23 November 2007

David Bowie & Bing Crosby - Peace on Earth / Little Drummer Boy


David Bowie and Bing Crosby - Peace on Earth / Little Drummer boy 12 inch

Wikipedia is hardly a reliable source to quote. If anything in it is remotely controversial then it gets attacked. My favourite was Tony Blair's entry saying 'Tony Blair spilled popcorn down his pyjamas last night'.

Still, if you need a quick grasp of something uncontroversial then it usually points the way.

Having railed against anti-rock n roll cardigan wearing singers in my last post, I'm forced to make an exception for Bing Crosby. His Wikipedia entry informs us

Crosby also exerted an important influence on the development of the postwar recording industry. In 1947 he invested US$50,000 in the Ampex company, which developed the world's first commercial reel-to-reel tape recorder, and Crosby became the first performer in the world to prerecord his radio shows and master his commercial recordings on magnetic tape. He gave one of the first Ampex Model 200 recorders to his friend, musician Les Paul, which led directly to Paul's invention of multitrack recording.

Bing is the butterfly that flapped its wings and caused the hurricane of popular music as we know and love it. It's distinctly possible that if there was no Bing, there'd be no multi-track recording, or at least it would have been developed later. Which would mean it wouldn't have tallied chronologically with, say, Brian Wilson's hermit urges or The Beatles' ingestion of LSD.

And talking of drug intake, how about Bing on the bong;

A 2001 biography of Crosby by Village Voice jazz critic Gary Giddins says that Louis Armstrong's influence on Bing "extended to his love of marijuana." Bing smoked it during his early career when it was legal and "surprised interviewers" in the 1960s and 70s by advocating its decriminalization, as did Armstrong. According to Giddins, Bing told his son Gary to stay away from alcohol ("It killed your mother") and suggested he smoke pot instead. Gary said, "There were other times when marijuana was mentioned and he'd get a smile on his face." Gary thought his father's pot smoking had influenced his easy-going style in his films.

There's a clear clash of drugs in the 1977 Bing and Bowie recording of Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth. Bowie, living atop a mountain of cocaine in Berlin with Iggy Pop, careers into Bing and his lifetime of weed.

Bing was recording a Christmas TV special. According to research done by Paul Farhi of the Washington Post,

The original plan had been for Bowie and Crosby to sing just "Little Drummer Boy." But "David came in and said: 'I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?' " Fraser said. "We didn't know quite what to do."

Fraser, Kohan and Grossman left the set and found a piano in the studios' basement. In about 75 minutes, they wrote "Peace on Earth," an original tune, and worked out an arrangement that weaved together the two songs. Bowie and Crosby nailed the performance with less than an hour of rehearsal.

The duet was released as a single for Christmas 1982, but more, the limited 12 inch featured a peculiarly huge 6 inch label and the spoken preamble to the piece. It's absolutely mad.

It starts with the doorbell going, appropriately enough, 'bing bong'. Bowie asks if Bing's the butler, what happened to Hudson and if Sir Percival is around - I get the strong impression Bing played several roles in the show.

But then Bowie talks about having the usual Christmas 'presents, tree, decorations, agents sliding down the chimney'. There is no meaning to this, it's coked up paranoid weirdness.

Of course these days it's on YouTube. Imagine Bing's just docked out a bammie and press play.

Bowie then went a filmed an episode of Marc Bolan's TV show Marc. He did Heroes on both shows. In a peculiar kiss of death effect, both Bolan and Bing died before their shows were broadcast. Just what the paranoid, magick influenced, narcotic-basted Bowie needed. Imagine how much he quivered and clasped his hands to his head every time his agent called after that. Sadly, the offer from the Jim Davidson Show never came.

The Marc show performance, like all of human history, is also on YouTube. This time it's a specially recorded backing track as well as a live vocal. Imagine watching this in 77, having grown up on the outlandishness of Aladdin Sane and all that, and he's just standing there, no theatrics, normal hair, no make up, with a frankly pedestrian production on the track, somewhat idly delivering the lyric. Then he hits the second verse ('I will be king...') with such force, such a desperate cry in his voice.

Literally gave me tingles first time I watched it. You so see that he was making music he had to make at this point, it's got that artist using their art to figure themselves out feeling, like Woody Allen's criminally overlooked Stardust Memories.

Bowie has more bizarre corners to his career than any other major figure in music. Less than a year later he was releasing his narration of Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf (which he really does start with 'are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin') and releasing Stage, a live album where all the tracks have been sequenced in their order of original release - why? - and there's a whole side of stuff from Low. A live version of the ambient Eno collaboration Warszawa! With crowds cheering! What the fuck is that about?

Meantime, let the onset of the festive season and this spaced oddity fusilli your mind.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]


PC said...

Well fancy that, I had no idea my old blog was still getting visits... haven't posted on it for ages due to too many other ongoing projects. I hope to 'relaunch' it at some point soon though. Glad you found Mr. Bloe; was the download still working?
And I'm very aware of your Strawberry Switchblade website (though unaware of who was behind it) - I stumbled over it quite soon after it was launched and gratefully downloaded all the MP3s - wonderful stuff :-)
PC x

Anonymous said...

Great article. Bowie and Crosby...never gets old. Peace

Skittle said...

Nice post, very well written. I downloaded the mp3 and posted it over on my music blog. Thanks for upping it. :-)

Anonymous said...

Great piece, Merrick. And yes, that version of 'Heroes' sends shivers down the spine. Fucking awesome.

I dunno if you're familiar with the film Christiane F? But the scene where 'Heroes' in that is one of my all-time favourite moments in cinema.

The scene is on Youtube (of course).

A warning though; if you're not familiar with the film and the context, it probably won't do much for you; but as a reminder of something you already know in context...? Well, it brought tears to my eyes watching it again.

*** SPOILER(ish) ***

In this scene, Christiane and some friends believe they're on their way to see a secret Bowie gig in a tiny undergound club. En route, they break into a shopping mall and go tearing around the place to the music of 'Heroes' until the police arrive.

What makes it so powerful is that the scene represents Christiane's one and only moment of joy and liberation in an otherwise nightmarish existence. It is, undoubtedly, the single happiest moment of her life.