Christmas is a weird time for entertainment. You end up watching and listening to stuff that would pretty much make no sense at any other time of year. Songs about snow that were probably recorded in L.A. in the middle of August. Multi-millionaires playing characters learning that possessions don't bring happiness. And... An androgynous young pop star sitting in on a song with a conservative crooner.
I have heard "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" so many times that I can recite the very stilted dialogue verbatim. It is a masterpiece of 70s-era variety TV inanity ("are you the new butler?" "(Chuckle) It's been a long time since I've been the new anything.") all leading up to one of the goofiest duets ever put to tape.
The song is from Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, a 1977 special recorded in September of that year. Crosby needed someone to represent the "younger generation," and Bowie was it. In retrospect, Bowie was an odd choice: at 30, he was already on his fourth image change, having gone from earnest folkie to glam rocker to coke-addled soul man. 1977 was the time of his "Berlin phase," which was cool, but by then Bowie was trying to keep up with punk. (In an alternate universe, Crosby asks John Lydon "do you go in for any of the traditional things at the Rotten household at Christmastime?")
Nonetheless, Bowie was young and hip enough for Bing, and the special's writers concocted a scenario in which Crosby (staying at a distant relative's mansion in England) opens the door to find Bowie in a blazer and scarf, asking to use the piano. Awkward dialogue ensues, including Bowie's shoutout to drinking buddies John Lennon and Harry Nilsson (again, not the height of hipness in the late 70s, but whatever.) and Bowie smirking that "I even have a go at 'White Christmas.'" Then comes the most WTF moment in Bowie's long history, and that includes this:
No, when Crosby asks about traditional goings-on at the "Bowie household," the younger singer says "Presents, trees, decorations, agents sliding down the chimney..."
What could Bowie possibly mean? Theatrical agents? DEA? KGB? Never mind, because we then move on to the song, which Bowie claims his son loves.
Except that the melody Bowie plays on the piano didn't exist before the special. Bowie hated "Little Drummer Boy" (as many do) and asked for a replacement. Trouble is that the song the writers came up with, "Peace On Earth," is the most generic song ever. It is literally just about peace on Earth, which is nice, but c'mon, the Thin White Duke deserves better.
The special is also notable because it was Crosby's last. The crooner died just over a month after taping the duet (his last words were allegedly "That was a great game of golf, fellas."). What's little known is that Bowie made a second appearance in the special, performing one of his own songs:
Bowie's career took many turns after this, and he usually dismisses this strange moment in his cultural history with a shrug or a joke. But the song lives on, resurfacing every December.