25 Days of Mariahmas: Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy — Bing Crosby and David Bowie
“Peace on Earth, can it be? Years from now, perhaps we’ll see.”
Oh, Bowie :(
An early black mark against 2016 was delivered a mere 10 days in, when millions in the UK awoke to the news that David Bowie had died, his fatal liver cancer hidden from all but his closest collaborators.
So this year, one of the most surreal and unlikely Christmas collaborations ever seen will have an extra poignancy. But it’s easy to forget how the track itself functioned as a memorial of sorts. Laying to rest one of the most tumultuous periods in Bowie’s life, but also the life of his duet partner.
The track was recorded for the Bing Crosby Christmas Special in 1977. At the time, Bowie was in self-imposed exile in Berlin, recovering from the traumas of his cocaine-ridden time in Los Angeles, and the unhinged madness of his Thin White Duke persona. Bowie describes the decision to appear on the show with Crosby as part of an attempt to stabilise his career, and perhaps also his sense of self. He recalled his mum being a fan of Crosby, and the show was a perfect vehicle for him to promote “Heroes”.
Bowie was invited to sing “Little Drummer boy” with Bing, but Bowie resisted. A compromise was found in the form of the haunting little counter-melody, “Peace on Earth”. Bing’s earnest, old-fashioned rendition of the original song — evoking all of those classic memories of “White Christmas”, countered by Bowie’s hallmark haunting appeal for peace, both coming together to urge that “every child must be made aware” of their respective messages. (I’ve always found that ending to have a slightly bizarre authoritarian note to it).
The result is a total clash of the old and the new. A clash of cultures, a clash of experiences, a clash of voices, a clash of worlds. And yet there’s something so endearing about it. Their awkward patter at the start of the video. (“Do you like modern music?” “Oh I think it’s marvellous, some of it really fine. But tell me, you ever listen to any of the older fellas?”). Bowie’s mention of this then-6 year old son, Zowie, pretending Little Drummer Boy was his son’s favourite.
It’s a comfort blanket of a song, one whose nostalgic fuzziness would doubtlessly have increased had Bowie lived to reach Bing’s age. His death at 69 felt so fitting, in its own tragic way. The idea of the Starman reaching the age of 70, 80 or beyond, felt so strange. Bowie, for me, died, without him ever reaching a line that demarcates out old age, eking out everything from his threescore years and ten.
Bing’s death hovers over the song too. A month after filming the scene (and a month before its transmission in the US), Crosby died. And yet the warm, sympathetic, paternal, nostalgic memory that songs like White Christmas and Little Drummer Boy have engendered, stand at odds with the experiences of Crosby’s closest family. Remembering him not as a national treasure, but as a violent and abusive father. Innocence and experience strikes again. Valorizing a cultural memory through a song I enjoy, which is so at odds with the contested personal memory.
There are two final things worthy of mention before I sign this entry off. Firstly, if an equivalent duet was filmed today, it would be rushed out as a single almost immediately, to try and capitalise on the momentum. It took 5 years for Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy to be released as a single, reaching number 3 on the UK chart in 1982.
Second, it’s a sweet reminder of how much David Bowie loved Christmas, and how much he threw himself into the role of young dad. He introduced the classic The Snowman on VHS, wandering around his attic, dredging up Christmas memories, implying that he is the small boy who went on that fantastic flying adventure with the snowman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vi81M_WKBp8