SNOOPY vs. THE RED BARON – THE ROYAL GUARDSMEN
#1 February 18 -MARCH 24, 1967
SNOOPY CHRISTMAS – THE ROYAL GUARDSMEN
#1 DECEMBER 23, 1967 – JANUARY 5, 1968
‘Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz once remarked: “Don’t worry about the world coming to an end today, it’s already tomorrow in Australia”. And while the events of February 18, 1967 certainly weren’t apocalyptic, a novelty single in which a cartoon dog is a WWI fighter-pilot did hit #1 on the Australian singles chart.
‘Snoopy vs. The Red Baron’ is based on a recurring feature in the cartoon strip, where Snoopy – perched near-comotose on a kennel – daydreams of heroic WWI battles. These segments veered from the typically morose tone of ‘Peanuts’, which had become hugely popular by the mid-’60s. One enterprising band – The Royal Guardsman – saw the sonic possibilities of Snoopy’s mid-air heroics – not to mention the commercial ones – and released a novelty single.
The single hit #1 in February, and stayed there for five weeks. While this level of attention would be amazing for most artists, it resulted in the Guardsman being promptly sued by Schulz and United Features Syndicate – who owned syndication rights for the cartoon. It would seem the band didn’t bother to dabble in the legalities despite widely distributing the record, because it’s 1967 and you can’t own ideas, man. A court disagreed with this philosophy, and ordered that all profits from the single be awarded to Schulz – considering the single also reached #2 in the US, there were plenty of profits. Obviously Schulz could see the demand, so he allowed the group to continue writing and releasing novelty singles about Snoopy – which, of course, they did. This saw Snoopy land a second Aussie #1 – this time with a Christmas song, because the land of novelty singles is built upon a slippery slope.
Let’s pause and take a look at the musical landscape. 1966-67 was an incredibly fertile time for pop music – possibly the strongest two-year period in terms of the advancement of the art-form.
Here’s a partial list of hit singles released just in 1967: ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ – Procol Harum, ‘All You Need Is Love’; ‘Strawberry Fields Forever – The Beatles, ‘Light My Fire’ – The Doors, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ – The Rolling Stones, ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ – Marvin Gaye, ‘Happy Together’ – The Turtles, ‘Respect’ – Aretha Franklin, ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ – Jefferson Airplane, ‘I Was Made to Love Her’ – Stevie Wonder, ‘The Letter’ – Box Tops, ‘Higher and Higher’- Jackie Wilson, ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ – Van Morrison, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ – Aretha Franklin; ‘I Say a Little Prayer’ – Dionne Warwick, ‘I Can See for Miles’ – The Who, ‘Daydream Believer’ – The Monkees, ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ – Gladys Knight & the Pips ‘I Second That Emotion’ – Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, ‘Itchycoo Park’ – Small Faces, ‘The Look of Love’ – Dusty Springfield, ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – The Kinks, ‘To Love Somebody’ – Bee Gees.*
Quite a twelve-month burst. The obscene amount of wildly experimental yet commercially popular records released during this time can be put down to the convergence of numerous things, including psychedelic drug experimentation; widespread adoption of eastern philosophy, music and religion; the peak of intergalactic interest due to the space race and the heady possibilities that presented; the Vietnam War forcing a violent propulsion towards peace, love and the insertion of issues into pop songs; the birth of colour television**; the shift in critical opinion regarding pop music as an art-form; and – crucially – advancements in recording technology and therefore multi-track studio experimentation.***
Given the quality of output by hugely successful artists, that a cartoon dog spent six of the year’s 52 weeks on top of the Australian charts with two separate novelty singles might seem like an affront to everything decent. But it isn’t that surprising. The Beatles’ #1 from the previous August – ‘Yellow Submarine’ – could definitely be classed as a novelty single, as can many other respected 1966-67 works: Donovan’s trippy ‘Mellow Yellow’ and Pink Floyd’s ‘Bike’ are two quick examples – colours were also big in the ’60s, as any badly-tie-dyed telemovie set in the era demonstrates. The renewed popularity of surreal, childlike works, such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice series, or Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, also meant that there was often a blurry distinction between ‘novelty single’ and ‘psychedelic exploration into regression.’
Granted, neither ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’, nor ‘Snoopy’s Christmas’ are high art. But they are both quality pop tunes, and remain interesting, especially lyrically – the latter involves a Xmas cease-fire between Snoopy and the Baron. Like a lot of art during the era, it can be read as a ‘Nam allegory, but the song was based on an actual event during WWI, where on Christmas Day, 1914, German and British troops called an unofficial cease-fire, exchanged beer, tobacco and tinned meat, and even played games of football – although, as Karl Pilkington once noted, who the hell brought a football to war?
The single spent two weeks at #1 over Xmas before being knocked off the charts on January 6, 1968 by Beatles double-whammy ‘Hello, Goodbye’/ ‘I Am the Walrus’, the B-side of which was the group’s most experimental work to date. Purists may feel smug about this cosmos realignment, but the fabs were replaced at the top two weeks later by another novelty single – John Farnham’s ‘Sadie (The Cleaning Lady)’****
A 1968 single, ‘Snoopy for President’ – a tad flippant given the April assassination of candidate Robert F. Kennedy – didn’t fare nearly as well, failing to reach the top fifty. The Guardsmen retreated, dropping the Snoopy shtick for almost four decades before taking another swing with 2006’s also-war-related, also-flippant ‘Snoopy vs. Osama’. Of course, by 2006 Crazy Frog had the game on lock, and the single barely attracted a glance.
*Albums-wise ’66 and ’67 saw Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, The Velvet Underground and Nico, Blonde on Blonde, Revolver, Are You Experienced, Aftermath, Forever Changes, The Doors, Bee Gees 1st, The Who Sell Out, Disraeli Gears, Surrealistic Pillow, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Buffalo Springfield Again, Smiley Smile – and the aborted SMiLE, If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, Freak Out!, The Easybeats Volume 3, The Supremes A’ Go-Go, Face to Face – plus hundreds more.
** The Beatles, seeing the possibilities of colour television, made the visually stunning Magical Mystery Tour, which was to screen on the BBC on Boxing Day, 1967. However, the film aired in black or white, making an entire sequence where the bus-driver points out skies and fields swimming in psychedelic purples and oranges into the most boring, baffling three-minutes of television since this Ed Sullivan plate-spinning segment.
***The four track opened up multi-track recording, and therefore multi-track experimentation. Great examples from ’66-’67 include the seagull-screeching backing tape looping in ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, the flanged drums in ‘Itchycoo Park’, and a very stoned Paul McCartney crunching celery on a Beach Boys track named ‘Vega-Tables‘.
****Fans of psychedelic music from the late ’60s shouldn’t sleep on early Farnham – back in the swinging ’60s, he was a psych warrior. Five examples of Farnham skipping the light fandango: ‘Friday Kind Of Monday’ | ‘Rose Coloured Glasses’ | ‘Jamie’ | this album cover | this Ansett jingle/lysergic romp.