Song Analysis Corner: Snoopy vs. the Red Baron | The Royal Guardsmen
There I was, puttering about the offices at the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen, fretting about what song to write about next. A cohort helpfully suggested I revisit Peanuts music – that is, music associated with the famed comic strip Peanuts by Charles M. S. Yes, but I actually wrote a whole thing on Vince Guaraldi who composed the famed music of the TV specials, I says. Yeah, says the cohort, but what about The Coasters’ hit “Charlie Brown”? Naw, I briskly dismissed the cohort, the Coasters’ hit was not about the cartoon character, I have Leiber & Stoller’s word on it.
But then I remembered the other band that made music about characters in the Peanuts strip, and did quite well with it. Such as with this hit:
Snoopy Vs the Red Baron
As opposed to the Coasters’ song, “Snoopy Vs the Red Baron” came along at a time when Peanuts was much bigger, in 1966. Think of how big South Park or The Simpsons is now, and that’s about how big Peanuts were by then. The very first Peanuts Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, had just debuted the year before. Peanuts merch was everywhere on lunchboxes, backpacks, and apparel. This crest of popularity didn’t recede until well into the 1980s. Between the mushrooming catalog of Peanuts TV specials (did we honestly need It's Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown?), the various commercial sponsorships…
...and of course the syndicated strip and books everywhere, it was a pretty Charlie Brown childhood for #GenX, but the Royal Guardsmen had arrived just a bit early to the party. I was a Peanuts nut of a kid, natch, so the mere matter of the song being released 3 years before I was born did nothing to daunt me from relentlessly singing along with it in 1977.
“Snoopy Vs the Red Baron” was written by this other song-writing/production team, Gernhard & Holler, and first performed by The Royal Guardsmen and released December 10th, 1966. By the end of the month – December 31st – the song had climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 right after The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.”
The Royal Guardsmen, out of Tampa, Florida, went on to make a few more Peanuts-themed songs on and off, and never ended up with a very mainstream career. They stuck to novelty songs, including songs about other comic strip characters such as Alley Oop. My whole childhood: Tearing into the newspaper to read the Sunday comics while the record player scratched in the background. Good times.
Comics in the ‘60s and ‘70s weren’t completely restricted to kid appeal, even then. So there was plenty of room in the pop culture playlist for a few novelty songs about comics the same way the 80s would have novelty songs about video games.
So… Who’s This Red Baron, Anyway?
People outside the Peanuts-verse today might be a bit puzzled at this song. Why is a dog flying his doghouse in an ariel dogfight again? But you see, this was a running gag in the strips and even in the cartoons; Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog, had a rich fantasy life and imagined himself role-playing everything from an astronaut to the Fonzie-clone Joe Cool. And Flashbeagle, need we remind.
Manfred von Richthofen is the “Red Baron” of historic fame (and named in the Royal Guardsmen song). A German fighter pilot during WWI, he did indeed score 80 air combat victories, making him quite notorious. The real life Red Baron was shot down in his final air fight in 1918, and there was even a Sopwith Camel (a type of plane) involved, though not confirmed to have shot him down.
But why should a dog pick this particular fantasy, especially when he had to pretend that his doghouse is an airplane in order to enact it? Who knows, but this was a typical quirky history pick for comics author Charles Schultz, who filled Peanuts with references to ancient history, classical arts, philosophy, and other heady subjects.
Nevertheless, it’s Schultz’s one-of-a-kind creations that made Peanuts so special, and motivated bands like The Royal Guardsmen to pay tribute to Charlie Brown and his kind.