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Snapsongs: “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen

Monday 31 March 2014 - Filed under Snapsongs

One bright Christmas in the late 70s my younger uncle decided he was going to assemble for his young nephew a proper musical education. This was nothing new. He was the “cool” uncle, only sixteen years my elder, and kinda reminded me of the latter-day Beatles in the way he dressed and wore his hair. More to the point, I distinctly remember, at the age of five, being allowed into the sanctum sanctorum of his music room. It was magical: a cool, air-conditioned space of muted light with long shelves of LPs, their vaguely musty papery scent lingering in the air. I perched on a high wooden stool, full-ear cans draped over my tiny ash-blond head, and waited with bated breath as he prepared the listening session. To my young mind, each movement had the solemn weight and importance of a sacred ritual. The black vinyl was carefully removed, inspected for dust, and placed on the platter with the least amount of skin contact. The platter had the concentric stepped rings of dots that would provide rotation speed indication when spun, and I would watch them flickering into motion as the drive motor was activated. A fine-mesh brush was deployed to remove any last offending dust and to reduce static electricity. Finally, the tone arm was moved into place and it gently, slowly descended onto the leader grooves of the album. YES.

Really, the ritual was almost as exciting to me as the music that eventually played. In fact, maybe even more so: I do not remember any particular song or selection played during these sessions, but according to my parents, my band of choice at the time was Chicago, and I would sit for hours listening to them if I was allowed to. None of that fascination persisted even into later childhood; I knew Chicago existed, but except for “25 or 6 to 4”, I was happy to listen to other music. And still am today.

So, knowing he had a willing disciple and a blank slate, my uncle complied a nice, thick cylinder of 45 singles and wrapped them carefully for placement under the tree. The gift was received in the manner as it was intended: ecstatic joy and a desire to head for my record player. I’m not entirely sure what an audiophile like my uncle was thinking about giving a stack of soon-to-be-rare 45s to a small child with a Fisher-Price record player, but he did it, and for that I am eternally grateful. There were certainly collectable items in that pile, and all of the delicate stereo details contained in their plastic grooves were probably quickly mushed flat by the blunt wedge of a cut-rate mono stylus. I cannot recall all of the selections he gave me, but I did have my favorites. I liked “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin chiefly for the panting noise played on the guitar during the lead-in, and the obvious echo-chamber on Robert Plant’s solo voice. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen was a great rock-out song, I loved the sparkling chimes during portions of the verses, although the line about “suicide machines” was kinda scary. “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers was a nice catchy tune with great vocals, and a delightfully weird organ sound. My Dad loved “Henry the Eighth” by Herman’s Hermits, but I actually preferred the b-side song “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”. I thought “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie C. Riley was hilarious, although probably not exactly how it was intended to be. And to this day I’m not entirely sure why I liked “Sally G.” by Paul McCartney and Wings quite so much, but it was definitely a staple in my playlist.

However, the 45 that sometimes stayed in my record player for entire days of repetitive playing was “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by The Royal Guardsmen. Evidently this was a novelty song recorded by a band in Florida without obtaining the permission of either Charles Schultz or his syndicate for the pleasure, and became a minor hit in 1966. It became a major hit in my house in 1978, and I’m pretty certain that my parents cursed my uncle for bringing this particular pop confection to my attention. It. Was. Perfect. I was already a big fan of Peanuts, regularly checking out collections of the strips from the library. I had an entire set of Time-Life books on the history of flight and read them constantly. I had completed a 1/72 scale Sopwith Camel as my first foray into model airplanes with my father’s assistance. The story of Baron von Richtofen and his nemesis Eddie Rickenbacker — which was a bit of popular history I absorbed that is evidently completely wrong — was something fascinating to me. So this was very much a perfect storm of awesome, and I wasted no time playing the song until it is — to this day — burned into my synapses. I even drew out a complicated storyboard depicting the events described in the lyrics and sound effects, including a short back-and-forth dogfight sequence specifically for the instrumental changeup before the last verse. That sheet of posterboard went on my wall right next to my National Geographic map of the Moon.

Unfortunately, I played the record so much it finally cracked. That was a very sad day in my young life. It would still play, but would skip unless I very carefully aligned the two edges of the break before putting the needle down, and the periodic click as the crack revolved around was completely out of tempo with the song itself. I was horribly disappointed. My parents took pity on me, but were probably somewhat relieved to have a respite. To their credit, whenever we went to a record store my Dad would always ask if anyone had a copy of the single available, but the answer was always no. As a minor hit, the song had come and gone, and, believe it or not, in 1979 there was no YouTube or Internet available to preserve a copy for immediate gratification and replay.

Today, of course, it’s very easy to seek out and find these fragments of childhood obsession, which is probably both a blessing and a curse. I did, in fact, look up the song so I could make sure I had the name of the band correct, and learned a little bit of the history of the recording along the way. But I didn’t bother to go to YouTube and listen to it. The song would not have anywhere near the same meaning to my adult self, and, really, none of that is necessary. Everything that made the song special — from the opening German to the machine gun noises to the Great Pumpkin name check — still sounds in my head whenever I feel the need to revisit it. And I can still feel myself crouching on the wooden floor of my room with the record spinning on the toy phonograph in front of me, ready to play my favorite song whenever I felt like dropping the needle.

2014-03-31  »  Edward Semblance