01 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Battle of The Little Drummer Boy

Bowie vs Bing vs Polyphonic Spree

Wednesday's are battle days on my twisted advent calendar, today it's The Little Drummer Boy as covered by David Bowie and Bing Crosby from a dusty old TV special against the boisterous choral might of the Polyphonic Spree. First, I should say The Little Drummer Boy is really not one of my favorite seasonal songs, its story of a poor boy feeling ashamed that he has no gift to bring to a baby he hasn't met, perhaps due to some peer pressure from the overly flash wise men, seems somehow, just wrong. I mean, I don't think that little baby Jesus is demanding tribute, I thought the whole point should be that he's shown up to do away with all that kind of crap. So, it's not little baby Jesus fault, which is why I blame the toadying indulgent wise men. If all the little drummer boy can offer Jesus is his Buddy Rich impersonation, what about his poorer next door neighbor, who can't even afford a drum, what's he supposed to do, invent beatboxing for the son of God?

OK, getting away with my problems with the content of the song. These are two pretty interesting readings of it. First, the Crosby/Bowie collaboration has a lot going against it. Just watch the cringemaking set up, the hokey earnestness with which Bing does the trendy vicar bit about how marvellous the modern music is, and Bowie trying to push that he's just a middle class parent of a 6 year old son, and not a case study in recreational drugs and sexual ambivalence. Then there's the move to make the song more hip and contemporary by having Bowie sing that "Peace On Earth" bit over Bing doing his Rump-Pa-Pa-Pums like his mellow version of scat. Despite the fact that it should floor you with how bad it is, it kind of works. It's become a classic, even if the meeting of the generations is manufactured, both David and Bing seem to be so good natured about it, and put enough into the song, that it rises above the lazy exercise in cross promotion that the TV and Record Company execs dreamed up in their saccharine sugar plum dreams.

I like Polyphonic Spree, and I hope to get to see them live some time, they look fun. They've tried to redefine choral for indie rock music and pop, before that lot from Glee grabbed hold of it and drained any sense of the power of the human voice joined in unison with warmth and natural variations of timbre and pitch instead of sounding like lab produced clones of all Cher's records post Sonny. Polyphonic Spree sing with enthusiasm that is entirely lacking from that group of geriatric adolescents hooked on autotune. Unfortunately the YouTube clip lacks some of the audio quality of the recorded version, but I think it carries the atmosphere of their performance rather well.

Some of their non season recordings for comparison:

The Polyphonic Spree - Soldier Girl .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

The Polyphonic Spree - Lithium .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

Polyphonic Spree - Section 9 .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

Well, for my part, I think Polyphonic Spree wins hands down, but I'll admit that the Bowie-Bing (!Buddah-Boom?) is probably more enduring, at least until Bowie does his hokey TV Special and duets this track with Justin Timberlake (maybe they'll make a movie together).



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