The Story of... 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy' by David Bowie and Bing Crosby

17 December 2018, 17:35

Bing and Bowie
Picture: RCA/YouTube

By Tom Eames

"Pretty little thing, isn't it?"

On paper, it must have sounded really daft at the time. An ageing crooner teaming with a glam rock megastar on a Christmas medley as part of a festive TV sketch.

Yet, somehow, it not only worked, but it remains a Christmas classic to this day. But how did it come about in the first place? Here's the fascinating story behind a festive gem:

  1. What was the song recorded for?

    The track was recorded on September 11, 1977, for Bing Crosby's TV special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, which was to be his last.

    The sketch followed a plot whereby Bowie's friend Hudson lets him use his piano, and that Crosby is the 'poor American cousin'.

    They then have scripted dialogue about what they each do with their respective families at Christmas, as well as parenthood, and current music trends (Bowie joking that he likes "old-timers" like John Lennon and Harry Nilsson).

    After looking through some sheet music on the piano, they then choose 'Little Drummer Boy', along with a new song written for the special, titled 'Peace on Earth'.

    The TV special aired in the United States on CBS on November 30, 1977, and in the UK on ITV on December 24, 1977.

  2. Where was it filmed?

    The special also featured special guests Twiggy, Ron Moody, Stanley Baxter and Trinity Boys Choir.

    It was filmed at Elstree Studios in London.

    Also starring Bing's family, it centred around a plot whereby he receives a letter from a long-lost relative, Sir Percival Crosby, inviting them to spend Christmas in England.

    At Sir Percy's mansion, they meet Hudson the butler, Mrs Bridges the cook and Rose, the maid – all of whom are portrayed by Stanley Baxter (hence the line in the sketch by Bowie saying "he's always changing").

    Ron Moody played Charles Dickens, Twiggy sang 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' with Bing, and the video for Bowie's 'Heroes' was also featured.

  3. Why did Bowie do the special?

    via GIPHY

    Bowie's appearance was described as a "surreal" event, at a time when he was "actively trying to normalise his career".

    He later said he only appeared because "I just knew my mother liked him".

    Co-writer Buz Kohan wasn't sure that Bing knew who Bowie was, but fellow writer Ian Fraser said: "I'm pretty sure he did. Bing was no idiot. If he didn't, his kids sure did."

    Fraser also claimed that Bowie wasn't a fan of the song, saying: "I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?".

    Kohan, Fraser and songwriter Larry Grossman then wrote 'Peace on Earth' as a counterpoint to 'Little Drummer Boy'. Crosby performed 'Little Drummer Boy', while Bowie sang the new tune, which apparently only had less than an hour of rehearsals.

    Bing later said of Bowie: "A clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well."

  4. How did it perform in the charts?

    The song was only available for years as a bootleg single along with 'Heroes'.

    In 1982, RCA Records released it as an official single, complete with the dialogue, along with 'Fantastic Voyage' from the Lodger album as the B-side.

    Bowie wasn't pleased with the decision, and he left the label soon after.

    The single finally charted in the UK in November 1982, climbing to number three. It was one of Bowie's fastest selling singles, shifting over 250,000 in its first month.

    In the US and Canada, the song was a regular on radio stations during the Christmas period. In 1995, Oglio Records released a special multimedia CD single.

    In 2010, Collector's Choice Music released a 7-inch vinyl of the song in the US.

  5. Bing Crosby died soon after it was recorded

    Five weeks after the special was recorded, Bing Crosby passed away on October 14, 1977 at the age of 74.

    Arguably the first multimedia star of the 20th century, he was the most popular entertainer from the 1930s to the 1950s.

  6. Who has covered it?

    In 2010, a number of comedians covered and parodied the song, including actors Jack Black and Jason Segel for College Humor and Will Ferrell and John C Reilly for Funny or Die.

    Two years earlier, Aled Jones and Terry Wogan covered the song under the named Bandaged for Children in Need, also reaching number three in the UK charts.

  7. 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy' lyrics:

    Come they told me
    Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
    A new born king to see
    Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum

    Our finest gifts we bring
    Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum
    Rum-pum-pum-pum
    Rum-pum-pum-pum

    Peace on earth, can it be
    Years from now, perhaps we'll see
    See the day of glory
    See the day when men of good will
    Live in peace, live in peace again

    Peace on earth, can it be

    Every child must be made aware
    Every child must be made to care
    Care enough for his fellow man
    To give all the love that he can

    I pray my wish will come true
    For my child and your child too
    He'll see the day of glory
    See the day when men of good will
    Live in peace, live in peace again

    Peace on earth, can it be
    Can it be