Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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IITS’s Seven Days of Xmas: “It’s a Pretty Thing, Isn’t It?”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 29, 2007

Can it be?

“Bowie’s appearance has been described as a ‘surreal’ event, undertaken at a time that he was ‘actively trying to normalise his career.’ He has since recalled that he only appeared on the show because ‘I just knew my mother liked him.'” -Wikipedia

Really, it is sort of hard to imagine what turn of events could have led to David Bowie turning up on Bing Crosby’s 1977 TV special. It’s amazing that Bowie could take the time to stop doing coke with Brian Eno and Tony Visconti and fly in from Berlin to show up looking so prim and proper for his duet with the Bing. Still, whatever the circumstances that brought it about, their duet medley of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth” has gone on to be a Christmas classic, both as a bizarre historical anomaly and well, a surprisingly nice medley.

But when you’re talking about “Little Drummer Boy” / “Peace on Earth,” you’re not just talking about the song–you’re talking about the mind-expandingly ridiculous video that accompanied it, originally appearing on the Bing’s special. The video has become a fixture for holiday-era music video programming , and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch it complete with the two-minute dialogue between Bing and Bowie preceding it. The general plot involves Bowie showing up the home of Sir Percival, a friend whose piano he claims to occasionally use, and finding Bing there instead, who admits to being, as David puts it, “the poor relation from America”. In their discussion, the two naturally come to the subject of music, and David speaks a certain fondness for the old school Christmas songs, the sheet music for which just happens to be right on Sir Percival’s piano. Hence, the two launch into a perfectly harmonized version of “Little Drummer Boy,” with Bowie eventually mixing a little “Peace on Earth” in there as well.

Never mind that the pretext for the two meeting there has the plausability of a porno set-up, the whole dialogue serves as something of a cementing of the mid-70s generation gap, a battle between the new and the old, a game of subtle one-upsmanship in which the two eventually emerge as equals under the banner of quality holiday tuneage. Bowie serves as the represnetative of modern youth culture in the clip, saying he sings “mostly the contemporary stuff.” Interestingly, Bowie plays stupid for the whole clip, as if audiences perceived him as just today’s latest teenybopper craze, responding to Bing’s questions about his appreciation for “the older fellas” by saying that he listens to John Lennon and Harry Nilsson. He emerges from the video seeming insolent, arrogant and ignorant.

Crosby, of course, is the representative of the old guard, a symbol for everything safe and boring that Bowie and his cronies tried to break down with their glam rock shock tactics and scorching proto-punk musical energy. He responds to Bowie’s question about if he likes modern music by saying that he finds it “marvelous, some of it really fine,” a sure sign that he hasn’t even touched his victrola in 20 years (it’s like when Steve Buscemi asks the record exec in Airheads who would win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God–any answer is the wrong one). And throughout the clip, he actas as a patronizing asshole to Bowie, archly asking “oh, you go back that far, do you?” after Bowie’s response about old fellas John Lennon and Harry Nilsson (Bowie, dumb blonde that he is, fails to pick up on the Bing’s sarcasm).

Despite the dichotomy at work, the unstated match of wits and egos, all is put aside for the singing of the medley, which is actually fairly heavenly. Despite the ideological divides between the two, their voices aren’t really all that dissimilar, their trembly baritones intertwining as perfectly as a strand of DNA, with the medley aspect of the song providing a mildly interesting new spin on a couple of Christmas standards. The clip would be a cult classic for the weirdness of the dialogue’s power struggle regardless, but with the song itself, it’s just a Christmas classic, period.

I do wish I could find a full clip of the Bing/Bowie encounter, though–the one in which Bowie takes the Bing back to his house to listen to the original masters of side two of Heroes. Bowie asks the Bing what he thinks halfway through “Neukoln,” and a clearly distracted Bing responds “Oh, yeah, sure, David, this is grand stuff, just really grand.”

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One Response to “IITS’s Seven Days of Xmas: “It’s a Pretty Thing, Isn’t It?””

  1. Mitchell Stirling said

    I like the bit were he describes DB as “a real clean cut kid”

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