Snoopy still flies at Christmas

ALISTAIR HUGHES
Last updated 10:51 21/12/2013

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As scarlet splashes gradually intensify among the leaves of the capital's many pohutukawa, shoppers and radio listeners are apparently beginning to see red in other ways.

Snoopy's Christmas, a festive favourite in New Zealand since it first topped the charts back in 1967, has again found itself heading certain "worst Christmas Songs" lists.

Surely directing such malevolence at a children's favourite about a cartoon beagle promoting "peace to all the world, and goodwill to man" is Dickensian mean-spiritedness at its worst? Those heroically working in retail at this time of year, dosed several times daily with Snoopy's yuletide aerial mission by in-store sound systems, would probably disagree.

But either way this novelty song by The Royal Guardsmen has probably been a part of our New Zealand Christmas for as long as many of us can remember.

Snoopy has surprising pedigree - The Royal Guardsmen were actually six young men from Florida, most of them still at high school when they formed in 1965. Originally called The Posmen, the name was changed to reflect the popular British music invasion on the American pop charts at that time, spearheaded by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The Guardsmen's original aim was to become what would now be called a "cover band", performing authentic live versions of then- current hits. Guitar/vocalist Barry Winslow recalls that they wanted to cover records ". . . to a tee with total quality", even though he was so young that his voice was still breaking.

They played clubs and recorded a demo record which in turn led to a proposal from record producer Phil Gernhard. He was asking local bands to take a look at the lyrics for a novelty song called Snoopy vs The Red Baron, with the aim of releasing a record of the "best" treatment.

The song was originally a straight historical one, but Gernhard was inspired to include Snoopy when Charles Schulz had begun drawing him shouting "Curse you Red Baron!" from the top of his dog house in the famous Peanuts strip. Not at all what they wanted to do, The Guardsmen unenthusiastically composed a self-professed "hokey", arrangement, which to their surprise, Gernhard liked. He released the single, and it shot to the top of the American charts in November 1966, catapulting a student garage band to something approaching fame. A US West Coast tour had to be delayed however, until the band members still at school finished for their Christmas break.

Familiar elements are in place for this "proto-Snoopy's Christmas", including the familiar military drum beat and aeroplane sound effects, and at its peak, Snoopy vs The Red Baron was apparently even used as a scramble alert on US aircraft carriers.

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Sadly, the band's ambitions to become serious musicians were thwarted by Gernhard's insistence that they record two further Snoopy songs the following year, but the third one, a certain Christmas novelty hit, is a record the Guardsmen have admitted to having the most fun making. Although eventually becoming a gold record, Snoopy's Christmas wasn't viewed as so successful as the first song.

In New Zealand, however, it became the fastest-selling single at that time, hitting No 1 for two weeks in Christmas 1967. HMV was apparently producing more than 1000 discs a day and still couldn't keep up with demand. Snoopy's Christmas sold more than 100,000 copies in New Zealand in December alone. It has re-entered the charts at least three times since, including getting as high as No 9 in 1987.

The book For the Record states that it's estimated to be the single biggest selling single from overseas sold in New Zealand in the 20th century.

As for The Royal Guardsmen, they eventually became disillusioned at being pigeon-holed as a novelty band and split up in 1969. They remain philosophical about their one-time fame as "the Snoopy Boys" - proclaiming "Long live the dog" when the Christmas single debuted at No 3 on iTunes Children's chart.

They had a comeback of sorts in 2006 with Snoopy vs Osama and an iteration of the band still tours today. In 2011 a documentary was announced, entitled: Burned by a Beagle - The True Story of the Royal Guardsmen.

As to why Snoopy's Christmas remains so popular in New Zealand (despite certain opinion polls), no easy answer is apparent. Possibly, like Engelbert Humperdinck's Ten Guitars, the colossal volume of sales when it was first released ingrained the song into Kiwi culture.

Snoopy creator Charles Schulz did eventually give the Snoopy songs his blessing (after his lawyers had taken a cut) but one can't help but wonder how Baron Manfred Albrecht Freiherr von Richthofen would have felt. Famed, respected and feared on both sides of World War I for his unparalleled aeronautic skill, children now remember him most because of a Christmas song celebrating his fictional encounter with a cartoon beagle.

Merry Christmas, my friends!

- © Fairfax NZ News

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