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"Snoopy vs. the Red Baron"
One of the oddest popular songs ever, it's still weird and charming to this day
By Kent Anderson
There was a time when the comic strip “Peanuts” was a cultural juggernaut. Its characters visited millions of homes via newspapers every day of the week, were featured in television specials adored by children and parents alike, and graced lunch boxes, snack foods, and more in one of the most successful licensing approaches ever (and one that persists to this day).
Front and center in all this adorableness was Charlie Brown’s precocious puppy, Snoopy.
Famous for sleeping atop his doghouse, Snoopy would also occasionally don pilot goggles and a scarf, and take to the skies, engaging in childlike imaginary play, a trait which inspired the song, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
It’s hard to remember when a war hero associated with the enemy was romanticized, but Manfred von Richthofen (aka, the Red Baron) captured the world’s imagination during World War I. Dying at the young age of 25, Richtofen was originally in the cavalry. When he transferred to Germany’s air service, he moved up quickly, taking over a squadron that would be come known as “The Flying Circus” due to the brightly colored aircraft they used. Richtofen’s red Fokker inspired his monicker. The Baron registered 80 kills during his brief, legendary career, a statistic referred to a number of times in the song. More than 100 years after his death, we still buy pizza bearing his famous nickname.
Phil Gernhardt and Dick Holler wrote the song in 1966, and it was recorded that year by a Florida-based pop group called the Royal Guardsmen. By the end of the year, it was the #2 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, right behind the Monkees’ “I’m a Believer.” The two songs remained neck-and-neck through the third week of January 1967.
The Royal Guardsmen tried to repeat their success with Snoopy-based songs, recording “The Return of the Red Baron,” “Snoopy’s Christmas,” and in 2006 a song I listened to with the appropriate level of dread, “Snoopy vs. Osama.” Needless to say, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” was their pinnacle.
Written in the key of G, the song’s fast snare gives it a military feel, appropriate to the song’s topic — an imagined aerial dogfight between Snoopy and the Red Baron over the fields of Germany and France.
The song extended the “Peanuts” licensing dominance, becoming the basis of a book and a video game. Oh wait, and another video game. The song is now referenced again in the new Quentin Tarantino movie, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
It is a charming novelty song from a time when novelty songs — “Monster Mash,” “The Streak,” and Dr. Demento’s entire playlist — were popular, and it’s perfectly weird. The goose-stepping band members, and the vocalist devoted to militaristic counting? Perfect. And the breakdown in the middle is something to behold.
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