crosby show’s scriptwriters and songwriters dashed out in little over an hour. Even as a kid, I was creeped out by “Peace on Earth,” not just its vaguely totalitarian sentiments (“Every child must be made aware/every child must be made to care/to care enough for his fellow man“) but its obvious sense of being a prefab Christmas song. “Little Drummer Boy” was lame, but it had something of a pedigree—”Peace on Earth,” by contrast, has never been sung by anyone else anywhere.
Somehow, some way, it all works. A worse-for-wear Bing Crosby, squatting in a Munster-esque London mansion, is visited by his freeloading hip neighbor (love that Bowie namedrops Harry Nilsson). They duet on a pair of D-rate Christmas songs and it sounds beautiful. Call it the magic of television, with the box’s gift of placing warring elements into harmony, or just blame Christmas.
Recorded on 11 September 1977 at ATV’s Elstree Studios for Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas and broadcast on Christmas Eve 1977. It was belatedly released as a single by RCA after Bowie had left the label, in October 1982, and hit #3 in the UK.
That’s all. Back next year with The Idiot and Low, two recommended choices for enduring the winter.