The Seventies were an odd time for television. For the most part the broadcast landscape was still in the hands of an entertainment “old guard” who asserted their control through constant variety shows, Match Game PM appearances and especially the type of personality-driven Christmas specials that have long since disappeared from prime time schedules but then kept reminding people of the white-hot start power of guests like Elke Sommer.
However, some of these elder TV statesmen understood that they were in danger of becoming marginalized due to an increasing “youth market.” (A “youth market” they thought they had already satisfied by letting whippersnappers Room 222 and Mod Squad on the air, as well as showing the occasional longhair shoot up–or get shot–on Dragnet.) This certainly was the issue Bing Crosby faced as he prepared to film what would prove to be his final Christmas special (airing November 1977, a month after his passing). Though his recording of “White Christmas” was–and still is–the best-selling single of all time, he knew that to remain a vital entertainment commodity he had to prove he was “hep” or “jive” whatever the hell he thought kids said back in the mid-70’s. To ensure his special would reach an audience wider than those who remember bringing their kids to see The Bells of St. Mary’s, he realized he had to appear with someone who at the very least was born after The Battle of Guadalcana.
Enter David Bowie. Like Bing, Bowie was at the time experiencing his own public image issues (public image issues that would only get worse for Bing after his death). After confounding and alarming parents with his extraterrestrial Ziggy Stardust and coked-up cabaret Thin White Duke personas, Bowie further complicated matters by saying “Britain could benefit from a Fascist leader” and appearing at London’s Victoria Station in an open-top Mercedes giving what many thought was a Nazi salute (a thought understandable given the Bowie had just been detained on the Polish border for having Nazi paraphernalia). Many of these weird actions could be attributed to the fact that he was snorting mounds of coke through any orifice he could find, resulting in a severe identity crisis and the belief that he could bring Kraftwerk-style music to the American pop charts. In short, Bowie needed to do something, anything, that would make him seem like a normal human being–or at least a human being–to viewers everywhere.
And so Bing and Bowie met on soundstage in 1977 in a variety show musical number that like so many before them had to be shoehorned into a framing device, this one being Bing housesitting the castle of one unseen “Sir Percival.” As Bing wanders aimlessly around the set Bowie suddenly knocks on the door saying Percival said he could use his piano, since apparently few rich, famous musicians back then owned their own instruments. The two then have a little awkward banter as Bing makes a wink-wink knock on his own age and Bowie makes sure he mentions he has a son to quell those wondering if his kind can procreate. Soon the two find themselves at what one is led to assume is the only piano in Great Britain (and which neither play despite the sudden appearance of music). And so with Bowie clearly thinking, “Hopefully this will make me mum happy” and Bing thinking, “Who the fuck invited the Beatle?” the two join together to sing a reworked, counterpoint version of “The Little Drummer Boy” that allowed both to have their moment. And the end result is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Enjoy.
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Red-nosed reindeer. Talking snowman. Cyber Monday. The holidays are full of odd traditions. But some really do stand head and shoulders above the rest.
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