Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

David Bowie and Bing Crosby, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.

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.

13 Responses to Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

  1. Rod says:

    Continue to read this blog with great interest, and look forward to what you have to say next year. Have a great one matey.

  2. Blog of the year most definitely – looking forward to the Idiot & Low

  3. […] finished. Bing Crosby came in for a brutal beating. I fired every gun in my rhetorical arsenal at The Little Drummer Boy. I even summoned up enough bile for the Tea Party and its nefarious bankrollers, the loathsome Koch […]

  4. postpunkmonk says:

    You think it’s weird seeing that on MTV. Imagine being a Bowie fan in 1977 who actually watched “Bing Crosby’s Merry Olde Christmas” just to see Bowie in a rare [US] TV appearance! Thankfully, it’s still out there in the ether because the memories would be surreal enough to have lived on for 36 years! That the video survives and proliferates reminds us all that it really did happen!

  5. One thing you seem to have missed (unless it was I who missed it) as you catalogued Bowie’s string of odd TV duets (this one, I’ve Got You Babe, Can You Hear Me) was the incredibly bad megamedley prefaced by Young Americans on the Cher Show. I think that counts as an original work, and the fact that they squeezed in bits from over 20 songs in the span of a few minutes certainly counts as an epic.

  6. Rufus Oculus says:

    I remember staying up to watch this broadcast on British TV on Christmas Eve (?) 1977. It was wonderful in a cheesy Christmasy way. Does Bowie shake fake snow from his coat when he pops round to ‘neighbour’ Bing or it that my memory playing tricks? And he got to sing one of his own new fangled tunes as well with ‘Heroes’.

  7. One piece of semi-bizarre minutiae: the other guest on this special was super model Twiggy…who had appeared on the cover of Bowie’s “Pin Ups” four years prior. (And, of course, there’s the whole “Twig the Wonder Kid” from “Drive-in Saturday”…but anyway). She and Bing sang a duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that was, to be kind, somewhat vapid.

  8. Frankie says:

    This is way out of date and out of time but Bowie’s version of “Heroes” on that show, including the video for it was basically the 45 version but there were a few distinct mix differences, mainly for the synths, I believe. Wondered when the video was filmed, any info on that would be appreciated, if you ever get to re-reading the comments to this post again. Merry X-Mas (X as in X-Files)

  9. Frankie says:

    …I probably don’t have to jog anyone’s memory about that video for Heroes on Bing’s original Christmas special (the one where he smooches himself like a mime, with his back to the camera) which wasn’t the same vid as one where he has that bright light streaming through his crotchal region through the whole song, that was played on all those now-defunct video channels….

  10. Considering what his very next album would be, it’s wonderfully prophetic that Bowie plays the lodger in this special.

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