Late September saw the release of A New Career In A New Town, the third sumptuous box set charting the extraordinary work of David Bowie. Picking up where the previous compendiums, 2015’s Five Years and 2016’s Who Can I Be Now?, left off, it chronicles the great man’s musical output from Low to Scary Monsters, containing both of those albums, the ones in-between, and sundry other gems to entice Bowie “completists” the world over.
Tucked away at the tail-end (Track 19) of the final disc is arguably his most unlikely hit single, and a far cry from the remarkable creative envelope-pushing of what went before: the oh so festive Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy, performed in tandem with Bing Crosby and first aired on the veteran crooner’s 1977 Christmas television special. Certain pockets of the media rather crassly labelled Bowie the grim reaper of pop that year, after both this and an earlier small screen collaboration with old mate Marc Bolan on his teatime show Marc were broadcast after the hosts’ deaths.
Sombre coincidences aside, the pan-generational pairing is an important chapter in the Bowie story, and thus warrants more serious examination than most novelty yuletide distractions. Here at My Day Rocks, we are putting our full weight behind a campaign for Peace On Earth/Little Drummer to belatedly achieve the landmark it fell short of 35 years ago. Let’s make it this year’s Christmas Number One.
But first, a little background…
Bowie was subsisting in a blizzard of cocaine when he made America his home in the mid-1970s. He was still fashioning extraordinary albums (Young Americans, Station To Station) and impressing as a screen actor (The Man Who Fell To Earth), but his health and general mental well-being were not at their best. A change of geographical locale was called for, the shorthand for which has become known down the years as the creation of his “Berlin trilogy” of Low, Heroes and Lodger.
In actual fact, the lion’s share of Low was written and recorded in France in late 1976, shortly after Bowie had upped sticks from the US for an environment to help him better address post-addiction depression and the final collapse of his marriage to Angie Barnett. By the time of its release in January the following year, he was close to setting up a full-time base at Hansa Studios in (then) West Germany, just 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, where Heroes would be made in its entirety.
As if to draw a line under the American excess of the previous few years, Bowie kept public appearances to a minimum; he gave no interviews around the release of Low and never bothered with videos (promotional films, in old money) to plug the album’s singles. While working on Heroes, he also collaborated on his old friend Iggy Pop’s album Lust For Life and took a relatively background role as keyboard player on the Detroit rocker’s live tour.
Such reluctance to bask in the limelight makes the hook-up with Bing Crosby even more intriguing. With the recording of Heroes completed, but a full month before its release, Bowie returned to the UK in September of 1977 – not to big up his new music, but to join a Hollywood veteran on a festively-adorned set at Elstree Studios.
Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas was fairly typical of seasonal TV fare in the ‘70s; the main man and members of his family resplendent in cardigans around a fireplace, corny sketches with multiple roles for guest stars Ron Moody and Twiggy as various characters from Dickens, and carols by the sled-load. Midway through this predictable cosiness came the curveball – Crosby hears a knock on the door of his “house”, and there on the step is a bona fide, drug-friendly, sexually androgynous rock god. Viewers might have been expecting Bob Hope or perhaps Fred Astaire, but they got the Thin White Duke.
A little laboured banter ensues, before one of showbiz’s more curious Venn diagram starts singing. Bing kicks it off with Little Drummer Boy, a 1941 composition by American music teacher Katherine Kennicott Davis, before his house guest swoops in with the counter melody of Peace On Earth, penned specifically for the show by writers Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan.
Years later, Fraser revealed that the new song came about after Bowie baulked at the idea of singing Little Drummer Boy, which he had hated since childhood. Crosby purportedly went along with the idea of combining the two after being assured by his children and grandchildren that this skinny Englishman with the funny-looking eyes was the real deal and should be listened to.
Crosby died on October 14, five weeks after filming and the special ultimately aired in late November in the US and on Christmas Eve in the UK, but it would be another five years before the collaboration was made commercially available. RCA released it as a single in the run-up to Christmas 1982, against Bowie’s wishes and causing further friction between artist and the label he was soon to leave.
It climbed to Number Three in the UK charts, shifting a quarter of a million copies in its first month, and remains one of the singer’s best-selling singles. To this day it divides fans; some see it as a stain on Bowie’s otherwise pristine catalogue, others embrace it for what it is – a harmless detour by a constantly surprising artist for whom the word “maverick” could have been coined.
This is where My Dad Rocks comes in. None of us are about to claim Bowie’s festive bauble is as essential or as groundbreaking as, say, Space Oddity or Suffragette City or Heroes or Ashes To Ashes, but it’s an undeniable part of his musical journey, and the context of the times is more than enough to justify its existence.
Christmas Number Ones (or the singles chart in general, for that matter) may not possess the cachet of old, but why don’t we try and restore some dignity to what was once a very big thing indeed? Yes, the track will be available on sundry seasonal compilations, as it is every year, but that’s not the point. It’s not about actually buying the song, it’s about using the power of downloads to vote for a piece of music enough times to put it at the top of the tree.
Back in 1982 it fell short of the top spot, the public at large favouring Save Your Love by Renee & Renato. At the very least, that’s a wrong in need of righting.
Written by Terry Staunton