Why Europe Has So Few Skyscrapers

Guy de Mau­pas­sant ate lunch at the restau­rant in the base of the Eif­fel Tow­er near­ly every day, that being the only place in Paris where he would­n’t have to look at the Eif­fel Tow­er. 130 years lat­er, the obser­va­tion deck of the Tour Mont­par­nasse is known to offer the most beau­ti­ful vista on the French cap­i­tal — thanks pre­cise­ly to the invis­i­bil­i­ty of the Tour Mont­par­nasse. Spare a thought, if you will, for that high­ly con­spic­u­ous build­ing, quite pos­si­bly the loneli­est in Europe. Since its com­ple­tion in 1973, it has stood as the sole sky­scraper in Paris prop­er, its famous unsight­li­ness hav­ing inspired a ban on the con­struc­tion of build­ings over sev­en sto­ries high in the city cen­ter.

Paris isn’t alone in its lack of sky­scrap­ers, a con­di­tion trav­el­ers from Asia and Amer­i­ca notice in cities all over the Con­ti­nent. In the video above, con­struc­tion-themed Youtube chan­nel The B1M explores the rea­sons for this rel­a­tive pauci­ty of tall tow­ers in the cap­i­tals of Europe. “When sky­scrap­ers first rose to promi­nence in the 19th cen­tu­ry, first in Chica­go and lat­er in New York, many Euro­pean cities were already firm­ly estab­lished with grand his­toric build­ings and pub­lic spaces that left lit­tle room for large new struc­tures,” says its nar­ra­tor. At that time, a grow­ing sense of cul­tur­al com­pe­ti­tion between Amer­i­ca and Europe also meant that “each con­ti­nent became wary of adopt­ing the oth­er’s con­cepts.”

Then came the Sec­ond World War, in the wake of whose dev­as­ta­tion of Europe “an over­whelm­ing desire to restore what had been destroyed took hold.” Few Con­ti­nen­tal cities held off the kind of demand for floor space that drove sky­scraper con­struc­tion in Amer­i­ca. In the east, the Sovi­ets built most­ly “mid-rise, repet­i­tive struc­tures that sought to rehouse much of the pop­u­la­tion”; in the west, the restric­tive phe­nom­e­non of “Brus­seliza­tion” took hold in response to a wave of bulky post­war-mod­ernist struc­tures “that had lit­tle regard for archi­tec­tur­al or cul­tur­al val­ue.” This led to “a gen­er­al dis­like for mod­ern build­ings across Europe, with many see­ing them as bland or soul­less.”

No one who’s spent time in Amer­i­can city cen­ters built up pre­dom­i­nant­ly in the 1960s and 70s can dis­miss those Euro­pean detrac­tors’ fears. But it would be a lie to claim that Euro­pean cities have avoid­ed sky­scrap­ers entire­ly: even Paris has sim­ply pushed them a few miles away, into unro­man­tic busi­ness dis­tricts like La Défense. Ever-taller build­ings have sym­bol­ized moder­ni­ty for well over a cen­tu­ry now, and no civ­i­liza­tion can afford to keep moder­ni­ty at too great a dis­tance. Tak­ing note of how atti­tudes toward sky­scrap­ers have been “soft­en­ing across the Con­ti­nent” in the 21st cen­tu­ry, this B1M video spec­u­lates on the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a “sky­scraper boom” in Europe. But even if that should hap­pen, the Tour Mont­par­nasse will sure­ly con­tin­ue stand­ing alone.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times

Why Do Peo­ple Hate Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture?: A Video Essay

The Cre­ation & Restora­tion of Notre-Dame Cathe­dral, Ani­mat­ed

Watch the Build­ing of the Empire State Build­ing in Col­or: The Cre­ation of the Icon­ic 1930s Sky­scraper From Start to Fin­ish

An Intro­duc­tion to the Chrysler Build­ing, New York’s Art Deco Mas­ter­piece, by John Malkovich (1994)

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

The Omicron Variant Explained by Neil deGrasse Tyson & Regeneron President George Yancopoulos

What is the Omi­cron Vari­ant? How do vac­cines work? And what about mon­o­clon­al anti­body ther­a­py? On this episode of StarTalk, Neil deGrasse Tyson has a wide-rang­ing and quite infor­ma­tive con­ver­sa­tion with George Yan­copou­los, pres­i­dent of Regen­eron, the com­pa­ny that cre­at­ed the mon­o­clon­al anti­body ther­a­py now being used in the fight against COVID-19. And there’s an inter­est­ing side note: Dur­ing the 1970s, Tyson and Yan­copou­los were high school class­mates togeth­er at Bronx Sci­ence. They’ve both come a long way, and now they re-unite to explain the sci­ence behind the lat­est phase of the pan­dem­ic.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Lists 8 (Free) Books Every Intel­li­gent Per­son Should Read

MIT Presents a Free Course on the COVID-19 Pan­dem­ic

How the COVID-19 Vac­cines Could Be Cre­at­ed So Quick­ly: Two Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the How mRNA Vac­cines Were Devel­oped, and How They Work

The Jagger Moving Company


Doreen Ketchens’ Astonishing Rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun”: A World-Class Clarinetist Busks on the Streets of New Orleans

Dirt­i­ness has no descrip­tion. It is a  feel­ing. — music tran­scriber George Col­lier

You may be able to read music and play the clar­inet, but it’s extreme­ly unlike­ly you — or any­one — will be able to play along with Doreen Ketchens’ “dirty” solo on “The House of the Ris­ing Sun,” above, despite an assist from Tom Pick­les’ scrolling tran­scrip­tion.

Down­load the tran­scrip­tion for free and keep try­ing.

It’s what Ketchens, a world renowned clar­inetist and music edu­ca­tor, who has played for four US pres­i­dents and busks reg­u­lar­ly in the French Quar­ter, would advise.

“You have to prac­tice and be ready to per­form at the drop of a hat” she told The Clar­inet’s Ben Red­wine, when he asked if she had any advice for young musi­cians hop­ing to make it pro­fes­sion­al­ly.

She’s also a strong advo­cate of lis­ten­ing robust­ly, not throw­ing in the tow­el when some­one else gets the job instead of you, and let­ting your per­son­al­i­ty come through in your play­ing:

You don’t want to sound like you’re play­ing an etude book. This is for all types of music – even clas­si­cal. You want to move the audi­ence, you want to touch them.

Trained as a clas­si­cal clar­inetist, Ketchens cozied up to jazz short­ly after she cozied up to the tuba play­er who would become her hus­band. “All of the sud­den, jazz wasn’t so bad,” she says:

I start­ed to lis­ten to jazz so I could learn the tunes and fit in with his band. I start­ed lis­ten­ing to Louis Arm­strong. He is my biggest influ­ence. Some peo­ple call me Mrs. Satch­mo, I guess because that con­cept is in my head. I’ll hear some­thing he plays, which I’ve heard thou­sands of times, and I’ll think, “What? How did he do that?” Then, I lis­tened to the clar­inetists who played with him: Edmund HallBuster Bai­leyBar­ney Bigard. Those cats were awe­some too! Edmund Hall had this thing he could do, where it sounds like he was play­ing two tones at the same time. Peo­ple today might hum while they play to achieve some­thing sim­i­lar, but I don’t think that was what he was doing. Buster Bai­ley had a sim­i­lar back­ground to me, start­ing out with clas­si­cal music, then learn­ing jazz. Ear­ly on, I emu­lat­ed Jer­ry Fuller, clar­inetist with the Dukes of Dix­ieland. I would steal so many of his solos just so I could keep up with my husband’s band. Even­tu­al­ly, I real­ized what he was doing, and it trans­lat­ed into me being able to impro­vise. I’d start out tran­scrib­ing solos, then play­ing by ear, copy­ing what those clar­inetists were doing. I don’t remem­ber those solos now, but I’m sure that I still play snip­pets of them that creep into my impro­vi­sa­tions.

How­ev­er she got there, she pos­sess­es a sin­gu­lar abil­i­ty to make her instru­ment growl and her com­mand of 32nd notes makes us feel a lit­tle light­head­ed.

Clar­inetists abound in New Orleans, and they prob­a­bly all cov­er “The House of the Ris­ing Sun,” but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more excit­ing ren­di­tion than Ketchens’ on the cor­ner of St. Peter and Roy­al, with hus­band Lawrence on tuba and daugh­ter Dori­an on drums.  Here’s the full ver­sions, sans tran­scrip­tion.

You want an encore? Of course you do.

How about Ketchens’ mag­nif­i­cent solo on “Just a Clos­er Walk With Thee” for the Louisiana Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra?

Find more aston­ish­ing, tran­scribed solos and a heap­ing help­ing of Jacob Col­lier on George Collier’s (no rela­tion) YouTube Chan­nel.

His tran­scrip­tions, and those of col­lab­o­ra­tor Tom Pick­les, are avail­able for free down­load here, unless the artist sells their own tran­scrip­tion, in which case he encour­ages you to sup­port the artist with your pur­chase.

If you’re a music nerd who would like to dis­cuss tran­scrip­tions, give feed­back on oth­ers’ attempts, and upload your own, join his com­mu­ni­ty on Dis­cord.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Jazz Vir­tu­oso Oscar Peter­son Gives Dick Cavett a Daz­zling Piano Les­son (1979)

Lit­tle Kid Mer­ri­ly Grooves to ZZ Top While Wait­ing for the Bus

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, the­ater­mak­er, and the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Her lat­est book, Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo, will be pub­lished in ear­ly 2022.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

A Deep Study of the Opening Scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Taran­ti­no loves a cat-and-mouse scene, when forces of pow­er and poten­tial vio­lence enter rooms, com­man­deer them, and play with their hap­less vic­tims. Think of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules tak­ing care of two hap­less, out of their depth frat boy dope dealers—all the while help­ing him­self to their Kahu­na burger—in Pulp Fic­tion. Ter­ri­fy­ing, hilar­i­ous, and elec­tri­fy­ing: it has become one of his hall­marks. By the time of 2009’s Inglou­ri­ous Bas­ter­ds, he had per­fect­ed it so much that he devotes the film’s open­ing 20 min­utes to one sus­pense-filled meet­ing between an unc­tu­ous Nazi and a French farmer, who is try­ing to hide a Jew­ish fam­i­ly under his floor­boards.

Markus Mad­lang­bayan (aka emo­tion­de­sign­er) only has two film appre­ci­a­tion essays up on his Youtube site, and it’s a shame he didn’t do more. Here he takes us through Tarantino’s farm­house scene, shot by shot, exam­in­ing the director’s cam­era place­ment and com­po­si­tion, explain­ing his rea­son­ing, and demon­strat­ing why Quentin is a mas­ter of his craft.

Most direc­tors use a stan­dard form of cov­er­age to shoot dia­log scenes—a mas­ter shot of the two actors speak­ing, and then a close up of each actor with a tighter “punch in” shot of a face to empha­size dra­ma. But Taran­ti­no rarely does that, find­ing more inter­est­ing solu­tions to show the pow­er dynam­ics in play. Farmer LaPa­dite at first has the upper hand, bluff­ing his way suc­cess­ful­ly through Hans Landa’s inter­ro­ga­tion. That is, until he does­n’t. Taran­ti­no will move his cam­era in an arc, break­ing the 180 rule, and switch­ing the posi­tions of the char­ac­ters on screen, even though they haven’t moved from their seats. The direc­tor has lit­er­al­ly turned the table on LaPa­dite, just as Lan­da has done.

Taran­ti­no is also very par­si­mo­nious with his close-ups. He gives LaPa­dite one as we see him steel him­self for the approach­ing Nazis. He gives Lan­da one when all the social niceties are over, and instead he reveals he has known all along that they are sit­ting right above a hid­ing space. And final­ly, Taran­ti­no gives LaPa­dite (and the actor that plays him, Denis Méno­chet) a tight close-up as dread and impend­ing death pass over his face.

Essay­ist emo­tion­de­sign­er doesn’t do this, but this scene is ask­ing for com­par­i­son with the afore­men­tioned scene from Pulp Fic­tion. In 1994, Taran­ti­no was hot and full of ener­gy, but it’s actu­al­ly a very con­ven­tion­al­ly shot scene, filled with close-ups and wides, but not with­out its wit. Fif­teen years lat­er, this short film-with­in-a-film open­ing shows how far the direc­tor had come.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Quentin Taran­ti­no Explains How to Write & Direct Movies

Quentin Taran­ti­no Reviews Movies: From Dunkirk and King of New York, to Soul Broth­ers of Kung Fu & More

Quentin Taran­ti­no Gives a Tour of Video Archives, the Store Where He Worked Before Becom­ing a Film­mak­er

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Is There Life After Death?: John Cleese and a Panel of Scientists Discuss That Eternal Question

“I am six­ty-five years old,” said John Cleese as he began one year’s con­vo­ca­tion address at my uni­ver­si­ty, “which is near­ly dead.” It got enough of a laugh that I’m not sur­prised to find, look­ing it up all these years lat­er, that he seem to have deployed the line many times since. “I’m now incred­i­bly old,” he said last year in a video urg­ing com­pli­ance with coro­n­avirus rules. “I’m near­ly dead. I am 81 years of age.” Nev­er­the­less, he remains decid­ed­ly non-dead (and indeed active on Twit­ter) today, though no doubt real­i­ty-based enough to accept that he’s no less mor­tal than his fel­low Pythons Gra­ham Chap­man and Ter­ry Jones, who’ve pre­ced­ed him into the after­life — if indeed there is an after­life.

That very ques­tion ani­mates the 80-minute con­ver­sa­tion above. Put on by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Virginia’s Divi­sion of Per­cep­tu­al Stud­ies at the 2018 Tom Tom Fes­ti­val, it places Cleese at the head of a pan­el of sci­en­tists charged with prob­ing one ques­tion: is there life after death?

Many will find the evi­dence dis­cussed here fair­ly per­sua­sive, espe­cial­ly the doc­u­ment­ed “near-death expe­ri­ences.” In these cas­es “we have height­ened men­tal thoughts when your brain isn’t func­tion­ing; we have accu­rate per­cep­tions from out­side the body; we have meet­ings with deceased loved ones who you did­n’t know had died; we have meet­ings with deceased loved ones whom you did­n’t know, peri­od; and we don’t have a good phys­i­cal expla­na­tion for this.”

So says Bruce Greyson, Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­robe­hav­ioral Sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia, one of the pan­el’s five dis­tin­guished non-Pythons. The oth­ers are Jim B. Tuck­er, the Divi­sion of Per­cep­tu­al Stud­ies direc­tor; Edward Kel­ly, one of its Pro­fes­sors of Research; Emi­ly Williams Kel­ly, one of its Assis­tant Pro­fes­sors of Research; and UVA Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Neu­robe­hav­ioral Sci­ences Kim Pen­berthy. Their work sug­gests to them that, while near-death expe­ri­ences may not reflect the detach­ment of soul from body, nei­ther do they seem to be straight­for­ward hal­lu­ci­na­tions. The trou­ble with mount­ing a rig­or­ous inves­ti­ga­tion into such a rare phe­nom­e­non is the nec­es­sar­i­ly small num­ber of cas­es. These researchers might thus con­sid­er tak­ing on Cleese him­self as a sub­ject; after all, the man’s self-pro­fessed state of near-death has last­ed more than fif­teen years now.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Elie Wiesel (RIP) Talks About What Hap­pens When We Die

Hear Kurt Von­negut Vis­it the After­life & Inter­view Dead His­tor­i­cal Fig­ures: Isaac New­ton, Adolf Hitler, Eugene Debs & More (Audio, 1998)

Carl Sagan Answers the Ulti­mate Ques­tion: Is There a God? (1994)

John Cleese Plays the Dev­il, Makes a Spe­cial Appeal for Hell, 1966

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

When Maurice Sendak Created a Dark Nutcracker Ballet

Chil­dren are the per­fect audi­ence for The Nut­crack­er. 

(Well, chil­dren and the grand­moth­ers who can’t wait for the tod­dler to start sit­ting still long enough to make the hol­i­day-themed bal­let an annu­al tra­di­tion…)

Mau­rice Sendak, the cel­e­brat­ed children’s book author and illus­tra­tor, agreed, but found the stan­dard George Bal­an­chine-chore­o­graphed ver­sion so trea­cly as to be unwor­thy of chil­dren, dub­bing it the “most bland and banal of bal­lets.”

The 1983 pro­duc­tion he col­lab­o­rat­ed on with Pacif­ic North­west Bal­let artis­tic direc­tors Kent Stow­ell and Fran­cia Rus­sell did away with the notion that chil­dren should be “cod­dled and sweet­ened and sug­arplummed and kept away from the dark aspects of life when there is no way of doing that.”

Tchaikovsky’s famous score remained in place, but Sendak and Stow­ell ducked the source mate­r­i­al for, well, more source mate­r­i­al. As per the New York City Ballet’s web­site, the Russ­ian Impe­r­i­al Ballet’s chief bal­let mas­ter, Mar­ius Peti­pa, com­mis­sioned Tchaikovsky to write music for an adap­ta­tion of Alexan­der Dumas’ child-friend­ly sto­ry The Nut­crack­er of Nurem­berg. But The Nut­crack­er of Nurem­berg was inspired by the much dark­er E.T.A. Hoff­man tale, 1816’s “The Nut­crack­er and the Mouse King.”

The “weird, dark qual­i­ties” of the orig­i­nal were much more in keep­ing with Sendak’s self pro­claimed “obses­sive theme”: “Chil­dren sur­viv­ing child­hood.”

Sendak want­ed the bal­let to focus more intent­ly on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nut­crack­er as a Christ­mas present in Act I:

It’s about her vic­to­ry over her fear and her grow­ing feel­ings for the prince… She is over­whelmed with grow­ing up and has no knowl­edge of what this means. I think the bal­let is all about a strong emo­tion­al sense of some­thing hap­pen­ing to her, which is bewil­der­ing.


Bal­an­chine must have felt dif­fer­ent­ly. He benched Clara in Act II, let­ting the adult Sug­arplum Fairy take cen­ter­stage, to guide the chil­dren through a pas­sive tour of the Land of Sweets.

As Sendak scoffed to the Dal­las Morn­ing News:

It’s all very, very pret­ty and very, very beau­ti­ful… I always hat­ed the Sug­arplum Fairy. I always want­ed to whack her.

“Like what kids real­ly want is a can­dy king­dom. That short­changes children’s feel­ings about life,” echoes Stow­ell, who revived the Sendak com­mis­sion, fea­tur­ing the illus­tra­tor’s sets and cos­tumes every win­ter for 3 decades.

In lieu of the Sug­ar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stow­ell intro­duced a daz­zling caged pea­cock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s moth­er in Act I.

The threats, in the form of eccen­tric uncle Drosselmeier, a fero­cious tiger, and a mas­sive rat pup­pet with an impres­sive, puls­ing tail, have a Freudi­an edge.

The paint­ed back­drops, grow­ing Christ­mas tree, and Nut­crack­er toy look as if they emerged from one of Sendak’s books. (He fol­lowed up the bal­let by illus­trat­ing a new trans­la­tion of the Hoff­man orig­i­nal.)

The Sendak-designed cos­tumes are more under­stat­ed, thought Pacif­ic North­west Bal­let cos­tumer Mark Zap­pone, who described work­ing with Sendak as “an incred­i­ble joy and plea­sure” and recalled the fun­ny ongo­ing bat­tle with the Act II Moors cos­tumes to Seat­tle Met:

Maurice’s design had the women in quite bil­lowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the stu­dios, and Kent start­ed rehears­ing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They end­ed up, for years, twist­ing the legs in their cos­tumes and mak­ing a lit­tle tuck here and there. It was a rite of pas­sage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t for­get to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.

Rent a filmed ver­sion of Mau­rice Sendak’s The Nut­crack­er on Ama­zon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boat­ing scene with Clara and her Prince.)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Only Draw­ing from Mau­rice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illus­trate The Hob­bit

Mau­rice Sendak Sent Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Let­ters to Fans — So Beau­ti­ful a Kid Ate One

Mau­rice Sendak Illus­trates Tol­stoy in 1963 (with a Lit­tle Help from His Edi­tor)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Bing Crosby’s Final Christmas Special, Featuring a Famous Duet with Bowie, and Bowie Introducing His New Song, “Heroes” (1977)

Bing Cros­by died in Octo­ber of 1977, but that did­n’t stop him from appear­ing in liv­ing rooms all over Amer­i­ca for Christ­mas. He’d already com­plet­ed the shoot for his final CBS tele­vi­sion spe­cial Bing Cros­by’s Mer­rie Olde Christ­mas, along with such col­lab­o­ra­tors as Ron Moody, Stan­ley Bax­ter, the Trin­i­ty Boys Choir, Twig­gy, and a young fel­low by the name of David Bowie. Of course, Bowie had long since achieved his own dream of fame, at least to the younger gen­er­a­tion; it was view­ers who’d grown up lis­ten­ing to Cros­by who need­ed an intro­duc­tion. And they received a mem­o­rable one indeed, in the form of the Bowie-Cros­by duet “Peace on Earth/Little Drum­mer Boy,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture.

This year you can watch Bing Cros­by’s Mer­rie Olde Christ­mas in its hour­long entire­ty, which includes per­for­mances of “Have Your­self a Mer­ry Lit­tle Christ­mas” and “Side by Side by Side” (from the late Stephen Sond­heim’s Com­pa­ny), a (per­haps embell­ished) musi­cal delin­eation of the extend­ed Cros­by fam­i­ly, and a ses­sion of lit­er­ary rem­i­nis­cence with none oth­er than Charles Dick­ens.

The set­up for all this is that Cros­by, his wife, and chil­dren have all been brought to Eng­land by the invi­ta­tion of the pre­vi­ous­ly unknown Sir Per­ci­val Cros­by, who desires to extend a hand to his “poor Amer­i­can rela­tions” — and who hap­pens to live next door to Bowie, that most Eng­lish of all 1970s rock stars.

The search for Sir Cros­by pro­ceeds mer­ri­ly, at one point prompt­ing his famous rel­a­tive to chat with Twig­gy about the nature of love and lone­li­ness, emo­tions “just as painful and just as beau­ti­ful as they ever were. Whether you’re a nov­el­ist, poet, or even a song­writer, it’s all in the way you sing.” These reflec­tions lead into a stark music video for the title track of Bowie’s “ ‘Heroes’ ”, which had come out just weeks before (coin­ci­den­tal­ly, on the very day of Cros­by’s death). Though a some­what incon­gru­ous addi­tion to such an old-fash­ioned pro­duc­tion, it does vivid­ly reflect a cer­tain chang­ing of the transat­lantic pop-cul­tur­al guard.

In their scene togeth­er, Cros­by and Bowie do exude an unde­ni­able mutu­al respect, the younger man admit­ting even to have tried his hand at the old­er man’s sig­na­ture hol­i­day song, “White Christ­mas.” Hav­ing set off the 1940s Christ­mas-music boom by record­ing it 35 years before, Cros­by sings it one last time him­self to close out this spe­cial. Before doing so, he describes the Christ­mas sea­son as “a time to look back with grat­i­tude at being able to come this far, and a time to look ahead with hope and opti­mism.” Like all the ele­ments of Bing Cros­by’s Mer­rie Olde Christ­mas not involv­ing David Bowie, these words were noth­ing new even then, but some­how they still man­age to stoke our Christ­mas spir­it all these decades lat­er.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie & Bing Cros­by Sing “The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy/Peace on Earth” (1977)

David Bowie Sends a Christ­mas Greet­ing in the Voice of Elvis Pres­ley

John­ny Cash’s Christ­mas Spe­cials, Fea­tur­ing June Carter, Steve Mar­tin, Andy Kauf­man & More (1976–79)

Revis­it Kate Bush’s Pecu­liar Christ­mas Spe­cial, Fea­tur­ing Peter Gabriel (1979)

Why “White Christ­mas,” “Here Comes San­ta Claus,” “Let It Snow,” and Oth­er Clas­sic Christ­mas Songs Come from the 1940s

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

« Go BackMore in this category... »
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.