Week in Rock History: David Bowie and Bing Crosby Share a Strange Duet
This week in rock history, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig went on a joyride, David Bowie and Bing Crosby shared a bizarre holiday duet, Neil Young’s record label sued him, George Harrison passed away and Joey Ramone was immortalized next to CBGBs.
December 3, 1976: Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig terrorizes British skies
The striking cover of Pink Floyd’s tenth album, 1977’s Animals, pictured a gigantic inflatable pig tethered above a power station – an inversely surreal image for the record’s pointed critique of British government and social politics. However, the swine took on an additional dimension when it broke free from its tethers and floated free across British airspace.
The 40-foot pig, which was designed by Roger Waters, began its day moored to Battersea Power Station in South London. A trained sharp-shooter was on set to deflate the pig if it broke free during those windy days; however, he was not present on the second day of shooting, when the pig did indeed break free of its ropes; it sped off within seconds, reaching a height of 18,000 feet and interrupting air travel to the extent that Heathrow Airport was forced to delay flights.
Later that night, the pig eventually lost stream and landed, fittingly, in a farm; Pink Floyd’s team recovered it there (presumably after they stopped laughing). They floated a similar one above Battersea in 2011, on the 35th anniversary of its fateful flight.
November 30, 1977: Bing Crosby's final Christmas special airs, featuring David Bowie
When David Bowie appeared on Bing Crosby’s 42nd and final Christmas special, it was his attempt to make his arty career more mainstream, more normal. Instead, the glam-rocker's duet with the legendary crooner Crosby resulted in one of the strangest moments of both of their careers.
In September of 1977, Bowie taped his only appearance on Crosby’s family-friendly Christmas variety show; the pair sang two songs, "Little Drummer Boy" and "Peace on Earth." They reportedly spent less than an hour rehearsing both songs – during which Bowie reportedly begged in vain to sing anything besides "Little Drummer Boy" – and on camera, Bowie followed up the duet with a largely impromptu take on his own "Heroes."
Bowie and Crosby’s "Little Drummer Boy" has become an enduring cult classic due to the pair’s bizarre on-screen chemistry: saccharine and straight-laced, replete with banter about John Lennon and fleeting expressions of consternation crossing the Thin White Duke’s face. Sadly, Crosby died one month after filming, but the single has been a staple of British holiday radio ever since.
December 1, 1983: Geffen sues Neil Young, claiming his records are not commercial
When Neil Young released Everybody’s Rockin’ in 1983, the record was unusual but not out of step for the talented musician. The collection of retro pop and rockabilly tunes had virtually nothing in common stylistically with his more recent releases, which had veered from Americana/country to New Wave-influenced pop. Yet while Young’s esoteric interests may have thrilled his loyal fans, it only enraged his record label, Geffen.
In 1983, Geffen sued Young for $3 million, claiming that Everybody’s Rockin’ was not commercially viable and "musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings." It was a truly bizarre legal case – Young was being sued for, essentially, not sounding like himself, and he shot back with a $21 million countersuit that claimed a breach of contract by Geffen (who had promised no creative control over his music when he signed with them).
Young won the battle; Geffen withdrew amidst costly and humiliating public scrutiny. Young later told The Los Angeles Times about the debacle, "They thought I was all over the map and didn't understand why I was out there playing country, although to me it sounded like B.B. King more than country…All my music comes from all music. I'm not country, I'm not rock & roll, I'm just me, and all these things are what I like."
November 29, 2001: George Harrison dies
The quiet Beatle’s widow, Olivia, recently explained in the Martin Scorcese documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World that Harrison had been preparing for his death for much of his life. He placed great spiritual importance on the moment when the soul left the body, and little upset him as much as when people were robbed of that peaceful passage (as John Lennon had been). When Harrison passed away from lung cancer at age 58, it was quietly in Los Angeles with family at his side.
Harrison, the private singer-guitarist behind many of the Beatles’ greatest songs ("Something," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") branched out from the globe-conquering Fab Four into a successful and inquisitive solo career: his first proper solo record, the triple-album All Things Must Pass, was groundbreaking for pop music in its overt spirituality and Eastern influences (which Harrison had come to embrace while studying Hinduism and Indian culture in the 1960s).
Harrison also performed in the rock supergroup the Traveling Wilburys with Bob Dylan and Tom Petty, produced movies and was an active philanthropist. He helped organize the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, the first large-scale benefit concert that went on to inspire countless more.
November 30, 2003: The New York block near CBGBs is renamed Joey Ramone Place
The Ramones and the punk club CBGBs were inextricably tied; both made the 1970s-1980s New York punk scene much greater than the sum of its parts. No lead singer commanded the stage with as much incendiary authority of Joey Ramone, so it was only fitting that after he died, Ramone received a permanent honor at the center of the punk universe.
In 2003, two years after Ramone passed away from cancer at age 49, New York officials unveiled a sign proclaiming Joey Ramone Place at the intersection of 2nd Street and the Bowery – the northern end of the block that housed CBGBs, and the site of his former apartment. It was also nearby the famous CBGBs brick wall, as seen on the cover of the Ramones’ third album, Rocket to Russia.
Unfortunately, CBGBs closed in 2006, but Joey Ramone Place lives on in New York.
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