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פ.י.מ.פ.

Analyzing Bowie: The Little Drummer Boy / Peace on Earth

After finishing the recording of "Heroes" Bowie did the rounds to promote the album on TV shows, so when the producers of the Bing Crosby Christmas Special asked him to appear on the show he consented and seized the opportunity to record a fantastic version of the title track. But there was a catch: the idea of the special (recorded in London, to be broadcasted on Christmas 1977) was that Bing would collaborate with British performers, so part of the deal was that Bowie would sing a duet with Bing. The producers wanted them to do the old Christmas carol 'The Little Drummer Boy', but Bowie refused, claiming he hated that song and didn't think it was suitable for him. Hastily, songwriters were called to write something Bowie could sing, and they created a new simple song called 'Peace on Earth' to be sung as a counterpoint to 'The Little Drummer Boy'. Bowie liked this combination and agreed to do it, and one of the most bizarre and unlikely recordings of his career was to be his final note for 1977.

Half a century had passed since Bing Crosby was the hippest thing around, a man who completely revolutionized pop music and dominated it for decades to come. By then he was just a relic of the old guard, the most respectable and innocuous performer you could think of. By the younger generations he was remembered mainly for 'White Christmas', his duet with Danny Kaye that was (until then, at least) the most selling Christmas record of all time. A collaboration with David Bowie, the most out there and avant-garde of all rock stars, was something no one could have imagined. When he agreed to do this duet, Bowie probably figured nobody will remember it after the show was broadcast. But Christmas is a time of miracles, and this rushed-up rewrite of an old tune, this one-off performed as an afterthought by two men from different worlds, this musical accident that should never have happened, ended up becoming one of the most popular Christmas records of all times, arguably surpassing even 'White Christmas'.

'The Little Drummer Boy' tells the story of a young boy who is called to watch the event of baby Jesus being born, and when he sees everyone bringing precious gifts for the newborn he is ashamed that he has nothing to give due to his poverty. But the Virgin Mary grants his request to play his drum as a gift, and his playing brings a smile to the baby's face. Bing and Bowie start by singing the first few lines together:

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

Here is where they part, as Crosby's deep baritone repeats the first verse and completes it, while Bowie's tenor soars with a pray for world peace.

Come they told me pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / Peace on Earth, can it be
A new-born king to see pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / Years from now, perhaps we'll see
Our finest gifts we bring pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / See the day of glory
to lay before the king pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / See the day, when men of good will
Rum-pum-pum-pum, rum-pum-pum-pum / Live in peace, live in peace again
so to honour him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / Peace on Earth
when we come / Can it be

The cynical smirk one might still have on their face from watching this odd couple singing together is wiped off in the next part, in which both men's voices blend majestically in a bridge that brings the two themes together. Jesus was sent to bring peace on Earth, and the story of the little drummer boy is therefore a story of a child who has been brought to receive this message, a message that must now be spread to all children.

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

It is possible that this is the part that convinced Bowie to do the song, as this theme of educating children to bring a better world was very close to his heart and appears on several of his records. His next verse expands on this theme, while Bing sings the second verse of the original.

Little baby pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / I pray my wish will come true
I stood beside him there pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / For my child and your child too
I played my drum for him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / He'll see the day of glory
I played my best for him pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / See the day when men of good will
Rum-pum-pum-pum, rum-pum-pum-pum / Live in peace, live in peace again
And he smiled at me pa-rum-pum-pum-pum / Peace on Earth, can it be
me and my drum / Can it be
Can it be

Crosby joins Bowie's prayer on the last line, and the two musical legends end together on a beautiful note of hope. And this was the last note for Bowie in that fateful year of 1977, a year that he began at the lowest point of his life, as a wandering drug addict who sang songs about complete alienation and dehumanization. He came a long way during that year, a year in which he has rediscovered meaning and hope in his life, and this warm Christmas chestnut is oddly the most perfect way he could have ended it.

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