Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Behind The Music: Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy

I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, but if I never hear “Jingle Bell Rock”, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” or the Chipmunk’s Christmas song ever again it will be too soon.

And let me also say that Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” is an annual reminder of the former Beatle at his absolute “Another Day” worst.

I’m good for one – just one - annual listen of Springsteen doing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” but I’m ashamed to admit it.

What I’m not embarrassed about is my fondness for David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s duet “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy.”

And it turns out that there is pretty good story behind the song…

In September, 1977, Bowie was invited to perform on Bing Crosby’s “Merrie Olde Christmas” TV special. The producers agreed to air the video for Bowie’s newly released single “Heroes” and Bowie joined Twiggy and “Oliver” star Ron Moody as guests on the program.

The original plan called for Bowie to sing “The Little Drummer Boy” but he apparently refused saying “I hate this song. Is there anything else I can sing?”

With just hours before they were due to go before the cameras, Ian Fraser, Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman wrote the “Peace on Earth” counterpoint lyrics and melody that Bowie sings and hammered out an arrangement in just 75 minutes.

Bowie and Crosby rehearsed for “less than an hour” and nailed the take complete with a little sketch at the beginning highlighting the generational differences – and similarities - between the two performers.

No one expected anything much from the number although it did circulate as a bootleg for several years. Finally, in 1982, RCA released it as a single and that’s why you can now hear is seventeen times each day during the holidays.

(Thanks to the Washington Post for details and background .)

Of course, being parodied is the real arbiter of cultural currency these days and Stephen Colbert and Willie Nelson have done the honors with the song “The Greatest Gift” from the DVD “A Colbert Christmas.”


Anonymous said...

I don't understand. Last month you said that James Brown's Funky X-mas was a must for my collection and now you are saying the whole genre is trite and unlistenable. Which is it?

Tim Foil said...

No no no! I did not say that the entire genre is trite and unlistenable. I was being very specific about the particular songs I listed.

Besides the Bing and Bowie song, there are lots that I like. Johhny Mathis' "Merry Christmas" is a good example and I like the Vince Guaraldi stuff very much also.

As for the classics, I'm partial to "The Wassail Song" and "Good King Wenceslas."

"Christmas Wrapping" by The Waitresses is a guilty pleasure and so is Live Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas".

As for James Brown, I probably over-stated the case. I mean, it's OK, but probably not "a must."

But really, "Rocking Around The Christmas Tree"? And the Chipmunks? The Chipmunks thing is over. Do you hear me people? Over!

Nick said...

I'm with you on most of your disses there, grinch. But I am totally not down with the Springsteen song -- you *should* be ashamed. To your list of good songs you have to add the Jacksons' Up On the Housetop -- that song rocks. And Dean Martin's Baby, It's Cold Outside, makes me eager to return to Vegas. And Lennon's War is Over, don't tell me that doesn't bring a tear to your eye.

Yo, what's up with Anonymous? C'mon out of that closet, dude, we won't bite.

Tim Foil said...

One time a year Nick! The first time I hear Santa Claus Is Coming To Town fills my quota!

I do feel shame for that fact, but not for having the courage to admit it!

And damn, I wish I thought to list the Jackson 5's "Up On The Housetop." That's a good one.

I would also add The Kink's "Father Christmas" to the list...

Also, I never really cared for the song "Santa Baby" until I heard Eartha Kitt do it. Yow.

Rog said...

Over!! Did you say OVER?! Nothing is over until I say it is. The Chipmunks are NOT over. They've been going on since the 1950's and will be here long after you and I leave the planet. Kind of like the Bush family if you think about it. So, like the Bush's, smile, chuckle and giggle a bit every time you see them and hear them talk, then forget about them and don't let them ruin your life . . . or government . . . or country . . . or planet.

molly said...

so funny, i always loved that bowie/bing duo. i can't believe it was 1977--gads, way to make me feel O-L-D.
and, actually, i friggin LOVE the chipmunks songs!